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February 12, 2006

The Ten Commandments of Dry Pasta


Dominic Armato
Time to lay down some ground rules.

I post a lot of pasta recipes. Mostly beacause I cook a lot of pasta. But there are so many basic pasta rules that this becomes problematic. The basic rules are usually three times longer than the actual recipes themselves, so including them is a little ridiculous. But they're so, so important. Pastas are so minimal and simple that the tiniest little details in preparation make all the difference between a decent pasta and a great pasta. As such, I feel as though not adding them to a recipe is a great disservice. Enter the hyperlink.

Here, I post the Ten Commandments of Dry Pasta, passed down to me by the culinary gods. All of my future pasta recipes will link back to this page. And while you are encouraged to always refer to the commandments, I am sure it won't be long before you have taken these words into your heart and allowed them to rule your pasta preparation.

Italian pasta come in two primary forms, fresh and dry. Those who insist that one is superior are blasphemers. Both types are equally worthy, and the nature of the dish will determine which is more appropriate, but for now we'll focus on the dry. So, when it comes to cooking dry pasta, take heed of these commandments, for it is only through them that you will attain pasta salvation.

I - Thou Shalt Use Quality Ingredients
Of course, this is an important rule for any recipe, but it's three times as important for pasta. Good pasta is all about freshness and simplicity -- any pasta containing more than four ingredients beyond the pasta itself is a complex one. As such, all of the flavors are magnified. If those flavors are superb, your pasta will be superb. If those flavors are mediocre, your pasta will be mediocre. And this commandment extends to the most basic ingredients. Use only high-quality extra virgin olive oil, such as Raineri Silver. When using canned tomatoes, use only high-quality tomatoes, preferably Italian San Marzano tomatoes, such as Carmelina tomatoes. Even when salting your pasta water, use sea salt. And trying to use Prince spaghetti will earn you time in purgatory, so don't even go there.

II - Thou Shalt Not Fear Olive Oil
Some recipes will seem to call for an exceptionally large amount of olive oil. It isn't a typo. A quarter cup for a pound of pasta is entirely normal. One of the most common mistakes people make is not using enough olive oil. Provided you have a good quality oil (see Commandment I, above), using the proper amount will impart a richness and brightness that cannot be achieved any other way, and will be sorely missed if this commandment is ignored.

III - Thou Shalt Not Make Thine Own Dry Pasta
In Italy, you have pasta fresca (fresh pasta) and pasta secca (dry pasta), and a common misconception is that the latter is achieved by setting the former out to dry. But they're fundamentally different products utilizing different ingredients and different techniques. Fresh pasta is easy to make and at its best when you do it yourself. Dry pasta, however, is best left to pasta factories. Making dry semolina pasta with a good bite requires industrial machinery. It absolutely cannot be done by hand, and even home "pasta machines" do a horrible job. Home-extruded pasta is an abomination before the culinary gods.

IV - Thou Shalt Use Ample Water
There are those who insist you should use just barely enough water to cook your pasta. Those people are wrong. For starters, you want to give your pasta plenty of room to swim around so that it cooks evenly and does not clump. Secondly, you want the water to stay as hot as possible, so the more water you have, the less it cools when you add the pasta. The only exception to this commandment is if your stove is not strong enough to keep a large pot of water at a good boil. In this case, use as much water as you can while maintaining a strong, rolling boil.

V - Thou Shalt Salt Liberally
The whole flavor vs. temperature debate is neverending, and I've waffled on the issue myself. However, what is beyond question is that adding a pinch of salt to a big pot of water does absolutely nothing. Use a big ol' fistful. My opinion? It's all about flavor. Yeah, it raises the boiling point of the water, but not enough to have any kind of measurable effect on cooking the pasta. But while it may not cook any faster or be any firmer, pasta is undeniably tastier when it's a little salty. As a small side note, while salt in the pasta water is favored by the culinary gods, olive oil is not! It will keep the pasta from sticking, yes, but it will also keep your sauce from sticking to your pasta. Olive oil in the pasta water is a pact with the devil. To avoid sticking, a good stir immediately after adding the pasta to the water and another about a minute later is all that is needed.

VI - Thou Shalt Not Break The Pasta
I have absolutely no logical reason why. I just know you don't do it. You don't do it. It's a cardinal sin. If your pasta doesn't fit in your pot... well... get a bigger pot.

VII - Thou Shalt Not Drain The Pasta Dry
When pasta cooks, the water gets nice and starchy. This starchy water acts as a thickener, finishing your sauce. So, when draining your pasta, don't shake it vigorously and let it sit so that it completely drains. You want it to still be a little drippy when you combine it with the sauce. Give it a quick drain, maybe a quick toss or two, and get it right in the sauce. What's more, it's generally a good idea to grab a cup of the water and set it aside before draining the pasta. Then, as you combine the pasta and sauce, if the sauce hasn't quite thickened up just right, a few tablespoons of the water will usually do the trick.

VIII - Thou Shalt Not Overcook The Pasta
Nothing makes the culinary gods cry like overcooked pasta. Pasta needs to be al dente. It needs to have bite. It needs to have substance. It should be just barely cooked through, without the slightest hint of softness on the outside. If you think you don't like pasta al dente, give it a chance. Cook it al dente a few times, and you'll soon understand why. The culinary gods will rejoice, and you and your children and your children's children shall know the joy of al dente. To best achieve the joy of al dente, ignore the package directions. In my experience, the recommended times almost always make for overcooked pasta, and sometimes frightfully so. Once five or six minutes have passed, you just have to keep testing until it's ready. Unfortunately, the only way to know when it's "ready" is if you've had it cooked correctly and have a basis of comparison. Explaining the right texture is difficult, but here's the best I can suggest. Try cooking some spaghetti. If you pull out a strand after five minutes, you'll note that the outside yields to the teeth, but there's still a hard core which you can probably even see if you look. Keep checking every minute thereafter. As soon as you can bite through a strand without sensing a sudden, noticeable change between the outer layer and the core, make a mental note... that's moments shy of al dente, and that's when it should be pulled to finish in the sauce.

IX - Thou Shalt Finish The Pasta In The Sauce
This is one of the most important of the ten, and one that is so rarely done. You want to pull your pasta when it's almost but not quite finished, and then immediately add it to your sauce over low heat. You then want to toss your pasta and sauce and cook them together for the last minute or so. This gives the pasta a chance to absorb a little bit of the sauce, and more fully integates the two. It's a small thing that makes a huge, huge difference.

X - Thou Shalt Not Make The Pasta Wait
Ideally, you want your sauce and pasta to both be ready at exactly the same time. It takes practice. But if one of them is going to sit, it is imperative that it is not the pasta. Most sauces can sit for a bit without being harmed much, if at all. But if the pasta sits, even for a minute, it will suffer, and significantly so. It will get cold, it will get gummy, and it won't achieve the magical fusion that results when it goes straight from the water to the sauce.

These are the Ten Commandments Of Dry Pasta. Know them. Heed them well, and you shall be rewarded. So say the culinary gods.

Comments

Hey, It's again me, Giulio, the Amatriciana's guy. I've just finished to read your Pasta's comandaments and I cannot extempt to say that they are ABOSOLUTELY true! You should print some leafsheets and distribute them in the subway stations!
You look like a professional cook and you're surprisingly rightly informed about Italian stuff: have you got some Italian parental ties (as I guess from your family name) or you have just studied very well?

Hey, Giulio!

Nah, not a pro... just an enthused amateur who's been to Italy eight or nine times and cooks a lot of pasta :-)

Wow, your pasta commandments line up with everything that my sister (who has now lived in Italy for 25 years) has taught me.
I do have a theory about why you shouldn't break the long spaghetti and linguine: If you do, then you don't have the length to properly roll it up on your fork. (I asked my sister and she said, "It would never occur to me to break it. It totally confuses me. How would you eat the pasta if you broke it? Only an American would ask that question".
By the way, how about some words of wisdom about "short" vs "long" pasta- which to choose for which sauce? According to my sister it is complicated. You have to take it on a sauce by sauce basis. Each sauce has a type of pasta. For example a hot, spicy tomato sauce would go with orecchietti. The basic theory is that pastas that "hold the sauce" (like conchiglie, rigatoni, penne) go with meaty or vegtable (mushroom or whatever) sauces because the "nooks and crannies" hold the more textured sauce. The simple, smooth, thin, tomato sauce goes with spaghetti or linguine. Seafoods like mussels, shrimp and clams also go with spaghetti (which may seem counterintuitive) but it makes perfect sense because the seafood actually get eaten separately.
Kaethe, (my sister) says: "I can't imagine putting oil in the water. I can't imagine eating a thick vegtable sauce with spaghetti. My kids wouldn't eat pasta if the water was not properly salted, and you can't just add salt after cooking to try to correct it. I could go on forever. I'm glad this fellow is straightening out the Americans".
Thanks!
Becky

Hey, Becky...

Well, it's good to hear I'm not blowing smoke!

As for appropriate pasta shapes, I dunno. Even though I know there are logical reasons to use certain pastas for certain sauces, I kind of feel like that's something that should be governed less by rules and more by instinct. I like thinking up a sauce and then mulling over which pasta just FEELS right :-)

Hey there,

I referenced this excellent post on my blog. http://thegourmetpiggy.blogspot.com/2008/12/cooking-dry-pasta-mtk-pt-v.html

Nice work.

Dom, any advice on major pasta brands?

Hello i'm from Italy and can't avoid giving you my compliments for this job. Not only it is funny and easy to read through, but it's aslo correct. All the stuff you write here in Italy is done by kids just by instinct, but I had curious experiences with pasta abroad, including good restaurants... this is something everyone should read, and you sometimes should write 10 commandments for sauces also, such as explaining that Tomato Sauce is different from Tomato Ketchup. Cheers ;)

Hey Dom, thought you might find this article interesting...

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/25/dining/25curi.html


Putting sea salt into pasta water is a waste. In his excellent book, 'What Einstein Told His Cook', Robert Wolke used science to explain when the minerals in sea salt can be used to improve cooking. If the salt is soluble in water, then use regular or Kosher salt. For adding to dry ingredients (like topping a dish), use sea salt.

Try it sometime. Do a blind taste test where you add salt to water and try to determine if it's sea salt or regular salt. I guarantee you won't be able to tell. But use sea salt to top a baked potato or some cooked (dry) beans, and you will see the difference compared to regular salt.

"Putting sea salt into pasta water is a waste. In his excellent book, 'What Einstein Told His Cook', Robert Wolke used science to explain when the minerals in sea salt can be used to improve cooking. If the salt is soluble in water, then use regular or Kosher salt. For adding to dry ingredients (like topping a dish), use sea salt."

Agreed. There's no difference with Kosher. But what I was trying to get across above (poorly) was to avoid iodized salt.

Hey Dominic! Wow! I didn't know you have such enthusiasm on food:) I only know you from Guybrush :P These are great tips on pasta. I haven't yet tasted any real good pasta dish here in Vancouver that can compare with those I used to eat in Italy:( If you know any good restaurants in Vancouver, BC area please list them up ^_^ (btw, I'm the girl who drew you on my sketchbook at PAX Seattle if you still remember)

I believe the pasta-sauce pairings were included in the other five commandments. Alas, they're lost to history now.

Love the list, other then the comment about sea salt in pasta water.
You will never taste the difference between table salt and sea salt in your boiling water. It's just salted water. I keep a general bulk salt around for such occasions, and then garnish with high quality salt flakes. Like this salt taste so good you can (and will) eat it straight from the container. Much better to save money where it dosent matter as much and invest it where it will.
I use a similar rule with olive oil. High temperatures kill flavour in olive oil. Why use your best stuff then? For cooking bring out your cheaper olive oils and reserve the best of the best for garnishing and cold applications.
Use quality ingredients but don't be wasteful. Your not helping your food or your budget.

Ian... as mentioned above, agreed. What I was (poorly, apparently) trying to get across was to avoid iodized salt.

I don't know if this falls under heresy, but a friend taught me a new trick that works beautifully and had me wondering why I never tried this before.

This is kind of an offshoot of reserving the pasta water - instead of just a few tablespoons for the sauce, I reserve an entire jar (26-oz) from each batch... and use it to cook the next batch of pasta. Each successive jar of reserve gets slightly starchier and saltier. At some point, you reach a proper equilibrium, but I honestly have no idea where that is.

Sanitation note: warm (140 degree) water full of starch is perfect for bacterial growth. Treat it as if it were a canning operation - sanitize (that is, boil) the jar's lid and then cap immediately after pouring the water in. Just be careful not to burn yourself.

IG... That is REALLY interesting. You always hear about how using the pasta water at home just isn't like using it at a restaurant because you don't cook enough to get it all goopy.

I may have to try this.

How much liquid should I use when I cook a recipe using dry pasta?

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