You’re Doing It Wrong: The Guide to Making Perfect Pasta

These tips will not just make your penne taste better, but they’ll make it healthier, too

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Stacy

Pasta is a staple in most of our kitchens. According to a Zagat survey; about half of the American population eats pasta 1-2 times a week and almost a quarter eats it about 3-4 times a week. Needless to say, we love pasta. Seriously, who wouldn’t want a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs or Bucatini all’Amatriciana.

The popularity of pasta in America dates back to Thomas Jefferson, who had a pasta machine sent to Philadelphia in the late 18th century after he fell in love with the fashionable food while dining in Paris. He was so enamored by pasta that he even designed his own pasta machine while on a trip to Italy. The pasta dish he made infamous in the United States is something we like to call macaroni and cheese. But, America’s true love affair with pasta didn’t heat up until the 20th century, with a boom in immigrants hailing from Italy. When the first Italians arrived, one of the only pasta varieties available in the United States was spaghetti; that’s why it is so iconic to Italian American cuisine. Now, of course, it is hard to find a grocery store today that doesn’t have at least half an aisle dedicated to different pasta varieties. For a clear view on the number of varieties, check out Pop Chart Lab’s chart of 250 shapes of pasta, The Permutations of Pasta.

Over the past few decades, pasta has been given a bad reputation by many low carb fad diets such as the original Atkins diet. On the flip side, the touted Mediterranean Diet includes pasta as a staple. Part of the confusion over the merits of eating bread draw from the conflation of durum wheat, which pasta is traditionally made from, and wheat used for baking bread. Durum pasta has a low glycemic index(GI) of about 25-45. To compare, white bread has a high GI of about 75 and potatoes have a GI of about 80, as do many breakfast cereals. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, eating foods with a low GI has been associated with higher HDL-cholesterol concentrations (the “good” cholesterol), a decreased risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease. And, case-control studies have also shown positive associations between dietary glycemic index and the risk of colon and breast cancers. Pasta made with even healthier grains, such as whole grain and spelt, do add additional nutrients but do not necessarily lower the GI.

The way pasta is cooked also affects its healthiness. For the healthiest and tastiest way, you want to cook the pasta al dente, which means “to the tooth” or “to the bite.” If overcooked, the GI index will rise, meaning pasta that is cooked al dente is digested and absorbed slower than overcooked mushy pasta. So to make your pasta healthy and delicious, follow the tips below.

(Photo courtesy of wikiHow.)

Use a large pot: Size matters. The pasta should be swimming in a sea of water because it will expand while cooking. If there is not enough water than the pasta will get mushy and sticky. The average pasta pot size is between 6 and 8 quarts, and it should be filled about 3/4 of the way or about 4-5 quarts with water for 1 pound of pasta.

Fill the pot with cold water: This goes for cooking anything with water. Hot water dissolves pollutants more quickly than cold, and some pipes contain lead that can leak into the water. Just to be safe, always use cold water from the tap and run the water for a little before using.

Heavily salt the water: Adding salt to the water is strictly for flavor. You want to salt the water as it is coming to a boil. While the pasta is cooking, it absorbs the salt adding just that extra touch to the overall meal. Do as Mario Batali does and salt the water until it “tastes like the sea.” To get that saltiness, Mark Ladner, executive chef at Del Posto, advises to use about 1 tbsp. of salt per quart of water.

There is an old wives tale that says salt will also make the pasta water boil faster. This is not completely the case. Adding salt to water elevates the boiling point and to increase the boiling point of 1 quart of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit you would need 3 tablespoons of salt. And, that is way too much salt for anyone’s taste buds.

Do not put oil in the pot: As Lidia Bastianich has said, “Do not — I repeat, do not — add oil to your pasta cooking water! And that’s an order!”

Olive oil is said to prevent the pot from boiling over and prevent the pasta from sticking together. But, the general consensus is that it does more harm than good. It can prevent the sauce from sticking to the pasta. Since oil is less dense than water and is composed of hydrophobic molecules, it creates a layer across the top of the water. When the pasta is drained, it is poured through this oiled layer and leaves a fresh coat of oil on the pasta.

However, if you are not using a sauce or are using an olive oil base, then the oil has little effect.

Make sure the water is boiled: For all the impatient cooks out there, just wait that extra minute until the water is boiling with big bubbles. The boiling temperature is what prevents the pasta from getting mushy. That first plunge into the boiling water is critical to the texture of the final product. It will also help you time the pasta better.

Stir: Do not forget to stir. It may sound obvious, but this simple step can easily be forgotten through everyday distractions and the rush of cooking dinner. Without stirring, the pasta will for sure stick together and cook unevenly.

Take the lid off: Once you add the pasta, wait for the water to come back to a rolling boil and then remove the lid. This is just so you don’t have that white foam exploding over the edges of your pot like Mt. Vesuvius. An alternative tip from Lidia Bastianich is to leave the lid on but keep it propped open with a wooden spoon.

Cook, Time & Test:  Yes, you can follow the timing on the box or package of pasta. But, the best timer is your mouth. Chef and cookbook author Jacob Kenedy says in his book The Geometry of Pasta to “start tasting the pasta at 15-20 second intervals, from a minute or two before you think the pasta might be ready.”

If serving the pasta with a sauce, Chef Michael Chiarello recommends taking the pasta out at about 4 minutes before the package time. Then add it to the sauce and let it finish cooking for a minute or two until it is al dente. This method should be used with only a proportionate amount of sauce. You do not want to have a huge pot of sauce for a pound or less of pasta. It is a great idea to make extra sauce, especially to put some in the freezer for another day or to serve on the side.

For a completely different take on cooking pasta, follow this rule from Mary Ann Esposito:

“My rule for cooking dry store bought pasta is to bring the water to a rapid boil; stir in the pasta and bring the water back to a boil. Put on the lid and turn the heat off. Set the timer for 7 minutes. Works beautifully for cuts like spaghetti, ziti, rigatoni and other short cuts of pasta.”

Don’t drain all of the pasta water: Pasta water is a great addition to the sauce. Add about a ¼-1/2 cup or ladle full of water to your sauce before adding the pasta. The salty, starchy water not only adds flavor but helps glue the pasta and sauce together; it will also help thicken the sauce.

The way you drain the pasta can also affect the flavor and texture. If cooking long pasta such as linguini or spaghetti, try using tongs or a pasta fork to transfer the pasta from the water to the sauce. You want to marry the sauce and the pasta as quickly as possibly. With short pasta, it is ideal to have a pasta pot that has a built in strainer or use a colander in the sink. Just make sure you don’t let the pasta sit too long or it will stick together.

Don’t rinse cooked pasta: Adding oil to pasta is not the only culprit to preventing the sauce and pasta from harmoniously mixing. Rinsing the cooked pasta under water does just the same. According to Giada de Laurentiis in her cookbook Everyday Pasta, “the starch on the surface contributes flavor and helps the sauce adhere.” If you rinse the water, you rinse away the starch.

Do you have any secrets to cooking the perfect pasta?

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