Pasta preparation, cooking and serving tips from the pros

There are so many different possible pasta recipes it might seem impossible to provide general guidelines.

But all good pasta recipes have a few things in common.

Pasta preparation tips from the pros

The most obvious is to start with fresh pasta

That could be homemade, certainly. Making your own pasta at home is easy and inexpensive. After a little practice, the results are often as good as anything you can get at the store, even in the 'upscale' or specialty section. But there are also many good pastas on the market and modern technology has radically improved the way food is kept fresh.

Pick a pasta that suits your needs

That sounds obvious, and it should be. But if you need a large ribbon of lasagna, don't just do with a narrower fettuccine. If you need a jumbo shell to house a stuffing, don't settle for medium conchiglie. Manicotti is perfect for a lot of those stuffed vegetable dishes where a large penne won't do.

Apart from geometry, you have to consider what kind of pasta will be best from another perspective. All pasta is made from wheat and eggs, but not all wheat types nor eggs are the same.

Durum wheat is the most common. But your recipe may call for a more specialized pasta. You may need a pasta made strictly from organic eggs, for a richer yolk. Sometimes, that requires making your own pasta at home.

Some pastas have a better ability to retain starch that allows good clinging by sauce. That's a combination of both geometry, ingredients in the pasta and manner of cooking. You need to consider all three factors to get the best effect.

Be careful about cooking time

In years past it was common to boil the heck out of pasta until it was just a bunch of, shall we say, limp noodles. While you want to avoid leaving the interior crunchy, it's also true that overcooked pasta is bland and less effective.

Cooking to an 'al dente' level, in which the pasta is firm, yet neither undercooked nor soft, is generally preferred. That brings out the pasta taste, at the same time leaving enough physical sturdiness to do the job of holding meats. It also leaves enough starch intact to let the sauce cling well.

How long is 'long enough' varies enormously from recipe to recipe. Thick spaghetti may take as long as six to eight minutes, while vermicelli will often be overdone at just four. Just be sure to keep enough water in the pot to allow for ample room for the pasta to move around. You want even heating and no sticking together. Adding oil to prevent the latter may not fit with your recipe and can cause starches to be less effective.

Timing is everything

Apart from total cooking time, the moment at which the dish is finalized and served affects the final result. Alla Carbonara requires careful timing to get the eggs cooked just right by the still-hot pasta. Some cold pasta dishes can wilt if they sit in the refrigerator too long. Plan out ahead what needs to be done when before you crack an egg or turn on the oven.

Great pasta dishes, like any fine art, are not created by accident. But with a little research and forethought you can be the equal of many professional chef.

Pasta cooking tips from the pros

Nothing should be simpler than cooking pasta. After all, it's just a matter of heating some water to a boil and tossing a wheat and egg-based product into a pot for a few minutes, right? But within this seemingly simple operation lies many potential pitfalls.

To avoid them, though, requires nothing more than a little thought and planning followed by some careful execution.

Start fresh

That much should be obvious. Fresh food tastes better, provides better nutrition and makes for a nicer presentation. But how do you tell when pasta is no longer fresh, since it doesn't show mold readily nor wilt? The date on the package is a clue. Tasting a sample of it raw is another route. The surest method is to make it yourself, which isn't difficult.

Give it room

Providing plenty of water for the pasta to move around in a pot is a good idea. That way it receives even heating, doesn't stick together and retains plenty of the starch that helps sauces stick.

Some will 'cheat' and break spaghetti in half. But that makes rolling it up on the fork more difficult. Alternatively, rather than having half of it stick out of the water for two minutes, where it doesn't heat at the same time as the rest, just get a bigger pan.

Don't go halfway...

To save a few minutes, you could always parboil the pasta. This, not surprisingly, is a matter of controversy among chefs. Parboiling is partial cooking by boiling for a brief period. Then, when the moment you need to add the pasta arrives, it can be cooked the rest of the way in a shorter time. Professional restaurants do this in order to serve a plate of spaghetti (that would normally take six to eight minutes just to cook) in two minutes.

But surely you can spare an extra few minutes to avoid the downside of parboiling. It pre-softens the glutens, then sits while they relax. More boiling usually turns the pasta to mush. It's very tricky to get it just right. If you don't need to serve twenty people in a hurry, there's usually no need for parboiling.

...unless you must

If you must, add a pound of pasta to a pot of boiling water and return to a boil. Then cook for two minutes exactly, drain and rinse with icy water. Add a little olive oil to a container, add the spaghetti and stir, then refrigerate until you're ready for the final boil later.

When you're ready, take the softened pasta and cook it in boiling water for one to two minutes, then drain in a colander. If it's done just right, the pasta will be tasty and ready for sauce.

Experiment

The best tip for aspiring cooks, though, is a surprisingly simple one: experiment. Professional cooks do this all the time. Sometimes their experiments are tried on customers, sometimes they're reserved for friends or just themselves. But no one improves without practice. Every artist has to practice his or her craft to test new ideas.

Pasta serving tips from the pros

If you pay careful attention when you enjoy an evening at a fine restaurant, you'll discover there is more to the meal than simply a well-made dish. Presentation counts for a lot.

Yes, you can see the fine table cloth and the waiters are properly attentive while not pestering you. But focus for a moment on the pasta dishes themselves. They too are equally well thought out to provide a superior dining experience.

For example, take something as simple as a plate of spaghetti. Sure, you can just plop a bunch of long, thin, boiled pasta onto a flat piece of ceramic. It's possible to just dollop out some red goop, then chow down. But it isn't pretentious to give a little more care to presenting even such a simple dish.

A more bowl-like plate makes for a nice table setting, while at the same time offering a bit more functional eating. It's much easier to wind a fork around those long strands when you're not wrestling to keep them on the plate. In the other direction, having them in a plate rather than a bowl makes the dish look like a recipe, not just a quick lunch for the kids.

Notice what goes on top of the dish. Is it just lathered with sauce? Not usually. Even the simple, traditional parsley sprig gives some elegance to the meal. The sauce is often sprinkled with basil, delicately festooned with Parmesan or decorated with a freshly ground black or white pepper. True, these are flavor enhancers. But don't they also add to a look that makes the difference between boring and boffo?

Observe, too, what goes around the dish not just in it or on top of it. Even the lowly breadstick adds a touch of design while giving another taste sensation that enhances the pasta.

Pairing with the proper wine is a must. Though some in the past may have gone overboard on strictness about having just THIS wine go with only THAT dish, giving some thought to the matter is beneficial. There's a reason a traditional red goes well with a heavy ragu, but a Gewürztraminer would not. Conversely, you could serve a heavy Spanish port with that delicate clam-sauce covered linguine. But why fight against nature?

Lastly, don't forget about ambiance. Scented candles can interfere with the wonderful odor of that well-prepared dish. But there's a reason that candlelight often helps set the proper mood. Lowering the light stimulation allows for increased concentration on the odor of the pasta dish.

Eating a fine meal is a visual and odor experience as well as one of taste. Paying attention to all the elements will maximize the enjoyment for both diners and the chef who gets praised for them.


A brief history of pasta

Pasta shapes, the long and the short of it

Basic dictionary of pasta shapes

How to make homemade pasta

Homemade pasta machines

Pasta and your favorite wines