A staple in almost every home’s pantry is spaghetti or some form of pasta that makes its way to the dinner table on a regular basis. Many of us take the time to focus on building the flavour and complexity of the accompanying sauce for our pasta of choice; however the pasta itself needs attention as well. Many food articles could be dedicated to achieving palate-pleasing goals in pasta sauces, but let us not forget about the substance of these dishes – the pasta noodle. Thus this blog entry will be focused on unraveling some myths and procedures in what seems to be one of the simplest tasks in the kitchen – boiling water and cooking pasta.
The first thing to examine is the dry pasta noodle and the transformation that takes place during the cooking process. The most obvious observation is that cooked pasta is larger in volume and flexible, compared to dry raw pasta. What makes this possible is the absorption of water during the boiling process. The cooking process of any food, no matter how simple it seems, needs to be analyzed because this is our chance of infusing flavour into the ingredients being cooked.
Everyone has heard of the process of salting water when boiling pasta, but why? Some believe it is to help the pasta from sticking or to help keep the water from boiling over; however the reason is to season the pasta and to increase the flavour. Pasta on its own is very bland, and combining bland cooked pasta with a sauce that you have perfected, will be a detriment to your finished dish. If the pasta water is salted liberally then the pasta will be absorbing salt-water, instead of just water, and thus your pasta dish will be seasoned from the inside out.
Another no-no is to add oil to your pasta water. This idea probably first came about to prevent the pasta noodles from sticking together, however it will affect your finished dish negatively. Oiled pasta water will help to keep your pasta from sticking together when cooking, but a film of oil will always be left on the drained noodles. This thin film of oil will inhibit the starchiness of the cooked pasta and then in turn lead to the accompanying sauce to not stick to or absorb into the noodles as much. When pasta is eaten you want the starchiness of the pasta to hold onto the sauce as much as possible, so that the dish will be able to be enjoyed to the fullest. That being said, drained cooked pasta should not be oiled for the same reason.
A better way to help prevent your pasta noodles from sticking together during the cooking process is to stir the noodles constantly for the first two minutes of cooking time. By that point the water will have returned to its full-boil action and the agitation of the bubbling water will keep the pasta moving and prevent it from sticking.
There are many ways that people use to determine that pasta is cooked to perfection – including the old wives’ tale about throwing it against the wall, and if it sticks, it’s done. The best way is to let your mouth do the talking. Carefully remove a strand or piece of pasta from the boiling water. After waiting a few seconds to cool down, take a bite. It should feel ‘el dente’, meaning ‘to the tooth’ in Italian. This relates to the feeling that the pasta should not be overcooked and offer some resistance when biting into it. It should not be hard, but should not be too soft and mushy either. The package of the pasta you purchase will always offer a guideline cooking time, but your bite will always give you the right answer.
Once the pasta has been drained, do not rinse it. Rinsing will cool the pasta down and also wash away some of the starchiness that we want to help secure the sauce to the noodles. Once drained thoroughly, immediately toss the cooked pasta with the sauce. This will keep the pasta strands from sticking to each other, and will start the absorption process of the sauce into the pasta - yes, pasta absorbs flavours from the sauce even if the pasta is already cooked. Think of leftover homemade chicken noodle soup: If it is left in the fridge overnight, the pasta noodles are huge and there is much less broth. Thus this is proof that pasta noodles will continue to absorb flavours after cooking, and we always want the pasta noodles to taste like the sauce anyway.
Homemade “spaghetti” is a very common dish in many households, and whether you use spaghetti, linguine, or other types of noodles, I hope these few simple recommendations help to make your meal more enjoyable and flavourful. You can also watch my YouTube video on this topic by clicking this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFDIQpvO_T8
Until next time... Happy Cooking!