Apologies to anyone who doesn’t require these pointers but I do get asked frequently for the genuine, Italian method for cooking pasta. I do find that many of my non-Italian friends get little things “wrong” and this does make things trickier / less reliable in terms of outcome. My best friend in Italy, Ute who has the family run restaurant has whole banks of water on the boil, in the way that Brits would have deep-fat friers constantly on the go with wire baskets bubbling away, except in Italy these contain hot salted water. Gluten-free vats are set aside to be left totally free from wheat contamination and this is now becoming the norm in Italy. The tips below may seem to only define minor differences between the happy-go-lucky most cooks employ, but they make the difference between authentic tasting pasta and slop. Trust me.
Here we go:
- Use a larger pan than you think (at least a c.3L pan for 500g [ie. one pack] pasta)
- Use more water than you think (fill the pan 3/4 full) and be prepared to top up the water from a kettle or boiling tap if the water looks overly cloudy or gloopy or simply insufficient if need be
- Salt well (eg. at least one heaped tablespoon of salt for a pan that size) – you will get a hang of doing this by eye. I do it by throwing in a hanful of sea salt or one swirl of fine salt
- Do not bother with adding oil etc. to the boiling water, if you stir it properly (and this is the only true way to avoid it gumming together) then it will turn out well
- Be prepared to stir a lot in the first 5 minutes to prevent the pasta from gluing itself together and to the base of the pan
- If you are cooking ‘long’ pasta (spaghetti, linguine, tagliatelle, fettuccine, bucatini, capelli d’angelo, chitarra etc.) then stand over the pas with a large wooden fork and twist the long stems into the water until they are all covered up and stir until flowing freely under the water with no clumping.
- Remove the pasta before it is really cooked through to your desired bite level (very ‘al dente’ for me) and, crucially DO NOT OVER DRAIN it, leave a small puddle of cooking water in the pan (about 2-3 tablespoons) so that when you tip the pan, a corner of water can be seen. This is because the pasta will keep on cooking and absorbing the water until you eat it and it can become ever so dry and stodgy in that time unless you pre-empt this. Alternatively you can drain the pasta very cursorily (so it is still sopping wet) leaving plenty of milky-looking cooking water aside in case it is needed, until you dress the pasta and combine it properly with the ‘sugo’
- OPTIONAL: you can stir in a tiny drizzle of olive oil if you are afraid of it sticking but only if there is a delay between cooking the pasta and adding the sauce. In Italy most health conscious families tend to add fresh olive oil just before serving as it is healthier uncooked and is almost always a welcome addition
- Lastly, a trick I see used at my bestie’s restaurant is to complete the cooking of the pasta with the sauce in a large sauté pan so that the pasta and the sauce “fuse” and really combine. You can either do this in the boiling pan if your sauce is pre-made, or add your pasta to the sauce sauté pan which is still cooking away on the stove alongside the boiling pasta. Not only does this allow me to serve pasta that is hot enough but more importantly it allows the flavour to penetrate the pasta and to perfect the “cuisson/cottura”, ie how al dente the pasta is. This last step is not necessary but it does make a real difference.
NOTE: I rarely if ever see a mound of naked boiled pasta with a pile of sauce pooled in the middle. This is a bastardization of our way of serving that has been propagated by countless commercial pasta sauce adverts and is a method that Italians never use. We might lightly stir in a sauce and then serve a blob in the middle for effect upon serving but that is it. No-one is seasoning and stirring in their pasta on their plate as if it has been plopped there by some two part pasta dispensing process, it is messy and doesn’t allow the flavours to meld.
Now you know.