HOW TO Prepare Perfect Pasta
Pasta is a staple in most of our kitchens. About half of the American population eats pasta at least twice a week or more. Needless to say, Americans love pasta. If you believe that Italy gave birth to pasta, you’d be mistaken. The noodle is actually a Chinese creation that dates over 4,000 years. Once the Romans discovered the noodle, they added their own spin and changed the ingredient base from rice flour to semolina flour.
The popularity of pasta in America dates back to Thomas Jefferson, who 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 famous in the United States is something we called "macaroni and cheese".
America’s true love affair with pasta heated up in the 20th century during the boom of Italian immigrants coming to America from Italy. Over the past few decades, pasta has been given a bad reputation by many Low Carb diets. However, the touted Mediterranean Diet includes pasta as one of its primary menu items.
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. To make your pasta healthy as well as delicious, follow the steps listed below.
Steps for Correctly Boiling Pasta
1. Use a large pot
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 4-6 quarts with water for 1 pound of pasta.
2. Fill pot with cold 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. For each pound of past, use 6 quarts of cold water.
3. Cook water on High heat.
Place heat on High so to bring the pot of water to a rapid boil.
DO NOT add oil to the water. 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.
DO NOT add pasta until boiling. Never put pasta in a pot that isn’t boiling, as this will only leave you with a gooey, overdone noodle. Yuck!
4. Be patient and wait for water to boil
Wait until the water is boiling with big bubbles before adding the pasta. 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.
DO NOT cover with a lid... yet. Don’t boil in a covered pot, as it will quickly overflow. This is just so you don’t have that white foam exploding over the edges of your pot like Mt. Vesuvius. But you will need to cover the pot after you add the pasta.
5. Heavily salt the water
For 6 quarts of water use about 3 TBSNs of salt. Adding salt to the water is strictly for flavor. You want to salt the water as it is coming to a boil. It is very important that you salt the boiling water before placing the food in the pot. This helps the salt absorb, and it will taste better than if you add salt to the food after it has already been cooked. There is a myth that 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.
6. Add pasta and place on Low heat
Once the water is boiling, place heat on low to simmer, then add the pasta to the pot. Do not add pasta if you have a big, rolling boil, as it could break more delicate pasta such as ravioli or tortellini.
7. Cover the pot
Now that you've added the pasta to the pot, add the cover. The pasta should be ready between 5-7 minutes.
8. Begin to heat sauce separately.
In a large saucepan, begin heating your sauce. For every cup of dry pasta, you want to cook at least one cup of sauce. It is a great idea to make a little extra sauce, especially to put some in the freezer for another day or to serve on the side. Sauce should not come to a boil, as soon as it begins to bubble, place heat on low to simmer and cover.
Check out my classic recipe for Italian Marinara Sauce, which includes other varieties including Spicy Arrabiata, Vodka Marinara, and Bolognese Sauce.
9. Stir occasionally
Do not forget to stir both your pasta and your sauce. This simple step can easily be forgotten through the rush of cooking dinner. Without stirring, the pasta will for sure stick together and cook unevenly. This will also prevent the sauce from burning or clumping and ensure it is cooked evenly.
10. Transfer some pasta water
Pasta water is a great addition to the sauce. Add about a 1/2 cup or ladle full of water to your sauce. The salty, starchy water not only adds flavor, but helps glue the pasta and sauce together, as well as help thicken the sauce.
11. Taste test until al dente
Start tasting the pasta after cooking for 5 minutes. You want the texture of the pasta to be al dente, which means “to the tooth” or “to the bite.” firm to the bite, yet cooked through. If overcooked, the GI index will rise, meaning pasta that is cooked al dente is digested and absorbed slower than overcooked mushy pasta.
12. Drain the pasta quickly
Once the pasta is al dente, drain the pasta as quickly as possible so it doesn't sit too long and begin to stick together. The way you drain the pasta can also affect the flavor and texture. With short pasta, it is ideal to have a pasta pot that has a built in strainer or use a colander in the sink. The noodles cool down fast and start sticking to each other without a sauce or oil to keep them apart. 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.
Don’t rinse cooked pasta. Rinsing the cooked pasta under water will prevent the sauce and pasta from harmoniously mixing together. The starch on the surface contributes flavor and helps the sauce adhere. If you rinse the pasta, you rinse away the starch.
13. Add pasta to the sauce
Add the cooked pasta to the sauce, cover and let it finish cooking in the sauce for two minutes.
14. Add cheese, herbs, and other ingredients
Try tossing in some other ingredients; veggies like tomatoes, green onions, and cooked sliced zucchini. Add meats like grilled chicken, shrimp, pork, or ground beef. Finally, add herbs like Basil, Oregano, or Parsley. Top it all with cheese, like grated Parmesan, Mozzarella, or Romano cheese.
15. Serve immediately
Spoon your pasta hot in bowls and serve immediately.
If you have leftovers, see instructions listed below for storing your pasta.
How to Store Pasta
Storing uncooked pasta
Store uncooked, dry pasta in your cupboard for up to one year. Keep in a cool, dry place. Follow the “first-in, first-out” rule: Use up packages you’ve had the longest before opening new packages.
Storing cooked pasta
Refrigerate cooked pasta in an airtight container for 3 to 5 days. You may add a little olive oil (1-2 tsp. for each pound of cooked pasta) to help keep it from sticking. Cooked pasta will continue to absorb flavors and oils from sauces. Keep leftover cooked pasta in the refrigerator for up to three days. When it’s time to reheat, simply put it in a colander and then place it directly into boiling water for one minute.
Save time with pasta leftovers by doubling your favorite recipes, then freeze the extra servings for later. The best pasta shapes for freezing are those that are used in baked recipes, such as: lasagna, ziti and manicotti. You’ll have better results if you prepare the recipe and freeze it before baking. Thaw the dish to room temperature and bake it as the recipe directs.
Types of Pasta
Here’s a little test to see how well you know your pasta types. These are just a few of the common varieties.
For a complete list, click here.
Tubes of pasta with various fillings, usually cooked in an oven; Derived from Italian word "cana", meaning "reed".
Bow tie or butterfly shaped pasta.
Ribbon of pasta approximately 6.5 millimeters wide. Larger and thicker than vermicelli.
Long, thick, corkscrew-shaped pasta that may be solid or hollow. he word fusilli comes from Italian: fuso, meaning "spindle".
Lobed shell-shaped pasta; Not to be confused with gnocchi dumplings.
Square or rectangle sheets of pasta that are flat or sometimes have fluted edges (lasagne ricce).
Semicircular Half-moon pockets.
Irregular disc with a central dome and a slightly thicker crown.
Oval rice-shaped pasta.
Thick flat ribbons of egg-based dough; Derived from Tuscan word "papparsi" which means "to pig out".
Medium length tubes with ridges, cut diagonally at both ends. They can be either "lisce" (smooth) or "rigate" (grooved).
Two squares of enclosed pasta stuffed with cheese, ground meat, or pureed vegetables.
Medium-Large tube with square-cut ends, sometimes slightly curved. Always grooved, and straight or bent.
A long, thin, cylindrical pasta of Italian origin, made of semolina or flour and water. Spaghetti is the plural form of the Italian word spaghetto, which is a diminutive of spago, meaning "thin string" or "twine".
Ring-shaped pasta usually stuffed with a mixture of meat or cheese.
A traditional pasta round that is thicker than spaghetti
Long, narrow hose-like tubes larger than mezzani (also called mezzi ziti) or bucatini that are traditionally broken before being put to cook. The addition of the word rigati (e.g. ziti rigati) denotes lines or ridges on the pasta's surface.