Pasta has become synonymous with a quick and easy meal these days- something most of us feel we can manage to put together after a tiring day. It is indeed a truly great meal; pasta is one of the world’s original ‘fast foods’.
However, it is also a source of continual disappointment; flaccid, rubbery and claggy. An Italian friend of mine told me that she was constantly in awe of how badly we Brits cook pasta, especially at home. Al dente is a phrase many of us have heard but don’t necessarily understand. Literally it means ‘to the bite’. It is unmistakable when you taste pasta which is overcooked and one which is al dente; there is a firmer texture, a substance to the pasta, rather than a soggy and congealed feeling in your mouth.
The annoying thing for my friend is that the rules of cooking pasta are very simple; if you get these right I promise you will always have silken, al dente pasta that is a pleasure to eat.
1) Water. You need to use a litre of water for every 100g of pasta you are cooking. This is the minimum amount of liquid, so that the pasta has enough room to move around when it cooks-so use a big enough pan.
2) Temperature. The water must be at a rolling boil before you put the pasta in. This means the bubbles from the bottom of the pan are breaking the surface of the water with some force, not just forming at the bottom.
3) Salt. Add your salt when the water comes to the boil- if you add it when the water is cold it will take longer to boil. You need to add about a teaspoon of salt for every hundred grams of pasta. I know this seems a lot, but it is fundamental to the end flavour of the dish. Your pasta will not be salty, but seasoned- that difference is crucial. Please don’t be tempted to leave the salt out as you cannot season pasta after it is cooked.
4) Oil. I have sometimes heard of people adding oil to the pasta cooking water. I have no idea where this comes from; I have certainly never seen anyone in Italy do it and that’s after countless courses and kitchen visits. It does nothing for the pasta and is just a waste of oil.
5) Fresh or Dried. Dried and fresh pasta have very different textures and flavour. Neither is better or worse; they are just different. Most of us cook dried pasta at home so it’s important to look at the labels. Dried pasta must be made with durum wheat, a hard wheat, high in gluten, which gives a great bite to the pasta. In Italy it is the law that dried pasta is made with durum wheat, but there is no such law for pasta made in other countries. Make sure your pasta is Italian: De Cecco and Latini are reliable brands and easy to find. Avoid like the plague anything which says ‘quick cook’, which will always be made with low quality flour and will never taste right, no matter how carefully you cook it.
6) Timing. Every pasta is different, but the packet timings are usually a good guide. I always cook my pasta for one minute less than the packet instructions- this is a good way to ensure an al dente texture.
7) Starchy Water. The water you cook your pasta in is precious. The starch which is released from the pasta as it cooks is an essential ingredient in your final dish. Before you drain your pasta, take a small cupful of water from the pan and put it to the side. When your pasta is drained and you are combining it with your sauce, add a few tablespoons of the cooking water to the pan. This helps the sauce to emulsify and cling to the pasta. Pasta will continue absorbing moisture after it is cooked, so by adding the pasta water, you are helping it to absorb all the flavours of the sauce. Be brave with this as it will make a dramatic difference to how your dish turns out. It will be silky, amalgamated and make the pasta and sauce a complete dish rather than two separate entities.
8) Sauce. Always add your pasta to the sauce and combine before serving. It baffles me how people think that plopping a spoonful of sauce on top of a rapidly congealing plate of pasta is a good idea. It isn’t.
9) Service. Always serve pasta immediately; it cannot and will not stand around. The starches start to congeal quickly, especially if you haven’t added enough pasta water. This is why reheated pasta always tastes disappointingly sticky. And always use a bowl- it keeps the pasta hotter.