Making Good Pasta Great
Lidia's Italy Blog | February 15, 2013
Most of us think that pasta is the easiest thing to cook, but Lidia tells us how to cook pasta correctly, the way Italians do:
Cook pasta in abundant salted water at a full rolling boil. The recommendation I make throughout this chapter for coking 1 pound of pasta is 6 quarts of salted water in an 8-quart pot. Salt is a matter of taste—I go with about 2 tablespoons for 6 quarts of water.
Bring the water to a boil before you stir in the pasta, and get it back to a boil as soon as possible afterward. Covering the pot is the quickest way to get the water back to a boil, but a covered pot has a tendency to boil over. Try this trick: after adding the pasta to the water, pit the top back on the pot, but prop it open slightly with a wooden spoon. That will bring the water back to a boil quickly but allow steam to escape, thereby preventing the water from boiling over.
I don’t know how the practice of adding oil to pasta-cooking water caught on, but I discourage it—with a few exceptions. If you add oil to pasta-cooking water, it reduces the starchiness on the pasta’s surface. That comes in handy for keeping long or large shapes of pasta, like lasagna noodles or fresh pasta squares, from sticking, but when pasta will be dressed with sauce, that surface stickiness will help the sauce adhere.
Always combine pasta with the sauce and let the two cook together a minute or two before the final seasoning and serving. The pasta will absorb some of the sauce, and the sauce will intensify in flavor. I have a big restaurant stove at home—and big skillets to match—so I scoop the pasta out of the boiling water and right into the pan of sauce. You can do the same if you have a skillet or wide, deep braising pan large enough to hold the sauce and pasta. If not, simply drain the pasta, return it to the pot, add the sauce, and bring it to a simmer there. For pastas dressed with chunky sauces, I hold back some of the sauce to spoon on top. If the sauce is smooth, I combine all of it with the pasta in the pot.
Italians don’t like their pasta swimming in sauce; there should be just enough sauce to let the pasta glide—not plop—into the plate. A dish of dressed pasta should be flowing, not sticky or soupy. And, of course, that last little touch of olive oil—either drizzled into the pasta and sauce as they simmer together, or drizzled over the pasta in the plate—makes a plate of pasta “smile.”
Stir in grated cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino at the very end, after you remove the pasta and sauce from the heat and just before you plate it. Cheese breaks down—the fat separates from the protein, and the cheese becomes stringy—if it is heated too long or at too high a temperature.
I prefer shallow bowls to plates for serving pasta. If you pile the pasta in the bottom of a bowl—or, in the case of long shapes like spaghetti, make a little nido (nest)—the pasta will stay night and hot. Pasta is one of the foods we Italians enjoy piping hot. For that reason, always warm up the soup bowls ahead, or the platter, if you plan to serve pasta family-style.