Cooking 101: Putting Your Best Pasta on the Plate

Cooking 101: Putting Your Best Pasta on the Plate

Cooking doesn’t get much easier than dropping pasta in boiling water, right? Well, yes, if adequate attention is paid to details. Otherwise, the resulting product can be mushy and under-flavored instead of chewy and flavorsome. Your mouth will appreciate the difference.

“I like a good semolina pasta,” says Shawn Doyle, chef and owner of Savory Grille, where all pastas are made in house. “It makes a difference in flavor and the amount of protein. And it’s a very firm pasta that will hold up to water and to sauces.” Although he recommends crafting homemade pasta, there are occasions when the home cook just wants to grab a fast box of curvaceous cavatappi or fusilli. In that case, avoid generic brands of pasta – which deliver less texture and protein – in favor of imported Italian products that incorporate durum wheat semolina. Look for De Cecco or Barilla, both of which are widely available, or track down harder-to-find Afeltra or Setaro pasta.

If making fresh pasta at home, Doyle warns against putting salt in the dough. “It’s going to firm it up, but it’ll fight you when you roll or extrude it,” he says. (Salting the cooking water allows the salt to be fully absorbed into the pasta for a properly seasoned taste.) To add color and taste to pasta, this chef relies on powdered vegetables, such as red beets, carrots, and spinach – and also herbs. Although some pasta recipes specify adding chopped fresh parsley, dill, or other options to the dough, he eschews these “flecks” because they “create a void where the pasta can’t stick to itself.” Powdered products are available commercially, but do-it-yourselfers can dehydrate and grind their own. The powder replaces a proportionate amount of flour used in the recipe. 

Before the pasta hits the water, get the proportions right: Cooking 1 pound of pasta requires 4 to 5 quarts water, preferably in an 8-quart pot. (Using insufficient water promotes stickiness.) Bring the water to a rolling boil, add 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons salt – Doyle’s preference is kosher or sea salt – and let it return to a full boil. Toss in the pasta and stir for the first minute or two to prevent clumping. For commercial pasta, cook about 1 minute less than specified on the package for al dente – “to the tooth” – results. For casseroles or other dishes that require further cooking, reduce the time by 2 to 3 minutes.

When draining the pasta, be sure to reserve some of the cooking water. The starchy liquid is ideal for stirring into sauces, from Bolognese to pesto, because it can simultaneously dilute and thicken. And it serves as the key ingredient in creating cacio e pepe – a quick and amazingly comforting rustic dish. Never rinse the pasta after draining as this removes the starch that helps to give clinging power to sauces. In this instance, being “clingy” is a deliciously positive attribute. 

Basic Homemade Pasta

8 oz. all-purpose flour
6 eggs
1 1/2 tsp. olive oil
1 T whole milk

Incorporate all ingredients in a food processor. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured cutting board or clean table and knead for several minutes until a tight ball that is firm but pliable forms. Wrap dough in plastic wrap and allow to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Roll the dough through a pasta machine until desired thickness is achieved. Pasta in sheet form may be used to make ravioli or cut into whatever shape is desired, from narrow strands of capellini to wider fettuccine or broad pappardelle noodles. Cooking time varies by the thickness of the pasta, though fresh pasta takes much less time than dried varieties to achieve al dente firmness. So don’t walk away from the stove, and keep taste testing for just-right toothsome texture. Serve with your favorite sauce.

Yields 1 pound
Recipe courtesy of Savory Grille

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