It’s time to set the record straight. Below is the age-old, tried-and-true, Italian-grandmother-approved method to make really good pasta.
It is so easy to make that it is the go-to recipe for culinarily-challenged Italian dads who don’t want to see their kids go hungry when mom is not around to cook dinner. And it tastes delicious. I can guarantee that when made right, pasta is good enough to eat on its own. No sauce, no oil, no Parmesan. Just delicious plain pasta.
What You’ll Need
- A big pot
- Lots of water
- 1 tbsp of salt for each cup of water
- Pasta (the regular dried kind)
- A strainer
STEP 1: Fill your pot about half way with unsalted water and bring to a rolling boil.
How much water to use has been a matter of debate, but honestly, it’s not worth over-thinking. If your pasta is covered with about 2 inches of water, than you’re using enough. You can definitely use more, but it will just take longer to boil and require more salt, so why bother? Speaking of salt, make sure to measure your water as you pour it so you know how much salt to add later. This is very important.
STEP 2: Once the water is boiling, add 1 tbsp of salt for each cup of water.
This is where most people outside of Italy go wrong, and it’s always by under-salting their water. As a society, we are generally wary of salt, and rightly so. Sodium in excess is not good for you. I can see why adding 6 tbsp of salt to 4 servings of pasta might seem crazy, but the important thing to note is that most of the salt stays in the water. Only a small amount is actually absorbed into the pasta, but that amount is crucial to giving the pasta its delicious nutty flavor. Otherwise you end up having to do what many non-Italians do: compensating for their nasty flavorless pasta by overloading it with sauce. That is not the way to do it. Pasta is not simply a sauce vehicle. The sauce should enhance and complement the delicious flavor of the pasta itself. Trust me on this one. 1 tbsp of salt for each cup of water, regardless of how much pasta you are making, is just right.
*steps off soap box*
STEP 3: Add the pasta to the water, and follow the suggestions on the pasta box to determine cooking time.
Interestingly, while most countries (I’m looking at you, U.S. and U.K.) get a bad rep for overcooking their pasta until it becomes a sticky mushy mess, the instructions on their pasta boxes are always correct. All you have to do is follow them. If the box says 11 minutes, then cook the pasta for 11 minutes starting when you drop the pasta into the water. Not 8 minutes, not 15, not 22. Just 11. It’s quite simple.
STEP 4: Strain the pasta and serve immediately with whatever condiment suits your fancy.
If your pasta is cooked correctly , then just a bit of butter and freshly-ground black pepper are enough to create an absolutely delicious yet simple meal. The key thing to remember is that pasta must be served immediately. The longer pasta waits, the stickier it gets. Not only that, but reheating cold pasta — or even worse, keeping it on the stove so it stays warm while the sauce cooks — ends up overcooking it. So time your sauce preparation so that it is ready as soon as the pasta is done.
That’s it. Easy right? Just follow these directions and your pasta will always turn out as if it came straight from your imaginary Italian grandmother’s kitchen.
Dispelling the Myths
Finally, let me dispel some of myths that are likely to lead your pasta-making journey astray.
You only need a pinch of salt in the water.
We’ve already addressed this above. The right about of salt is not a pinch, it’s 1 tbsp of salt for each cup of water.
Adding oil to the pasta water prevents it from sticking.
This isn’t so much wrong as it is unnecessary. The sauce and condiments you add to your pasta after straining it are what keep it from sticking. Adding a bit oil to the pasta water makes no difference. Adding a lot makes it greasy and causes the sauce to slip off the pasta.
You should rinse the pasta after straining.
What? I don’t know who came up with this but there is no way this is a good idea. When pasta cooks it releases starch that gets dissolved in the pasta water. This starchy salty water is like a layer of tasty condiment on your pasta and it combines with whatever sauce you’re adding to create awesome pasta goodness. So why would you want to wash it off? Not to mention, if you rinse your pasta with cold water, you unnecessarily cool it down, when it’s must better served steamy hot. If you rinse it with hot water you prolong the cooking process, leading to mushy pasta. Bottom line, don’t rinse your pasta. Nobody in Italy does.
Pasta needs to be drowned in sauce.
This goes back to people not knowing how to cook pasta. If your pasta is under-salted, over-cooked and all slippery from oil and rinsing, it’s going to taste bad on its own, so you’ll want to cover it in sauce to mask it’s unpleasant flavor. When cooked wrong, pasta is at best a sauce vehicle, and at worst a sticky ball of bland. But cook it properly, and you will be surprised by how good it tastes even on its own. At that point, you’ll want that nutty pasta flavor to shine through, complementing the flavors of your sauce. This is why Italians typically use less sauce on their pasta, and not because they like sauce any less than other people.
So that’s it. Happy eating!
And once you’ve perfected your pasta cooking skills, try it with my fail-proof pesto.
Image credit: Hanataro.