Last week was World Pasta Day, not that anyone in the NUVO office needs an excuse to indulge in those life-giving strands of starch. But I wondered, as I stood over my boiling pot of pasta, if perhaps I have been doing it wrong the whole time, of if there was any way to improve my pasta technique. So I called up Thom England, Ivy Tech instructor and Idiots Guide cookbook author, to get some tips about how I could up my pasta game.
"So there are two different types of pasta. There's fresh pasta and there's dry pasta, and they cook entirely different. With the fresh pasta, you're not hydrating it, you're cooking it. But with the dried pasta, it's actually harder to cook, because you're hydrating the pasta as opposed to cooking it because it's cooked already."
Most of us are used to the time-tested method we learned from our mothers, which is to take pasta out of the box, snap it in half, and drop it in boiling water. Most people then keep their water boiling, cooking the pasta in a big enough pot to prevent boilover. Not to mention the myriad ways that home cooks have been devising to keep their pasta water from boiling over.
"Most people have the false impression that you're supposed to bring it to a boil and then leave it in the boiling water. That actually causes your pasta to break apart. Most good Italians would tell you that if you break your pasta apart, you're cutting your life in half or something superstitious like that," England laughed.
"With dried pasta, ideally, you put it in a pot with lukewarm water and bring it up to a boil from that, then turn it down to a simmer. When I was in culinary school, I was taught that you bring a gallon of water to boil for each pound of pasta you're cooking, and in reality, that's the wrong way."
"After traveling through and studying pasta in Italy, I learned the method of the lukewarm water and bringing up to boil. And [they only use] enough water to cover the pasta. You get that fresh pasta taste with dried pasta."
Surprised? So was I. And England wasn't done with the surprises yet. It also turns out I've been way under-salting my water. Most Hoosier cooks are taught to throw some salt in their pasta water, maybe a couple of tablespoons, but England told me that Italians consider the seasoning of their pasta equally important to the seasonings of the sauce.
"It's a whole mindshift," England says. As far as the salination of your water, England says to shoot for "water as salty as the ocean." Food nerds have probably heard the phrase "salt makes food taste more like itself," and the additional salt in the water will give your pasta a slightly saline breadiness, which made my no-sugar-added pasta sauce take on a new kind of sweetness.
Not to mention that the low amount of water and slow cooking method that England uses means he doesn't need to add oil to the water to keep it from boiling over. That also means you get clean pasta, which becomes a better vehicle for your sauce.
"Sauce should stick to the pasta, and coating it with oil makes the pasta slippery," says England. Oily pasta is what makes spaghetti sauce seem watery and thin, because it can't adhere to the noodles.
Pasta shape also affects how well sauce sticks to it. The smoother and flatter the pasta, the better suited it is for smooth, blended sauces like alfredo (which is why we are used to hearing fettuccine next to alfredo). The small, textured or spiral shapes are better for chunkier sauces.
And should you happen to grab some fresh pasta at the local market, cooking it couldn't be easier. It's going to take 2-3 minutes in that iconic roiling pasta boil to get you the perfect texture. Keep the pasta water well-salted here as well.
Pro Tips: Pasta party
Boil fresh, not dried — The only time you should keep your pasta water continuously boiling is for fresh pasta, when you're cooking the raw egg inside the soft dough to create that delicious, chewy texture.
For dried pasta, add just enough lukewarm water to your pan to cover the pasta, then add your salt and bring the water up to a boil, then immediately turn it down to a simmer until the pasta is cooked through. Just try it once and you'll understand the superiority of the method.
Out with the oil — Are you still putting oil in your pasta water, or worse, directly onto your pasta after straining? Stop that. Correct pasta cooking in the above step will keep your pasta from sticking together, you won't need to worry about boilover, and you'll get better adhesion of sauce to pasta.
Needs more salt! — England advises keeping your water "as salty as the ocean," so still go liberal on your salt here. Not only does salt make the pasta taste better, but well-seasoned pasta should complement the flavors of the sauce as well.
Shape versus sauce — The more texture your pasta has, the more texture your sauce should also have. If you have a smooth sauce, pair it with a wide, flat noodle to get a good blend of pasta and sauce. If you have a chunky sauce to go on there, use something like fusilli or another twisted, textured pasta.
More reading: Cooking Basics
What: Idiot's Guides: Cooking Basics
Who: Written by Thom England
Publication date: Sept. 2015