Pasta Primer

Tips and tricks for cooking pasta.

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Pasta

Perfect Every Time
Boiling pasta is as easy as frying an egg, right? But a perfectly fried egg is a hard thing to come by. And a perfect pasta? You’ll be surprised what paying attention to a few small culinary things can do—every time.

Picking Pasta
The best pasta is made of 100% semolina (the label will say durum wheat semolina or semolia). Pasta made from durum wheat retains its shape and firmness while cooking. It goes to say that when making fresh pasta, it is best to use 100% semolina flour, but we have used regular flour in a pinch.

What king of pasta dish are you making? Flat pastas like linguini, spaghetti and angel hair are best with thin sauces; other shapes, like farfalle and rotini, have nooks and crannies to cradle thicker sauces like puttanesca and Bolognese.

Pasta Portions
First, not so much as important as it is helpful. As a baseline: 2 ounces of dried pasta is ½ cup. Dried pasta pretty much doubles when cooked, so that ½ cup is a full 1 cup portion of pasta. The easiest way to measure pasta is to use a digital scale. In general, 4 ounces of pasta will yield 2 to 2½ cups of cooked pasta, a healthy serving for two.

Pasta Pot
Use a big one. The pasta needs room to cook well. You are going to bring the water to a rolling boil, so that requires room to make waves! Always start with cold water and fill the pot three quarters of the way. Four quarts is the minimum per 12-ounce package of pasta; six to eight quarts is ideal.

More than a Pinch
You can’t go too heavy on the salt in pasta water. It is required to flavor the pasta externally. So, not a teaspoon, but more like two tablespoons per pound of pasta. And, resist adding salt to your cold water. Instead, add to your roiling boiling water and stir. Why? Unsalted water will boil faster, so if you are a pot watcher, this will speed things up. Plus, the salt will dissolve quicker in boiling water. Note that the salt in the water will NOT add sodium to your recipe.

And, whatever you do, don’t add oil. Some say it keeps the pasta from sticking together, but that is a pasta fish story, so to speak. Oil will just make it hard for your sauce to stick to the pasta.

Pasta Process
Add your pasta all at once to the boiling water and stir. It should come back to a full boil momentarily. Keep the pasta boiling for the entire cook time and never use more than one type of pasta in the same pot. This makes it terribly confusing to get the perfect texture, which most agree is al dente.

Al dente means the pasta is no longer hard or crunchy, but has a bit of tooth to it. Most importantly, it is not soft or mushy, but still firm. Most pastas cook in 8 to 12 minutes according to package instructions, which is a good place to start. We like to test the pasta for doneness at least two minutes before said time frame. Pasta can be overcooked very quickly and actually continues to cook and soften after it has been taken from the water. Start timing as soon as your water returns to a boil and pay close attention.

Note that fresh pasta will cook in as quickly as 3 minutes.

Primo Pasta Water
Your pasta water is full of starch and salt, which is ideal for adjusting the consistency of sauces, if necessary, especially for oil-based sauces like pesto and Alfredo. It’s pretty amazing what a little pasta water can do when it comes to both thinning and thickening! Reserve a cup before you drain—just in case.

Whatever compels you, do not rinse the pasta; simply drain it in a colander and add sauce to keep pasta pieces separate immediately. The exception is lasagna noodles, which are terribly hard to work with when not rinsed. They will be baked later, so not to worry about keeping them warm. You should also rinse pasta for pasta salads. Otherwise, the starch on the pasta will stick together in the salad.

Pasta Sauce
Whatever sauce you are using, from simple olive oil and Parmesan, to vodka sauce and even Ragu, do not over-sauce your pasta. Drowning it in sauce will simply make it softer and not really add anything to the flavor. Take a hint from the Italians who simply add enough sauce to evenly cover the pasta and then allow guests to add more as preferred.

We hope you’ll give these tips a try and see if you don’t reach pasta perfection with your next pesto party!

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