Pasta is one of the most, if not the most, used ingredients in Italian cooking, which is part of the Mediterranean diet. Now I am giving a few tips on how to cook and properly use pasta.
Please, note that these tips are referred only to pasta boiled in water, so for Lasagna, Cannelloni (known in the US, who knows why, as Manicotti) etc. they do not apply.
- Do not use too much sauce. The complete name for pasta is pastasciutta, which means dry pasta. Here in the US I see often pasta floating in a gallon of sauce. It’s true that in the south of Italy people tend to use too much sauce, but that’s not the right way to use pasta. People think that pasta makes you fatter. Of course any kind of food makes you fatter, but if you do not use too much sauce, the calorie count stays low enough to avoid problems.
- Cook the right quantity of pasta. The rule of thumb in Italy is to make 100 grams of pasta per serving. 100 grams are equivalent to about 3.5 ounces. If you eat 500 grams of pasta per serving, you should see a doctor; something is wrong with your diet.
- How to cook pasta. Cook pasta in a pot with at least one quart of water per 3.5 oz serving. Pasta needs a lot of water. Add salt (I use kosher salt) possibly when water is boiling; this is the best way to avoid damages to the pot. I use 2 heaping tablespoon of salt every 5 quarts of water; it’s hard to give an exact quantity as it depend also by your taste. Just keep in mind that salt is not the demon we have heard for years. In Italy we use plenty of salt and we are very healthy. Pasta must be cooked until “al dente”, which means not overcooked or chewy. It should not feel like you are eating glue. As per cooking time, read the following tip. Please do not add oil (olive or not) to the water; it would prevent sauce from sticking to the pasta and they would separate!
- What brand of pasta should I use? I have found here in the US only 2 good brands of Italian pasta: De Cecco and Barilla. All other brands, especially if made in Germany, are simply awful. De Cecco is the best pasta commonly available. It holds up well to overcooking (but please don’t do that) and the texture is fantastic. It’s pricey though. Barilla is an excellent second choice, not as good as De Cecco against overcooking, but much more affordable. Now let’s talk about cooking time. This is a rule of thumb, you should fine tuning this timing depending by the type of pasta (spaghetti vs. rigatoni etc.) and personal preferences. With Barilla I usually follow the highest cooking time suggested by the manufacturer. With the De Cecco I usually exceed this time by 1 or 2 minutes. Start timing after you have added pasta to the boiling water AND after the water resumes boiling. Just to be sure, taste pasta 1 or 2 minutes before it should be ready. The cooking time is not always consistent. Do not forget to stir the pasta often possibly using a wooden tool; in the US it is hard to find a wooden fork which is perfect for spaghetti.
- How to drain pasta. I personally don’t like that sort of draining thing you insert into the pot. This limits the space available for pasta, it’s bulky and when you drain pasta, it’s still too wet. Buy a cheap pasta colander, one you can place into the sink. It’s best if made of stainless steel but even one made out of plastic works.