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CULTURE

Ten golden rules for cooking pasta like the Italians, from an artisan pasta maker

A very good way to lose friends in Italy is to mess with pasta. Fiddling with the tried and trusted Italian methods can also affect the taste of the dish, but many foreigners don't even realise their technique is unorthodox.

Ten golden rules for cooking pasta like the Italians, from an artisan pasta maker
Are you sure you're cooking your pasta properly? Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Food writer and artisan pasta writer Silvana Lanzetta shares her golden rules for perfect pasta with The Local, to ensure you end up with a delicious meal cooked to al dente perfection.

Browsing the internet, you come across many opinions on the best way to cook pasta.

I've seen everything: soaking dry pasta for a hours to give the impression of eating fresh pasta; toasting pasta in the oven before boiling it; cooking it in a frying pan without boiling the water first; and the passive method, consisting of boiling the pasta for the first couple of minutes, then switching the heat off to finish the cooking by soaking it in the hot water.

Usually, all these methods are followed by a string of comments from indignant Italian people, who cannot stand the butchering of their beloved food.

A typical comment from an Italian distressed at an unorthodox recipe.

But why do we get so upset? After all, 'it’s just pasta', they say in their defence.

The fact is that all of these fancy methods affect the pasta in ways that many cannot even imagine, and some of them are even potentially dangerous to health.

For instance, soaking the pasta and the practice of not cooking the pasta in boiling water prevent the gelatinization of the starches, which is an essential process if we want to make our pasta digestible.

And toasting the pasta destroys the lysine and all the B vitamins which pasta is so rich in. For the passive method, you need to use a lot of water- about five litres- to keep it hot enough for gelatinization to happen.

But if you want to eat a plate of delicious pasta al dente, the way Italians enjoy it every lunchtime, then you have to learn how to cook pasta like an Italian.

So here are ten golden rules for cooking the perfect pasta al dente.

Silvana Lanzetta is a food writer and artisan pasta maker. Photo: Private

1) Never add oil to your water 

The oil separates and floats on the top of the water, and won’t keep your pasta from sticking together. Also, when you drain the pasta, the oil will coat preventing the sauce from sticking to it. The only way to avoid having blobs of pasta sticking together is to use a lot of water. This way, the starches will disperse in the water and won’t act as glue. You will need one litre of water for every 100 grams of dry pasta.

2) Bring the water to boil

If you want pasta al dente, then boiling the water is essential, as the pasta has to be in contact with the water as little as possible. Another important aspect is that boiling water will gelatinize the starches contained in the pasta, making it digestible.


Wait until you see bubbles. Photo: Pete/Flickr

3) Add salt only once the water is boiling

If you add the salt to cold water, it will delay the time it takes for the water to reach boiling point. However, when added to the boiling water, the salt will raise its temperature: the water is now as hot as possible.

4) Never simmer

Keep the temperature high on boiling. It will cook the pasta quicker, and it’s the only way to achieve pasta al dente. As soon as you lower the heat to simmer, you’ll end up with mushy pasta.

READ ALSO: Don't be put off by their names – these Italian foods are actually delicious

5) Don’t break spaghetti or other long pasta

The length is important. When you wind the spaghetti around the fork, it will help you catch the sauce more efficiently. Put your spaghetti together in the boiling water, then gently push them down.


Freshly made tagliatelle. Photo: Timothy Vollmer/Flickr

6) The only way is to bite.

To check whether the pasta is cooked, flicking it at the wall and waiting for it to stick is pointless. You just end up with a messy wall.

Other pointless methods include touching the pasta or breaking it to check whether the colour inside is uniform. The only way to be sure is to bite it. The pasta should be soft enough to bite without feeling a crunch, but still quite hard. If you want the pasta al dente, look at the section of the bit pasta. In the middle, you should be able to see a thin segment that is paler than the rest. That is called Punto Verde (green point) in Italian and indicates that the pasta is al dente. Once it is gone, the pasta is no longer al dente.

7) Don’t rinse it

Before you drain the pasta, you might want to reserve some of its cooking water, in case your sauce is too dense. Drain the pasta, but never rinse it: you want to keep the starches on its surface, to help the sauce stick to it. Also, you don’t want to stop the cooking process, which continues until the pasta is plated.

READ ALSO: Nine Italian summer delicacies you simply have to taste

8) Have your (large) pot of sauce ready 

Put the pasta into your cooked sauce, turn on the heat, and sauté for a couple of minutes. If your sauce is too thick, then add some of the reserved cooking water, which has plenty of starch, enriches the sauce, and makes it stick to the pasta.


Photo: Simon Law/Flickr

9) Serve immediately

Pasta is best served hot and freshly cooked. You can enhance the flavour of your dish by adding grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano, or chopped fresh herbs such as basil or parsley. Pasta is traditionally eaten by itself, not as a side for meat or fish. This is to enjoy the delicate harmony of flavours in full. Meat or fish are served afterwards with a side of vegetables.

10) Make a new dish out of your leftovers

Don’t reheat your leftover pasta: microwave or pan, it will still taste awful. Instead, make another dish out of it. In Italy, leftover pasta is usually baked with other ingredients, such as cured meat, mozzarella, boiled eggs, and vegetables, to make what’s called a pasticcio (literally meaning 'a mess'!), or mixed with eggs and transformed into a sort of tortilla pasta, called frittata di maccheroni.

If you follow these guidelines, you will have the best pasta of your life and will make Italians proud!

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Photo: Alexandra E Rust/Flickr

 

Member comments

  1. Si, si, except for rule number 5, which was invented by someone who never eats alone. Making pasta for myself became a delight when I finally broke down and broke my linguine in half. Maybe you can tell the difference, but I’ve been eating linguine for 70 years, and I can’t.

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FOOD & DRINK

From spritz to shakerato: Six things to drink in Italy this summer

Summer in Italy means lots of things - trips to the beach, empty cities, strikes, and metro works - but it also ushers in the spritz and negroni season. Here are some of the best drinks to cool down with in Italy this summer.

From spritz to shakerato: Six things to drink in Italy this summer

Spritz

Venice wins all the prizes for being the home of the spritz: the jewel in Italy’s summertime daisy crown and one of the country’s most popular exports.

To first-time customers, the sweet-and-bitter combo can taste unpleasantly like a poisoned alcopop. Stick with it, however, and you’ll soon learn to appreciate this sunset-coloured aperitif, which has come to feel synonymous with summer in Italy.

The most common version is the bright orange Aperol Spritz, but if this starts to feel too sweet once your tastebuds adjust then you can graduate to the dark red Campari Spritz, which has a deeper and more complex flavour profile.

What are the best summer drinks to order in Italy?

Photo by Federica Ariemma/Unsplash.

Negroni

If you’re too cool for the unabashedly flamboyant spritz but want something not too far off flavour-wise, consider the Negroni.

It’s equal parts gin, vermouth and Campari – though if you want a more approachable version, you can order a ‘Negroni sbagliato’ – literally a ‘wrong’ Negroni – which replaces the gin with sweet sparkling Prosecco white wine.

Served with a twist of orange peel and in a low glass, the Negroni closely resembles an Old Fashioned, and is equally as stylish. A traditional Negroni may be stirred, not shaken, but it’s still the kind of cocktail that Bond would surely be happy to be seen sipping.

Crodino

Don’t fancy any alcohol but still crave that bitter, amaro-based aftertaste?

A crodino might be just what you’re after. With its bright orange hue, it both looks and tastes very similar to an Aperol Spritz – so much so that you might initially ask yourself whether you’ve in fact been served the real thing.

Similar in flavour are soft drinks produced by the San Pellegrino brand; bars that don’t have any crodino on hand will often offer you ‘un San Pellegrino’ as a substitute. These drinks are usually available in multiple flavours like blood orange, grapefruit, or prickly pears.

A barman prepares a Campari Spritz cocktail in the historic Campari bar at the entrance of Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuel II shopping mall. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

Chinotto

Much like the crodino, the chinotto is another distinctive bitter Italian aperitivo drink.

With its medium-dark brown colouring, however, the chinotto bears more of a resemblance to Coca Cola than to the spritz, leading to its occasionally being designated as the ‘Italian Coca Cola’.

In reality far less caramelly and much more tart than coke, the chinotto has its detractors, and the fact that we’re having to describe its flavour here means it clearly hasn’t set the world alight since it was first invented in the 1930s (it was subsequently popularised by San Pellegrino, which became its main Italian producer).

If you’re looking for another grown-up tasting alternative to an alcoholic aperitivo, however, the chinotto might just be the place to look.

Bellini

What’s not to love about the bellini?

Its delicate orange and rose-pink tones are reminiscent of a sunset in the same way as a spritz, but with none of the spritz’s complex and contradictory flavours.

A combination of pureed peach and sugary Prosecco wine, the bellini’s thick, creamy texture can almost make it feel smoothie or even dessert-like. It’s a sweet and simple delight, with just a slight kick in the tail to remind you it’s not a soft drink.

Shakerato

Not a fan of drinks of the fruity/citrusy/marinated herby variety?

If caffeine’s more your thing, Italy has an answer for you in the caffe shakerato: an iced coffee drink made with espresso, ice cubes, and sugar or sugar syrup.

That might not sound inspired at first, but hear us out: the three ingredients are vigorously mixed together in a cocktail shaker before the liquid is poured (ice cube-free) into a martini glass, leaving a dark elixir with a delicate caramel coloured foam on top.

You couldn’t look much more elegant drinking an iced coffee than sipping one of these.

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