Friday, April 11, 2008

How to Cook Pasta

I wish I could say that cooking pasta was difficult and required the sharpest eye and mind to cook properly, but I'd be lying. Cooking pasta is pretty simple. You just boil it.

Sort of. If you want to get the best results, you do have to pay some attention to it.

When cooking for four people, use about 1/4 pound of dry pasta, or one pound of fresh pasta. Don't mix the two. Trust me. You won't like the results.

Bring about 4 quarts of water to a boil and add 1 tablespoon of salt. That may seem like a lot of salt, but it's not. For pasta, you want the water “salty like the sea.” Add the pasta, cover, reduce the heat to medium low and set your timer. Most dry shaped pasta will cook in 10 to 15 minutes. Fresh pasta takes no time at all, only 2 to 3 minutes, depending on how thick it is. Stir the pasta often while it's cooking to keep it from sticking together.

Just before the time is up, lift out some pasta with a fork or slotted spoon and bite into it (let it cool first, please). It should be tender, but retain some of it's “bite.” That's what “al dente” means: “to the teeth.” You don't want to under cook pasta, or it will be inedible. Overcooking is just as bad. Mushy pasta is a terrible thing to inflict on others and just think, why make a great sauce only to serve it with bad pasta? (Trust me. I learned this the hard way.)

Remove the pot from the heat and drain the pasta in a large colander. Shake it to drain off as much liquid as possible. Shapes like penne, macaroni, and conchiglie trap water so take extra care draining them. A very small amount remaining is okay. It helps “loosen” the sauce and lets it spread more evenly.

One way to make sure you don't overcook pasta is to cook it until not quite done, drain it, mix it with the sauce, and return it to the stove, over medium low heat. This way, the pasta finishes cooking in the sauce, and absorbs some of its flavor. Of course, you've got to have a fairly "moist" sauce to start with.

While the directions above are great for shaped pasta, such as penne or fusilli, cooking dried spaghetti and other long dry pastas requires just a bit more care at the start. Most long pastas aren't going to fit in the pot all at once, and have to soften a bit before they can be completely submerged. Fresh spaghetti's already soft, so that doesn't count.

I've found a couple of methods to deal with the problem, including breaking the pasta in half, but I like this method. Once the water boils, hold the pasta bundle in one hand and set the pasta upright on one end, in the very center of the pot. Quickly let go of the pasta and pull your hand away. The pasta will fall to the sides, spiraling out almost like a flower. This covers the water and forces the rising steam onto the pasta, softening it more quickly. As the pasta softens, carefully nudge the tops down to allow the pasta to coil into the water until fully submerged. Now set your timer. Continue as above, stirring often.

Sometimes people will add olive oil to the boiling water. My wife claims it stops the pasta from sticking together, but that doesn't make sense to me. The oil is going to sit on top, not down where the pasta is. What it can do is help stop the water from boiling over, because the oil provides a film that boils at a much lower temperature, forcing the water to break up as it pushed through the film. It's not perfect, but I have noticed a slight difference when I do this. Normally, I save the olive oil to toss with the pasta.

Chinese egg noodles (ramen) are even easier. They usually come packed in dry, flat sheets or rectangles. About 1 1/2 pounds are sufficient for four people. There are as many ways to cook ramen as there are brands. One very simple way is to bring plenty of water to a boil in a large pot, add the noodles, and then remove from the heat. Let the noodles soak in the hot water for about six minutes and drain thoroughly in a colander. You can also get pretty good results in the microwave. Put the noodles into a large microwave safe bowl. Add enough water to cover the noodles. Microwave on high for 5 minutes and drain. Either way, you can toss the noodles with a teaspoon or two of sesame oil afterward, if you like. That will keep them from sticking together and add a wonderful nutty flavor to the noodles.


Picture by Klaus Post. Used by permission.


Eden said...

I agree with everything you said--with one exception. I don't cover the pasta when I cook it. I guess it probably would not make a difference.

And one interesting note, I've been to Italy, and their idea of "al dente" is more "al dente" and crunchy than ours. Even in our "authentic" restaurants, we cook pasta longer than they do. At the point when you would say "it's not quite done"--that's when it actually is!

Our Italian friends said many Americans comment about the degree of "al dente," but they claim that it tastes better that way. We found that you do get used to it quickly.

John Newman said...

I'm so jealous. I've never been to Italy. I've been told by more than one person that I really need to go, but it's "not in the cards" just yet.

The only reason I cover the pot is it helps keep the heat in, so I can turn down the heat on my stove.

I've heard all this about "al dente," too. In fact, I really need to update my entry on making pasta. I listed that it takes two to three minutes for fresh pasta but I've discovered I like it better if I cook it for just barely over a minute.

Mike H said...

So you can't throw it against the wall to see if it's done? The last time I got in big trouble from Sis. H.