''I really think it's time for some pasta therapy,'' Mr. Plotkin said. ''We Americans need to get back to the basics, the 1-2-3's of pasta. Just take a box of spaghetti, some canned tomatoes and some good extra virgin olive oil, and you'll make a dish that's far superior to that chicly complex thing we aspire to.''
Over the years, I have made countless pasta dishes. Along the way, I picked up some helpful techniques and approaches to executing great pasta, even with very little ingredients. And with our current quarantine situation, being able to improvise on the fly based on what you have on your pantry is vital. As a result, I created this guide to help you think through creating balanced and flavorful pasta, regardless of how much time or ingredients you have.
Note: I do not claim to be an expert in Italian cooking, nor am I Italian. However, I’ve done my best to research tips across numerous sources. I also welcome any critique and feedback, though please keep in mind this is not meant to be completely exhaustive or 100% authentic. This is meant to be a novice’s guide to cooking pasta.
Sourcing Ingredients: When it comes to Italian cooking, ingredients matter, especially in the simplest dishes. Pasta aglio e olio e peperoncino (pasta with olive oil, red pepper flakes, and garlic), for example, is just three ingredients. In a dish like this, you’ll likely be able to taste the difference if you use a cheaper ingredients. I’m not saying you need to splurge on the most expensive products, especially in this current climate of social distancing. If you use the proper techniques, your dish will still be tasty, but to really elevate it, to have it to taste more like that of a restaurant’s, you have to start with a high quality set of ingredients. And keep in mind, a little goes a long way here.
Pasta: I’ve listed the pasta first, because I think the actual pasta needs to be highlighted more in a dish than it often does. In a NYTimes article from 1997, a writer and Italian expert Fred Plotkin is quoted to have said “'We overcook pasta, we serve it in immense portions, and we oversauce it.” The pasta should be the star of the dish and complemented by the sauce, not the other way around. As for the overcooking aspect, I’ll walk through how to properly cook pasta later in this guide.
What kind of pasta should you buy? As I was doing research, one interesting tidbit came up. In the US, most of us think of fresh pasta as the highest quality compared to dried. However, in Italy, this is not necessarily the case. Italians are perfectly fine with using dried pasta, as the quality of their dried pasta is much better.
The reason for this? Most mass manufactured pasta (the standard kind you see in the supermarket) here in the US is extruded using a teflon “die” (or mold). These dies create smooth pasta noodles. You may have noticed a few more expensive brands in your grocery store. These noodles generally look lighter and more textured than what you’re used to seeing, as they don’t use this standard die. Instead, higher quality pastas tend to be made with bronze dies; these dies produce a natural texture in the noodles when extruding.
The benefit of the bronze die is twofold: (1) the textured parts of the noodle cling to the sauce better and (2) these dies tend to dry pasta at slower, lower temperature developing more flavor over time.
Bronze died pastas are more expensive for a reason as they allow the pasta itself to shine through as a key ingredient. I, myself, tend to buy many different brands of pasta, but if I’m throwing a dinner party I’ll definitely splurge for the higher quality brand.
Dried spices: I’ve read that spices should ideally be replaced every six months. Do I do that? Definitely not. Spices are expensive and having to replace every spice all the time can seriously add up. However, I can definitely notice the difference of a freshly ground spice from a ground spice container bought three years ago. If you have the time and desire, I’d buy whole spices where possible. For Italian cuisine I’d recommend:
Whole black peppercorns
Whole red chilies - you can grind these up into red pepper flakes with a spice grinder
Whole nutmegI also keep ground garlic, onion, and oregano around for certain tomato sauces.
Tomatoes: The general rule is, ripe, fresh tomatoes > good quality canned tomatoes > unripe/out of season tomatoes.
If you have access to in-season, fresh tomatoes, I’d recommend using those. For a lot of tomato sauce recipes, making a tomato passata is ideal from fresh tomatoes (recipe here). The process is a bit lengthy though. Often, you can buy a large amount of tomatoes in the summertime, make the passata, and then can it for the rest of the year.
If you don’t have fresh tomatoes, the general consensus is that canned San Marzano tomatoes will do the trick. San Marzano are preferred as these tomatoes are less acidic and sweeter with thinner flesh than other tomato varieties. However, not all varieties are equal. See here for a list of top canned tomato brands. Aside from San Marzano, in most taste tests, Bianco diNapoli canned tomatoes win. So feel free to test out a few to see which one you like the most!
Olive Oil: I generally use a decent olive oil for cooking and a delicious, albeit usually more expensive one for salads / finishing a dish. The key word is “decent” — if you can afford it, don’t buy a cheap olive oil that you don’t enjoy the taste of — you’ll still be able to taste it in your food. See here for a list of great olive oils. I’ve currently been using ZOE olive oil (Spanish) and I really like it!
Canned Tuna, Anchovies, etc. Where possible, I like to buy tuna in olive oil — I think it tastes fresher. For anchovies, most people swear by the Ortiz brand.
Parmesan If you can help it, buy a wedge of cheese — pre-grated does not taste the same. Pre-grated often has additional ingredients, and it’s just not as fresh. That being said, while we’re in quarantine, I have been buying the pre-grated as there is nothing else available.
Tips on Cooking Pasta Now that we have our ingredients, we need to actually cook the noodles! I’ve listed some tips below on the best way to cook pasta to ensure it tastes as delicious as possible.
There is a bit of debate on how much water is needed to cook pasta. The general consensus is that you need about 4 quarts per lb of pasta, however, some people have tested it and found you can get away with much less water and achieve the same flavor/texture from the noodles. However, the less water you use, the more work is required to keep stirring the pot and ensure the noodles aren’t sticking together. So, if you’re trying to save energy, use less water, otherwise use the recommend 4 quarts.
Once you have the water in the pot, bring to a full rolling boil. Generally, for most pasta shapes, if the pasta is cooked at a lower heat it may get gummier/mushier.
When the pasta is boiling, add the salt. There is also debate on how much salt you need. A lot of people say you need to salt the water so that it tastes like sea water. Others say it should just be seasoned like you season a soup (more here). I agree with the latter. If you already have a pretty salty sauce, I don’t think there’s any need to make the pasta water super salty. However, you should definitely salt the pasta water, regardless, to bring out more flavor in the pasta.
Add the pasta. Note the amount of time required to cook the pasta on the box/bag, but do NOT rely on it. For dried pastas, I always start checking on my pasta at least 3 - 4 minutes before the instructions on the box (fresh pastas are done super quickly in about 2 - 3 minutes so I start checking those once the pasta begins floating to the top).
Make sure to stir every so often, so nothing sticks to the bottom of the pot.
Don’t add olive oil to your water. While olive oil is said to keep the noodles from sticking to each other, it also prevents the noodles from sticking to the sauce.
If you’re planning on transferring the pasta straight to a serving bowl, I cook it until al dente. By al dente, this means that the pasta doesn’t have any “uncooked” flavor, but there is still a bite in the center of the noodle. Keep in mind, the residual heat from the pasta will continue to cook it slightly even after you take it off the stove!
If finishing the pasta in a sauce on the stove (more on that below), I usually take my pasta out juuust before it’s al dente (1-2 minutes prior).
Drain, but do NOT rinse the pasta. If you rinse the pasta, you will lose the nice starch coating the noodles that aids it in clinging to the sauce.
Make sure to reserve some of the pasta water (around 1 cup). It’s always helpful to have if a sauce is too dry and/or to help smooth and thicken a sauce.
How to Ensure Your Sauce Tastes Great:
Many of the techniques and recipes in this guide come from Marcella Hazan, considered the “Julia Child” of Italian cuisine by many.
Here are some Marcella Hazan quotes that will help guide your sauce-making:
“Pasta sauces may cook slowly or rapidly, they may take 4 minutes or 4 hours, but they always cook by evaporation, which concentrates and clearly defines their flavor. Never cook a sauce in a covered pan, or it will emerge with a bland, steamed, weakly formulated taste.”
“Blandness is not a virtue, tastelessness is not a joy. Always taste a sauce before tossing the pasta with it. If it seems barely salty enough on its own, it’s not salty enough for the pasta.”
Don’t be afraid of adding more oil and butter, especially to finish the dish if you want some fat or creaminess to mellow out the flavor of the sauce.
Adding a couple of anchovies to a tomato sauce can really up the umami flavor and round out the pasta.
Garnishes, like herbs or a sprinkling of cheese can help improve the flavor of the dish.
Be conscientious of what sauces are more or less sensitive to time. For example, a quick dish like cacio e pepe is best piping hot while the sauce is creamy. As it cools, the sauce congeals and can clump into a less favorable dish. On the other hand, something like a ragu tastes so much more magical with 3 hours of simmering compared to just 15 minutes.
How to Finish a Pasta Dish:
For most dishes where the pasta dish is served hot, it’s usually beneficial to finish cooking the pasta in the sauce. This helps the sauce cling to the pasta better; the sauce melds and the dish becomes much more homogenous.
To do so, you can drain the pasta (or even directly add the pasta from the boiling water with tongs) and add to the sauce on low/medium low heat. Using tongs, mix the sauce and noodles together, watching the sauce thicken for a couple minutes until the sauce begins to clutch to the pasta. You can add any additional pasta water to create more of a sauce if need be.
Transfer the pasta and sauce to a serving dish and garnish with the proper accompaniments (cheese, herbs, olive oil, etc.) Serve immediately. Most pasta dishes taste best when hot, save for something like a pesto sauce.
The Pasta Flavor Matrix
Now that you’ve learned a bit about the techniques of cooking great pasta, you can use this flavor matrix to build a sauce from scratch or the recipe inspiration section to cook something classic.
The matrix below walks through different flavor profiles that pasta dishes are most commonly build off of — light and refreshing, tomato based, pestos, rich & creamy, and earthy flavors.
How to use this matrix (Download here!)
- Choose a flavor profile based on what mood you’re in.
- To make a complete dish, you generally need at least the bold items in each row plus any additional suggested ingredients to complete a dish. Play around with different flavor combinations as you wish (and depending what you have in the pantry!) Below, you can see how I’ve created six different dishes by adding onlyone or two additional ingredients with each iteration.
- Some of these flavor profiles can overlap, and these are not exhaustive. Feel free to be as creative as possible! This is just meant to be a thought starter.
Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking - If you are remotely interested in Italian cooking, I highly recommend this cookbook.