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Expert Kemp Minifie on how to cook and serve pasta like a pro.
Of all the international cuisines America has welcomed to its kitchens, Italian food gets the warmest embrace. The single supermarket shelf of spaghetti, elbow macaroni, and German-style egg noodles I remember as a kid has given way to entire pasta aisles devoted to myriad brands-imported as well as domestic-and a dizzying variety of shapes, plus sauces to top them. Even homemade pasta, the subject of a separate primer in this issue, has become a pride and pastime of many. Yet in the grand scheme of anthropological time, the relatively few years it's taken America to go from canned Spaghetti Os to artisanal garganelli would probably register as a nanosecond. So, as popular as pasta is, there's still a fair amount we've yet to learn about it, and misconceptions abound. Here's the real deal on preparing one of America's favorite meals.
1. Fresh pasta is better than dried.
Unfortunately, food snobs have given fresh pasta a superiority complex, but no way is it better than dried. It's simply that it's made differently and tastes differently. In general, most fresh pastas include whole eggs or yolks, while most dried pastas are formed from just durum (meaning hard) wheat and water.
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2. All dried pastas are pretty much the same.
Most of the dried pastas you see at the store are made from a simple wheat flour-and-water dough (pasta from Italy must, by law, use durum wheat). The dough is extruded by machines into different shapes. The best dried pastas-many of them from premium brands-are made from dough that's been pushed through bronze dies, which leave the noodles with a slightly rough surface, giving the sauce something to hang onto. De Cecco is one widely available example; some brands indicate on their packaging or Web site if bronze dies have been used. By contrast, newer and cheaper Teflon-coated dies produce smoother, often shinier noodles that lack the cling factor.
3. Dried egg pasta is no different from wheat-flour pasta.
Dried egg pastas can be found on supermarket shelves alongside the standard wheat-only variety. (These are not to be confused with traditional American egg noodles, which are actually of German heritage and are meant to be cooked until tender.) Dried fettuccine, for example, may turn up as a wheat-only noodle or enriched with egg (often twirled into nests and packed in wide, thin boxes). Expect a distinctive texture and mouth feel with egg pastas: They have a lighter, springier bounce to them, whereas durum wheat-and-water noodles tend to be heartier and chewier, even though both types should be cooked al dente.
4. One pound of spaghetti = one pound of capellini.
It may sound logical that a pound of dried spaghetti, when cooked, would yield the same amount as a pound of dried capellini (a.k.a. angel hair). But have you ever noticed what a big pile of noodles you end up with when you cook a pound of capellini? That's because capellini absorbs more water as it cooks and bulks up more than the same weight of spaghetti. The cooked capellini will weigh more and fill you up sooner-so remember those deceptively skinny strands of angel hair when feeding a crowd on a budget.
5. Pasta cooking water should be as salty as the sea.
A light sprinkling of salt in the pot isn't nearly enough to bring out the flavor of the noodles. But how much salt does it take to taste like the ocean? Italian cooking authorities vary on their proportions of salt to water. And they're not always specific about the type of salt, either, which can make a difference: A tablespoon of kosher salt is less than the equivalent volume of table salt because the larger crystals of kosher salt take up more space in a measuring spoon. In general, 2 to 3 tablespoons of regular table salt for 6 quarts of water seems to be the optimum.
6. Your pasta will stick together unless you put a little oil in the cooking water.
Italian food authorities may not agree on a lot of things, but they do concur on this: Putting a bit of olive oil in the pasta water is worthless. It doesn't keep pasta from sticking, and it's a waste of a precious ingredient. Plenty of boiling water, they'll tell you, is all that's needed to keep the pasta strands separate. What the authorities don't agree on is how much water qualifies as plenty: Recommendations can vary from 4 to 6 quarts of water for every pound of dried or fresh pasta. (An important reminder, less obvious than it sounds: If you want to use 6 quarts of water, you'll need an 8-quart pot to hold both the water and the pasta.)
7. Pasta should be cooked in an uncovered pot.
The water should be at a rolling-if not roiling-boil when you add the pasta, and the fastest way to get the water to that point is to cover the pot. Once the pasta goes in, give it several good stirs, but then you want to get that water back to a strong boil as fast as possible. No less an authority than Italy's cooking bible, The Silver Spoon, recommends that you cover the pot to speed up the process. I like to leave the lid slightly ajar, just enough so that I can see into the pot and know when it's back up at a furious boil. At that point, the lid comes off for good; continue to stir occasionally.
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8. The package directions tell you all about cooking time.
Don't rely on the timing printed on the packages of pasta you buy-dried or fresh. Instead, finishing the cooking in an open pot makes it easy to dip in and taste-test the noodles yourself for doneness. Al dente is the Italian expression that describes properly cooked pasta-meaning there's a pleasant toothsome chew to the noodle. Yet to truly bring your pasta dish to the next level, stop a few minutes short of al dente and do like the cognoscenti: See myth #11.
9. Using a colander is the best way to drain your pasta.
If you're using what the experts call "plenty" of boiling water (4 to 6 quarts) to cook your pasta, draining it in a colander takes skill, even luck. First you need muscles to lift a heavy, hot pot and carry it to the sink. Then you've got to tilt the pot just right, aiming the cascading water so the pasta lands in the colander. This tricky step is further complicated by billowing steam that clouds your vision, foggy glasses or not. Add a couple of curious toddlers to the mix, or a slick spot on the floor, and you've got a recipe for disaster. What's more, you're dumping down the drain a precious resource for finishing your sauce: the pasta water itself. More on that in myth #12.
For all these reasons, many cooks swear by pasta pots with a strainer insert. The removable inner liner is deep and perforated with colander-like holes. The only thing you need to lift is the liner, and up comes the pasta with it, leaving the water behind.
The cheapest solution is to keep a pair of tongs and a wire-mesh skimmer handy, to scoop the pasta directly into a skillet or serving bowl that you position right next to the pot. (When that's done, push the pot of hot water to the back of the stove. By the time dinner's over, the water will have cooled off and the danger will be past.)
10. It doesn't matter what sauce you pair with which pasta.
While Americans love their noodles, most don't give a hoot what sauce they serve with which shape. Not so in Italy: Italians feel strongly that certain shapes work best with certain types of sauce. And within each region-or village or family-there are specific traditions for pasta and sauce pairings. In general, oily or watery sauces, such as white clam, go on thinner strands, such as linguine. Hearty, chunky sauces go with larger, often tubular noodles, such as ziti and shells. Meaty ragùs cozy up to pappardelle or fettuccine. When you think about it, these traditions do make sense, but I don't let them rule my kitchen.
11. Pasta is all about the sauce.
When it comes to saucing pasta, we Americans are prone to the belief that if a little is good, a lot must be better. As a result, we often drown our noodles in sauce. But in Italy, it's all about the pasta. Sauces are applied lightly, to enhance, not smother, the wheaty flavor of the noodles. To do this well, many chefs and cookbook authors actually finish cooking the pasta in the sauce. They stop boiling the pasta about a minute or two before it's pleasantly al dente, and transfer the noodles-along with any water clinging to them-directly from the pot to a large skillet containing the sauce. Then they cook the pasta in the sauce, tossing it, for a couple of minutes, so that the flavor of the sauce actually gets into the noodles. The Italian term for this is macchiare, which means to stain.
12. Pasta cooking water is your friend.
As noodles cook, they release starch into the water, and it's this mildly starchy water that can bring the pasta and the sauce into a more perfect union, as described above. It's also the secret to perfect pesto. Pesto is so rich with nuts, oil, and cheese that the last thing it needs is more oil to thin the paste to a coating consistency. Instead, stir some pasta water into pesto that you've placed in the serving bowl before you add the pasta, and it will transform itself into a sauce that coats the noodles beautifully. Or, as many an Italian nonna will tell you, until the pasta comes nice.
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