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Beginner,  Helpful Tips,  Pasta

12 Tips for Cooking Pasta

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If you’ve tried your hand at making some spaghetti with unspectacular results, or you’re just generically afraid of the bright room with the stove and scary failure potentials; here are some tips to give you a solid footing and confidence in making and serving up pasta dishes you’ll be proud of.


Read Entire Recipe First

This helps you get the whole game plan in your head, and see whether or not you’re going to do any of the following: reserve some pasta water to put in the dish later; only partially cook the pasta; throw it all in with the other ingredients; or cook it in the water of a vegetable you just blanched.

Get a Food Scale

What is with the “12oz of dried pasta”? Are you going to supply me with a recipe that uses the dozen or so 1/4 full boxes of pasta in my cupboard? Because dang! And perish the thought I should have leftovers!

Anyway – letting go…

Meanwhile – throwing in the whole box might offset your sauce to pasta ratio so get out the food scale, put a paper plate on it, reset the tare and grab a few handfuls of pasta out of the box til you get 4 oz or whatever you should have left over after the recipe.

Cold Water

Hot tap water has impurities, organisms and mineral flavors you don’t want in your food or your body. It’s worth the wait!

Salt

Orecchiette with olive oil, ground turkey and fresh parsley!

Salt is instant flavor enhancement. Most pasta is as they say a “blank canvas”, which is why we don’t just gobble it up naked (the pasta). Salting the water elevates the ‘flavor profile’ those curious-haired chefs are always chatting about. Some chefs salt the eff out of their pasta water! (Obviously if you have high blood pressure you want to go light or skip it.)

Oil

Just a slight drizzle of extra virgin olive oil in your pasta water helps prevent pasta from sticking together. Essential for long pasta.

Have Water Ready

If I’m making an involved dish and have a burner open, I will first fill my pasta pot with water and set it on medium heat. Nothing is more frustrating than having a perfect dish all ready, and having to wait 20 minutes for a slow pot to boil and cook.

Stir Immediately

Linguini with tuna puttanesca sauce - olives, caers, tomatoes and garlic!

Pasta needs a stir as soon as it goes in, and then again in 60-90 seconds. Long pasta needs a lot of stirring up front. Small pasta like ditalini will form a giant cake on the bottom of your pot if ignored.

Al dente

The only way to serve it. Nobody likes mushy pasta except babies and seagulls. You might as well just save the time and rinse off a can of Spaghetti-O’s and add it to your dish. I know – gross. Exactly!

For me it’s a color thing. Yellow isn’t done. White is too done. When it reaches that perfect shade in between (ecru?) I’ll check it. After you’ve made pasta a bunch of times you’ll know by sight when it’s ready. Cooking times on boxes are helpful, but every stove/location is different. Mine usually takes a minute or two longer than the box. Check it often once it’s not that dark yellow.

Those Cheap Bamboo Spoons

Are awesome for making pasta. You get the slotted spoons which are perfect for checking and tasting your pasta, and you get that spoon with all the tines on it for stirring, separating and serving your longer pastas. I don’t know why, really, but my favorite is the rectangular one with all the holes in it. #thuglife

Rinse or Not?

Depends. You’re not supposed to… (rinsing your pasta removes it’s starch, the invisible yumminess that causes sauces to adhere, making all life grand and sublime), but I occasionally do – to keep it from cooking further and becoming unpalatable.

If you have the time, room and patience; put some parchment on a cookie sheet, dry the pasta and spread it out in a single layer, letting it air cool. Then cover.

Basically, do what the recipe author says. If they say to rinse, it might mean it’s going to sit a while before going into the sauce.

Larger pasta like lasagna or shells sometimes gets an ice bath to prevent further cooking. This prevents your lasagna from becoming blouse art on all your dinner guests.

Farfalle pasta salad with cherry tomatoes, yellow bell pepper and chicken.

You are supposed to rinse your pasta if you are making a cold pasta salad! How are you supposed to remember this? I don’t know! How about “If it goes in the fridge – rinse it a smidge”? Make up your own damn saying!

Taste and Season

There are a lot of really great food bloggers out there with carefully crafted and tested recipes. On the flip side, there are novices and money whores who somehow get great google rankings. Look at the recipe. Are there lots of ingredients, but no herbs or spices? Probably gonna be bland. That one clove of garlic can’t work miracles…

Find a jar of pasta seasoning you like! Not one to drop name brands (or make money from it) but I can vouch for The Gourmet Collection “Pasta Herb Spice Blend”. The first three ingredients are red bell pepper, onion and basil. You can find them in the gourmet food section of places like Marshalls, TJ Maxx etc. We get it here in Florida at Tuesday Morning. If I spot potential blah-ness in a recipe, in it goes! Usually 1-2 tablespoons. I’m sure there are others out there. Optionally you can make a big batch of your own.

Salt & pepper grinders are super useful. Freshly ground black pepper is worlds more flavorful than the stuff in the can.

Mix it in?

Ever notice that the chefs and judges on The Food Network lose their shitakes if a contestant puts sauce on top of the pasta instead of mixing it in? I mean they lose it!

Well, if you mix it in and you’re single or it’s just the two of you, then your leftovers are going to be Boyardee. (I’m being kinda hard on the canned pasta, aren’t I?*)

Turkey ragu on top of cavatappi with southern green beans and bacon.

So mix together only what you’re going to eat tonight and keep the rest separate. Drizzle a little olive oil over the leftover pasta, stir it real good and store in a quart or gallon bag for 3-4 days in the fridge. Or just serve it on top like this.

Thanks for reading, good luck and happy cooking!

ps – all the pictures are of dishes I made in my messy kitchen!

* In their defense, I once served Chef Boyardee canned ravioli to a good friend from Lecce, Italy (times were hard). He loved it. LOVED. He said it tasted “just like home” and ate the whole giant-ass can. Go figure.

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