Pasta to Perfection


Cooking Pasta is one of the easiest things to cook, ever, right?  Boil the kettle, transfer the hot water into a pan, add the pasta, and cook until ready, right?

In my opinion I think it’s the easiest thing to get wrong, wrong meaning soggy, overcooked pasta.  And it’s more common than you might think.  Good pasta is “al dente” pasta, which is essentially, properly cooked pasta.  The literal translation of al dente in Italian means “to the tooth” or perhaps “firm to the bite” – not soft.  Pasta when cooked properly should be firm, and will need to be chewed properly, not soft in the mouth to dissolve.  If the texture is soft, then it is overcooked; and overcooked pasta is not so much about being too soft but rather the affect it will have on your blood sugar levels when you eat it.  That’s to say the sugar load (glycemic index) of the pasta dish has now increased significantly than if it was cooked to al dente.  In the cooking process, every minute past al dente is increasing the sugar load and making the pasta more calorific.

In order to get it right, you really need to be checking the pasta every 30 seconds after 10 minutes of cooking, and keep checking until there is no white core to the pasta.  Check by biting into it to be sure.  Also remember it will continue to cook after you have drained the water, so factor that into your consideration.  Furthermore, if you are adding a hot sauce then it will continue to cook in that liquid too.  If in doubt, err on the side of caution, better to take it off early and return to a hot sauce.

My personal preference is to pull the pasta off the heat 1 minute before al dente if I am adding a sauce to it, as I will likely return the pasta in the hot sauce and possibly on the heat for a minute or two to allow the sauce to infuse the pasta.

Here are some quick tips to cooking pasta that may dispel some misconceptions:

  1. Add pasta at boiling water – Always make sure the water is at a rolling boil before you add the pasta, this will also avoid the pasta from sticking together as it cooks. It will also help to develop a full nutty flavour.
  2. Add salt to the boiling water – This is a must. Just as the water is coming to boiling add a tsp per 1 litre of water.  By adding the salt to the water you will be able to taste the sea in your food, don’t worry, not in an overly salty way but that your pasta will not be bland and flavourless.  Let’s be clear, starches need a bit of salt to balance out the carbohydrate.  Even if the sauce you intend to add has been seasoned, let the pasta stand on its own flavour.
  3. Never add oil whilst cooking pasta or after draining the water – The common misconception is that the pasta could stick to each other whilst boiling and that the oil prevents this from happening. Not at all!  Oil is completely unnecessary, all you have to do is ensure there is plenty of boiling water in the pan and top it up as necessary with additional boiling water from the kettle, and give it an occasional stir.  Really you should have twice as much water to pasta to start off with.  The water will get gloopy and starchy, so top up with more to dilute the starchiness.  More importantly, if you add oil to the water the pasta will have a film of grease on it, then the sauce you will be adding to it will simply slide off and not soak up into the pasta to absorb the flavour.
  4. Draining the pasta – It is important that you drain the pasta immediately, if it continues to sit in the hot water it will continue to cook. However I would recommend that you reserve 200 ml, a mug basically, of the pasta water separately, to potentially let down (thin) the sauce you are going to add.  The starchy water is full of flavour.  I would recommend that you use a colander to drain, put a small bowl under the colander as you drain, when you got as much water as you need, move the bowl away and continue to fully drain the pasta.  Then as you add the sauce, you can add a tablespoon of the starchy water at a time to achieve the right consistency.  As for the practice of rinsing pasta after cooking, I would only rinse the pasta after cooking if I were using the pasta for a cold salad.
  5. Proportionality! – Less is definitely more! Don’t drown the pasta in loads of sauce, believe it or not, a pasta dish isn’t about the sauce, it’s about well-cooked tasty pasta.  The sauce should be applied very lightly and sparingly.  I find that by returning the pasta into the sauce in the pan – the flavours infuse more intensely.
  6. Any shape and size will do? – Shape matters – I think!  Don’t underestimate the importance of shape, the shape of any food is about texture and how it feels when it lands in the mouth, and most critical how it feels against the roof of your mouth.  The shape of the pasta will also determine how the sauce wraps itself around and so certain types of sauce are better suited with certain type of pasta shapes.
  7. For example, a good ragu or meat sauce is more suited to a wider pasta shape such as pappardelle, or tagliatelle, whilst the thinner pasta shapes such as vermicelli, linguine, or capellini, will go with slightly oily, watery sauces. As the sauce gets thicker I find the more tubular shapes work better, as the sauce can be contained within the tubular shape.  Then as you move on to the chunky vegetable based sauces the shorter shapes such as farfalle or the shells work really well.
  8. Fresh versus dried – One is not necessarily better than the other – they are just different, just as shapes are different. The joy of fresh pasta comes from the satisfaction of having made it yourself, time permitting, and only if you can get your hands on really good fresh flour, which makes all the difference.  The exception to this is perhaps fresh ravioli, where I think you can really tell the difference and is worth having a go at making yourself.


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