Ask an Italian: ‘How do I sauce pasta properly?’

Cooking pasta and sauce sounds simple enough - how could you go wrong? You might be surprised.

Ask an Italian: 'How do I sauce pasta properly?'
Photo: Roberto Serra/Eatalian with Roberto

If you want your pasta dish to taste as good as those served in your favourite restaurants in Italy, then there are some tips and tricks to be aware of.

You probably already know that your pasta should be cooked al dente, but mistakes are often made when adding the sauce.

READ ALSO: The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

“Saucing pasta is not a hard task, but it requires knowing some mandatory steps, and the things to be avoided,” says Italian food writer Roberto Serra.

“It is something that most Italians can do quite well since it’s part of our culture, but of course pasta is not a worldwide thing.”

If you’re keen to do things the authentic way, here Roberto shares his advice for saucing your pasta as it would be done in Italy.

Get the sauce ready first

“The first thing you have to do right: get the sauce ready before the pasta is. This is important, because pasta does not like to wait! 

With a few exceptions, like cacio e pepe or carbonara, which are express preparations, the sauce can be prepared in advance. 

I actually recommend stocking up on some sauces in the freezer, for last minute Italian dinners: bolognese ragù and pesto genovese are perfect for this.”

Pesto genovese. Photo: Caroline Attwood/Unsplash

Cook the pasta al dente

“Many people may ask: what do you mean by al dente (literally: “to the tooth”)? There’s an easy answer, and a more advanced one.

The easy answer is: just read the instructions on the pasta packaging, they always tell you how many minutes are required to cook it properly. My advice is to remove the pasta from water two minutes earlier than the packaging instructions say.

READ ALSO: The ten ‘unbreakable’ rules for making real Italian pasta alla carbonara

The more complicated answer is: when you get skilled enough, you’ll just taste the pasta and you’ll know when it’s not undercooked but actually al dente and needs to be removed from the water. My advice is to use the previous method and train yourself to taste the pasta when you remove it, so that you’ll soon be able to just taste it – like Italians do 

Why is it important to cook the pasta al dente? Because this allows you to execute the next steps properly and get perfect pasta.”

In the pan

“The easiest way to move the pasta from the pot to the pan is with a colander. I use it to drain the pasta water, but only after having saved a mug of it. 

Pasta water is rich in starch, and this is an incredible asset for all your pasta recipes.

When the pasta is in the colander, drop it into the pan where you have prepared the sauce. 

It is very important that you don’t rinse the pasta with tap water! This is something that I have read in forums, but it is definitely a mistake, since it will wash away the starch from the pasta’s surface. The starch is your best ally to make the sauce cling to the pasta.

When the pasta is in the pan, mix it with the sauce. Now you need a few minutes until the pasta is completely cooked and the sauce correctly sticks to it. 

Consider that if you stopped boiling the pasta two minutes earlier than expected, it will take about 4-5 minutes in the pan. 

During this time, you slowly add the amount of pasta water that is required to make it gently cook. The heat should be medium-high.

Add pasta water and olive oil (not cream)

“Another trick is to add some fat, usually extra-virgin olive oil (EVO), so that starch combines (emulsifies) with it, and the sauce will cling perfectly to the pasta. 

This tip is super important when the sauce is a very low-fat one, e.g. a simple tomato and basil.

It is also very important when the sauce is veggie-based or with large chops of fish or prawns, since it is the proper way to create an emulsion that will make the pasta stick. 

Pasta alla gricia. Photo: Luca Nebuloni/Wikimedia Commons

Another typical mistake seen in inauthentic Italian food is the use of milk cream (aka heavy cream). 

Apart from a few recipes in which cream is a key component (e.g. penne alla vodka, or tortellini alla panna), it is usually an easy and quick trick to create a thick sauce, but the taste of the ingredients will be flattened by the cream. This is definitely not Italian.

Add cheese and herbs (only when needed)

“Now remove the pan from the heat and add some grated cheese, when the sauce requires it. 

There are some general rules to this:

  • never use cheese in recipes with fish or shellfish – vongole, cozze, gamberi… these never need cheese, no matter which kind.
  • tomato sauce – there is not 100% agreement on this, but I strongly recommend not using cheese with simple tomato sauces
  • bolognese sauce, tortellini – yes, definitely! And, of course, Parmigiano Reggiano here
  • carbonara, amatriciana, gricia, cacio e pepe – yes, use pecorino here!
  • always remember that Italian food is strongly regional. If you don’t know which cheese to add, use Parmigiano Reggiano for recipes from northern Italy, pecorino for central Italy (e.g. Rome, Tuscany), ricotta salata (an aged variant, perfect to be grated, of fresh ricotta cheese) for southern Italy.

READ ALSO: ‘What’s the difference between Italy’s Parmigiano Reggiano and parmesan cheese?’

“Finally, serve your pasta and add some fresh herbs on top. Here my recommendation is: in Italy a lot of pasta dishes are never served with herbs on top, while abroad parsley and basil are everywhere. 

Please consider that:

  • basil is usually added to tomato sauce
  • parsley is often used with fish or shellfish sauce
  • you will never see lasagne, tortellini, bolognese ragù with herbs on top

“Of course, some recipes will not follow these rules, but these are the best practices that apply to most sauces – from a simple tomato and basil sauce to a complex fish and shellfish sauce like shrimp and tuna pasta.”

Read more about authentic Italian cuisne on Roberto’s blog, Eatalian with Roberto.

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RANKED: The 11 worst food crimes you can commit according to Italians

From fruity pizza toppings to spaghetti bolognese, an international study has revealed which of the most common 'crimes' against Italian cuisine are seen as most and least offensive.

Pasta with sauce on top and vegetables on the side.
The Italian food police are on their way. Photo: logan jeffrey on Unsplash

It turns out that putting cream in carbonara is not actually the worst thing you could do when holding a dinner party for Italian friends.

And, while not ideal, neither is snapping your spaghetti before cooking it, or even serving it as a side dish.

The many unwritten rules around eating and drinking in Italy are often baffling to foreigners, while Italians themselves are famous for raging against what they see as “disgusting” interpretations of classic dishes.

READ ALSO: Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

But in Italy, some of these food-related faux pas are viewed as far more upsetting than others, according to the results of a international study published by YouGov.

At the end of last year, researchers compiled a list of 19 ways in which foreigners are often accused of abusing Italian cuisine and asked people in 17 countries, including Italy, whether each was acceptable or unacceptable.

Of these, eight culinary practices were judged as being either fairly acceptable or divisive by Italian survey respondents.

Eating pizza at lunchtime instead of in the evening was deemed wrong by only a minority of Italians; while many also reserved judgement on people combining Bolognese sauce or ragù with spaghetti – which is famously not the done thing in Bologna.

Putting sauce on top of pasta, as opposed to serving the pasta coated in the sauce, meanwhile, was seen as mildly controversial.

However, the majority deemed 11 of the listed transgressions to be completely out of order, issuing a clear warning against certain habits which are widespread outside the country – and which, for the most part, were not seen as problematic by the majority of respondents in other countries surveyed.

Here’s the list of the very worst crimes against Italian food according to the study – ranked from the offences seen as deeply disturbing to those deemed slightly less terrible.

1. Putting ketchup on pasta – this was by far the most distressing item on the list according to Italians, scoring -82. It was one of only two food crimes on the list that Americans also deemed unacceptable (-48), with Spaniards similarly against (-46). However, in 11 countries people said this was perfectly fine, with Indonesians (+76) and Hong Kongers (+79) the most enthusiastic. People in Sweden also seem to enjoy pasta with ketchup, the survey found (+46).

2. Putting pasta in cold water and then boiling it – the results are clear with a score of -71: don’t do this in front of an Italian unless you want them to run screaming from the kitchen. Of course, you’re supposed to add the pasta to water that’s already gently boiling. Adding pasta to cold water was the most disdained practice around the world overall, including by Americans, with only Chinese (+16) and Hong Konger (+31) respondents more likely to be ok with it. 

3. Putting pineapple on pizza – there’s a reason you won’t see a Hawaiian listed on the menu in many pizzerias in Italy – it’s seen as the third-worst thing you could do to the national cuisine with a score of -63 .France isn’t keen either (-15) though Australia appears to have plenty of fans of fruity pizza toppings (+50).

4. Serving pasta as a side dish – think a mound of spaghetti would be a nice accompaniment to your grilled meat or fish? Think again if you’re in Italy, where the idea of having pasta as a contorno ranked as one of the worst possible food crimes with a score of -63. As all Italians know, pasta is served before the meat, fish or other main course, as a primo. No other country surveyed had a problem with this, though, and the French were especially big fans of pasta as a plat d’accompagnement.

5. Cutting long pasta with a knife while eating – the message is clear: don’t snap it, don’t cut it; you’ll need to learn how to twirl your spaghetti elegantly around your fork if you want to be invited back to an Italian home for dinner. This habit is another one people in the country apparently find disturbing, with a score of -46.

6. Putting cream in carbonara sauce – perhaps surprisingly, this famous crime against Italian cuisine – which regularly provokes furious online outbursts and stern warnings from Italian chefs – came in at only 6th place with a score of -45. As any Italian will tell you, there’s no need for cream in the authentic recipe.

7. Topping seafood pasta with cheese – this rule may not seem obvious to non-Italians, but we don’t recommend asking for the grated parmesan after being served a steaming plate of spaghetti alle vongole. It’s a major faux pas in Italy, where it scored -39, while Americans gave a far more positive rating of +38.

8. Rinsing cooked pasta in cold water – while many people abroad may think they need to rinse boiled pasta, Italians wouldn’t do this. Instead, many recipes call for the starchy pasta water to be conserved and used to finish the sauce. While perhaps seen as more senseless than revolting, this practice scored -23 in Italy.

9. Drinking cappuccino after lunch – Long, milky coffees are for breakfast in Italy, and while the barista probably won’t refuse to make you a cappuccino at 3pm, be aware that this might cause confusion and could turn other customers’ stomachs, as Italians gave this habit a score of -23. That’s despite the rest of Europe being fine with the concept; it scored +65 in Spain, +62 in Germany and +53 in France.

10. Boiling pasta without salt – Italians will tell you that a pinch of salt is essential in the cooking water for pasta, and leaving it out is highly controversial, with a score -17. Meanwhile, the British don’t see a problem (+15).

11. Eating garlic bread with pasta – While the rest of the world may ask what could possibly be wrong with this, the concept of filling a baguette with garlic butter and baking it just doesn’t really exist in Italy – even if it does seem to exist in every Italian restaurant on the planet outside of the country itself. Americans are particularly enthusiastic about this combination (+83), as are Brits (+80) but Italians gave it the thumbs down with -14.

The results also showed that attitudes to some of the established food rules are shifting among young Italians.

The biggest difference comes with drinking cappuccino after a meal, something which 18-24 year-old Italians tend to think is fine (+24), but which older age groups – and especially the over 55s (-36) – say is unacceptable. 

READ ALSO: The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

Young Italians are also substantially more likely than their older peers to say that eating garlic bread with pasta or having risotto as a side dish is ok.

However, younger Italians seem to have turned against the practice of adding oil to the water when cooking pasta. Those aged 18-24 and 25-34 tend to consider this unacceptable, whereas their elders tend to see it as fine, the survey found.