|How To Cook Pasta Like An Italian|
Pasta is probably one of the easiest things to learn how to cook. All you need to know is how to boil water, right? Well, sort of. There’s little more to it than that, if you want to get technical about things. One of the most common questions about cooking pasta is, whether or not to salt the water? We’ve all heard it said that pasta should be cooked in water that “tastes like the sea”, but few of us know the reason.
The answer I hear most to this is “because salt raises the boiling temperature of the water, making the pasta cook faster”. In the words of Robert L. Wolke (chemist, food scientist, and author of ‘What Einstein Told His Cook’): “As any chemist will be happy to calculate for you, adding a tablespoon of table salt to five quarts of boiling water will raise the boiling point by seven hundredths of 1°F.”. Or, in laymen’s terms, not anywhere near enough to make a noticeable difference. Still, other’s say the salt affects the texture of the pasta, keeping it from becoming too mushy, or that the salt helps keep the water from boiling over. None of these are true.
The answer, in all it’s glorious simplicity, is that salt is added to the water to season the pasta itself. As the noodles cook, they absorb some of the water around them, and thus take in any flavor from that water. Seasoning the noodles as they cook helps to bring out the flavor of the pasta itself, as opposed to adding salt afterwords which would only sit on top, and make the dish taste, well, salty. A simple concept, for sure, but not everyone is convinced that it makes any difference at all… and frankly, neither was I.
Which is why I set out to solve the matter once and for all.
It’s FAK Friday (Feeding my Appetite for Knowledge), and this week I did a side-by-side comparison of pasta cooked in salted water and unsalted water. I also wanted to talk about some other basic pasta-making questions, and round-up some simple tips for turning out perfect pasta every time. Enjoy!
To answer for myself whether or not salting the water made any difference, I went ahead and did a side-by-side comparison. First with plain pasta, then sauced. For both plates I used the same noodles, cooked in the same amount of water for the same amount of time, one with salt and one without.
|I just LOVE noodles!|
There was a clear difference between the two plates of plain pasta. One was a little bland in comparison to the other, which had notably more flavor (but was not overly salty). When I added a bit of rich pasta sauce, however, almost all distinction was lost. Had it truly been a blind tasting, I’m not sure I would have known which was which.
So, what gives? Why are so many cooks determined that salting the water is the right and only way to do things? Well, the answer is a bit more complicated than my little experiment. Let me explain.
How much of a difference the salt makes will vary depending on a few factors. In Italy, for instance, pasta is required to be made from 100% durum wheat. Here in the US, that isn’t always the case, and some noodles may be made out of regular flour, or a combination of flours, which may or may not be as flavorful. An even bigger factor, however, is the sauce. If you were to dress your pasta lightly with a homemade tomato sauce, or with a broth or pan sauce, the noodles would stand out much more than if they were smothered in a rich bolognese, or cheese, or cream sauce. For example, if you’re cooking up some boxed mac and cheese, I wouldn’t bother salting the water because the noodles are of a fairly low quality, and the packet of cheese sauce is already more than salty enough. However, in most instances, salting the water is a simple way to ensure your dish isn’t under-seasoned or bland. And, as tastes may vary, it might be far more noticeable to some than to others.
That’s the complicated answer. The easy answer is, try it both ways and decide for yourself if you can taste the difference. There are two “right” ways to cook anything: the traditional way, and the way you like it. They don’t have to be the same.
Of course, there are plenty of other questions plaguing this simple task of boiling noodles, and the traditional way does have its reasons. Below I’ve tried to address the basics, and explain as best I can why things are done the way they are.
1. Put on a solid Italian accent. It will make your noodles taste that much more authentic.
2. Bring a boat-load of water to a rolling boil. How much is a boat-load, you ask? Well, it’s recommended that for each pound of pasta, you use 4-5 quarts of water – or, the biggest pot you own, filled about 3/4 full (you don’t want it to boil over). Of course, if you don’t feel like waiting thirty minutes for that much water to heat up, you can skimp a little… but try to make sure there’s plenty of room for the noodles to move around. If you crowd the pot, your pasta may clump together, cook unevenly, or be extra sticky or gummy.
3. Salt the water – any Italian will tell you, always salt the pasta water. It is recommended to use at least 1-2 TBSP salt per 4-5 quarts water, to season the noodles while they cook. This may seem like a lot, but keep in mind that most of the water in the pot gets discarded, and only a small amount is absorbed into the noodles. As a general rule of thumb, the water should taste like sea-water. As discussed above, not everyone cares or can tell the difference between salted and unsalted pasta, so the choice is yours. However, if you’re cooking for an Italian, always salt the water!
4. Do NOT add oil to the pasta water! I’ve heard it said that adding a bit of oil to the pot will keep it from boiling over, and help prevent the noodles from sticking. Well, that may be true, but oil also lubes those noodles up and keeps them from absorbing other flavors. Not to mention, your sauce will have nothing to cling to, and will wind up at the bottom of the plate. To keep the water from boiling over, be careful not to over-fill the pot (2/3rds to 3/4 of the way full is plenty). If the water does begin to foam, try placing a wooden spoon across the top to break some of the surface tension and keep the bubbles from spilling over. As for the noodles sticking, see #5.
5. Add the noodles to the rapidly-boiling water, and stir for the first minute or so, until the water returns to a boil. As the pasta begins to cook, it releases starches and the exterior of the noodles become sticky. The first minute or two are when the pasta is most prone to sticking and clumping together, so be sure to stir it well. (Note: do not cook multiple kinds of pasta together, as different types will cook at different rates, and some of your noodles will be done before the rest.)
6. Cook your noodles to “Al Dente”. Al Dente is an Italian term for “to the tooth”, meaning that the pasta should have a little chew to it. If you’re following the directions on the box, try testing your noodles (give them a taste) a few minutes before they should be done. Keep testing the noodles every minute or so until they are just slightly firm, but not tough – this is al-dente.
7. If you plan to serve your pasta in a sauce, cook the noodles until they are still quite chewy, about 1-2 minutes shy of al-dente. Have your sauce cooking in a large skillet, and when the pasta is still a little firm add it directly to the sauce, along with a ladle full of the pasta water. This way, as the pasta finishes cooking, it will absorb some of the sauce’s wonderful flavors. In Italy, this is called macchiare, which means “to stain” the noodles. Adding some of the starchy pasta water to the sauce will help to season it, and also help it cling to the noodles better. Extra pasta water can also be used to adjust the consistency of the sauce. (Tip: to make a thick pesto the right consistency for saucing, add pasta water to thin it instead of more oil, this way it will coat the noodles nicely.)
8. If you plan to serve the noodles and sauce separate, cook the noodles until al-dente and drain them in a colander. Do not rinse the noodles, as this will wash away the starches clinging to them, and prevent the sauce from sticking. (Note, if you plan to make a cold pasta salad, you can then rinse the noodles under cold water to halt the cooking process – but do not rinse them if you plan to sauce!)
9. A note on pasta types: besides the fun of having a lot of variety to choose from, pasta comes in may different shapes and sizes because it is meant to hold many different types of sauces. Long thin noodles like spaghetti are best for thinner sauces, while hollow or twisted noodles help hold onto thicker, chunkier sauce. Of course, you can use any noodle however you choose, but for a list of basic noodle and sauce pairings you can check out this article by Kathleen Bauer.