The only thing that even the less experienced cook has prepared at some point. It’s so simple to cook that it’s hard to explain why some people get it wrong.
Before we start though, do you think all pasta is the same? Linguine, spaghetti, ravioli, penne, orecchiette, farfalle, tortellini…
Quick answer: no, but let me show you why first (or jump to the cooking process if you’re so stressed out that you can’t dedicate 3 minutes of your busy life to understand these two simple but essential things about pasta).
The shape (and purpose)
The first important thing to notice is the shape, because even though they taste the same, different shapes serve different purposes:
- Folded shapes are designed to be filled with something: tortellini, ravioli and angolotti are the most common examples.
- Holes and curves are a common feature in pasta shapes and they’re mainly designed to trap sauce inside and get more of that flavour when you eat them.
- Small shapes are usually used for soups since they’re easier to catch with a spoon.
- Long shapes are commonly prepared with stickier sauces or prepared fresh with olive oil and some herbs to enhance the flavour of the pasta itself instead of focusing on the sauce.
- Sheet shapes like cannelloni or lasagne are designed to wrap other ingredients and hold them together.
Of course, there are hundreds of shapes nowadays and many of them are decorative or small variations of other shapes. But having an idea of the main uses of different shapes is essential when cooking pasta and other Italian dishes.
Fresh vs dried pasta
Pasta can be fresh or dried and this is a major difference that affects the taste, texture and durability of the pasta.
Fresh pasta is the original and traditional pasta. If you make pasta at home, go to Italy or to an Italian restaurant you’re going to eat fresh pasta (hopefully). It can be made with or without egg and there are many different recipes for it, but the quality is incredible and dried pasta is way out of that league.
Its only problem is durability. Fresh pasta has to be eaten in a short period of time, and this lead to the creation of dried pasta which has become the most common type of pasta. It’s extremely convenient because it’s cheap, can be stored for long (and shipped worldwide) and very easy to cook. So that’s why many people thinks of dried pasta as the “normal” pasta.
Okay, but why should I care about that?
- When cooking fresh pasta it’s important to realise that it takes way less time than dried pasta. Usually in 2 to 6 minutes you’re done.
- If you can, using fresh pasta will significantly improve your dishes.
- If using/making fresh pasta is a rare opportunity for you, let it have a lead role in your dish when you use it. In a lasagne with tons of tomato, meat, cheese and veggies, the pasta will be far less noticeable than in a tagliatelle al pesto.
- If you spend some bucks in a fancy Italian restaurant make sure that the pasta is fresh or order something else.
The cooking process
Being one of the most popular foods in the world there are thousands of varieties of pasta, from whole-wheat pasta to egg pasta, spinach pasta, black bean pasta, lentil pasta and whatever-you-like pasta. Nevertheless, the cooking process is essentially the same for every type:
- Take a big pot, fill it with abundant water and bring it to a rolling boil
- Pasta should have plenty of space to move around, so use a big pot and abundant water
- Add salt to the water. The pasta will absorb that water and it’ll be evenly seasoned.
- Do not add oil to the water, if you do sauce will slip away from the pasta and you won’t be able to enjoy the amazing bolognese you’ve prepared. People add oil to prevent pasta from sticking to each other, but if you maintain a rolling boil and there’s enough space for the pasta to move it won’t stick.
- Add the pasta and stir a little bit
- Make sure that the pasta is fully submerged in the water
- If the water stops boiling for a bit, make sure to stir well to prevent pasta from sticking
- Do not cover with a lid. Pasta is prone to foaming up and putting a lid is a guarantee for a messy kitchen in no time.
- Taste the pasta before the timer goes off
- Make sure you know how long does it take for the specific type of pasta you’re cooking
- If you overcook it there’s no way back. So check a couple of minutes before the end to check how it’s going, specially if it’s the first time you cook that kind of pasta
- Take it off the heat and drain it just before it reaches the consistency you’re looking for
- It’ll continue to cook while you mix it with the sauce and when it’s sitting on the plate waiting to be eaten, so take this into account.
- Eat the pasta straight away
- Pasta has to be eaten right after it’s cooked. If you leave it in water it’ll overcook and if you leave it in the scolapasta (colander) it’ll dry out.
- So make sure to have the sauce, soup or condiments ready in that moment.