Pasta can seem like a simple and easy dish to enjoy any day of the week, and it can be, but there's more to that perfect plate of pasta than you think. Once you get down the right technique, you should be able to nail it every time; however, it's pretty likely that you've been making a few common mistakes you'd never expect. There are a couple factors that go into cooking pasta. Between sauce choices, types of pasta shape, and cook time, there's a lot that can go wrong, or at least not be executed properly. Here are a few tips for making a delicious pasta dish to keep in mind as you continue on your quest to pasta perfection.
1. Pairing Pasta Shapes With the Correct Sauce
The shape of pasta (with or without ridges, thick vs. thin, etc.) matters when it comes to picking a sauce. "Agnolotti, small stuffed pasta, is best served with a butter-based sauce," said Chef de Cuisine Tyler Houston from The James Kitchen + Bar in Chicago to POPSUGAR. For "fettuccine or tagliolini, [which are] longer and more flat, I love serving with an acidic tomato-based sauce," he said. "And with seafood rigatoni or any pasta with a hole in it, it is best served with a thicker tomato-based sauce so the pasta's hole can grab some of the sauce in each bite."
A few heartier sauces include bolognese, standard marinara, and generally tomato-based sauces, he said. Lighter sauces might be with white wine, shallots, garlic, and thyme (great when paired with seafood). "You can achieve a lighter sauce by using the cheese grater to grate a tomato to begin the sauce," or use a "lemon butter-based sauce for a ravioli," he said.
2. Deciding the Right Cook Time
Cooking time depends on the thickness of the pasta, Houston explained. "Fresh pasta obviously cooks faster than the dry variety. Cook time is also generally dependent on the type of pasta. Stuffed pastas (in general) float when getting close to being done; longer, thinner pasta really needs to be well-incorporated to sauce. Water needs to be at a rolling boil, not almost boiling or slightly warm," he said.
"Cooking time for thicker pastas can be as long as 15 minutes," Houston said. "For the quickest cook time, use fresh pasta," which will get you dinner faster in about four minutes. A few examples: "Fettuccine is approximately 12 minutes, spaghetti is approximately 14 minutes, and for gnocchi, I recommend blanching it and shocking in boiling water (especially for restaurant dinner service). This greatly reduces cooking time (so it's five to seven minutes)," he said.
3. Figuring Out the Right Water-to-Salt Ratio
You'll want to not be stingy with the water or salt. Yes, that means you should salt the pasta! "Usually people don't boil enough water. It needs to be a large enough pot and water that the pasta has room to separate and cook evenly and is not overcrowded, otherwise it will cook unevenly," said Joseph Flamm, executive chef at Spiaggia in Chicago. "If you want the inside of the noodle to be seasoned, salt your water. The salt level depends on what sauce is going with: for salty, parmesan-heavy sauces, use less salt in the water."
"Generally, you do want to cook with incredibly salted water (think sea water). I think using the pasta cooking liquid is necessary to finish the sauce. It contains a fair amount of starch, which aids in emulsifying," Houston said. For finishing it off, "two ounces (a small ladle's worth) will allow the sauce to thicken from the starch in the water that's released when cooking pasta." Flamm agreed: "Cook your pasta until it's about two minutes away from being done, then finish it the rest of the way in your sauce so it really absorbs the flavors."
4. Make Sure to Taste as You Cook!
You should be checking up on your pasta to make sure it's cooking as you like. For instance, if you want al dente pasta, you'll want to take it out earlier to secure that thicker, crunchier texture and avoid the pasta getting too soft. "Taste every four minutes, especially when incorporating the sauce with the pasta," Houston said.