You probably think boiling water and putting pasta in the pot is easy peasy. You think I’m crazy for even writing about something so basic that even the worst of cooks can handle it. That’s what I thought, too…until I met my in-laws, who live in southern Italy. Actually, even boiling the pasta is an art over there. None of us – even the best trained Italian Americans among us – know what we’re talking about. Here’s what I have learned:
1. FILL THE POT
Fill the pot with water, leaving at least two inches clear at the top of the pot. Put the pot on the stove and turn up the gas (or electric) to the highest setting. On my LG stove, it’s “SuperBoil.” Make sure you are using a big enough pot for the amount and type of pasta you are boiling. For instance, long pasta, such as linguine or spaghetti, need a wide pot, so you can get the whole pasta into the pot at the same time. When you use a tall, narrow pot for spaghetti, the top of the spaghetti might not get into the pot at the same time, and it will be harder than the other half. Or you’ll end up breaking the pasta into smaller pieces, which defeats the purpose of serving spaghetti over, say, shorter penne. Of course, if you’re boiling an entire pound of pasta, you need a big enough pot, so the pasta doesn’t all clump together and fail to cook evenly. But you know this stuff already, right?
2. THROW SALT
Do NOT put salt in the water at the start. Be patient. See, already the Italians are getting tricky. When the water begins to boil, generously add salt. Italians tend to use a thick sea salt And they are still pretty generous. My husband insists on bringing salt (both fine and doppio) from Italy to use in our American kitchen. He says American salt is never enough, nor does it provide any taste. I don’t know about all that. I often use plain, ol’ American-purchased salt with similar results to his, but this is how seriously he and his people take the process.
3. STIR THE POT
That’s right, Italians encourage people to stir the pot (usually both literally and figuratively). They’re that kind of people. That’s what we love about them. Every so often, you must stir the pot, so the pasta doesn’t get sticky or attach itself to the pot’s bottom.
4. COOK UNTIL AL DENTE
Italians will laugh at you if you overcook the pasta. And 99.9 percent of the time when Americans boil pasta, they overcook it. There should still be a little bite to it. Pasta should never be soft, nor should it break in half when stabbed by a fork. You want it to be al dente. It should be cooked but still somewhat firm. Don’t throw it against a wall to check. Just take a bite. If it’s a tubular pasta, make sure the boiling water is not sitting in the tube before you bite into it. Otherwise, you will burn your tongue. Trust me, I know. Fresh pasta or gnocchi is a little different; in that case, you boil the pasta until it rises to the surface of the water.
5. STRAIN THE PASTA THE RIGHT WAY
That’s right, there’s a right way and a wrong way to strain pasta. Most Americans throw the pasta and water in a colander and let all that starchy goodness slip down the drain of the kitchen sink. Italians will stand by and cry foul if they ever witness this atrocity. Trust me, I know this, too. Use a slotted or colander spoon to move the pasta from the pot of water to the pot of sauce, which should be on top of a low flame. Then, you should take a regular spoon and add between 1/4 cup and 1/2 cup of starchy pasta water into the pot with the sauce and pasta. This will thin out the sauce and coat the pasta, so the sauce better adheres to it. Now, you’re ready to serve it. Bet you learned a thing or two, right?
Di Meglio has written the Our Paesani column for ItaliansRus.com since 2003. You can follow the Italian Mamma on Facebook or Twitter @ItalianMamma10. For more handmade crafts and party gear, visit the Italian Mamma store on Etsy.