10 golden rules to cook pasta like an Italian

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Silvana Lanzetta

Food writer and artisan pasta maker

Do we really need rules to boil some pasta? We definitely do, if we want our pasta to taste exactly the way we enjoyed it in Italy. Learn the 10 easy golden rules that will allow to always cook the pasta like an Italian.

Browsing the internet, you come across many opinions on the best way to cook pasta.

I’ve seen everything: soaking dry pasta for a hours to give the impression of eating fresh pasta; toasting pasta in the oven before boiling it; cooking it in a frying pan without boiling the water first; and the passive method, consisting of boiling the pasta for the first couple of minutes, then switching the heat off to finish the cooking by soaking it in the hot water (which, when it’s done correctly, gives a good result).

Usually, all these methods are followed by a string of comments from indignant Italian people, who cannot stand the butchering of their beloved food.

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But why do we get so upset? After all, ‘it’s just pasta’, they say in their defence.

The fact is that all of these fancy methods affect the pasta in ways that many cannot even imagine, and some of them are even potentially dangerous to health.

For instance, soaking the pasta and the practice of not cooking the pasta in boiling water favour the gelatinization of the starches, which is something we really want to avoid if we want our pasta to be digestible.

And toasting the pasta destroys the lysine and all the B vitamins which pasta is so rich in. For the passive method, you need to use a lot of water- about five litres- to keep it hot enough to avoid gelatinization.

But if you want to eat a plate of delicious pasta al dente, the way Italians enjoy it every lunchtime, then you have to learn how to cook pasta like an Italian.

So here are ten golden rules for cooking the perfect pasta al dente.

“If you want the pasta al dente, look at the section of the bit pasta. In the middle, you should be able to see a thin segment that is paler than the rest. That is called Punto Verde (green point) in Italian and indicates that the pasta is al dente. Once it is gone, the pasta is no longer al dente.”

1) Never add oil to your water 

The oil separates and floats on the top of the water, and won’t keep your pasta from sticking together. Also, when you drain the pasta, the oil will coat it, preventing the sauce from sticking to it. The only way to avoid having blobs of pasta sticking together is to use a lot of water. This way, the starches will disperse in the water and won’t act as glue. You will need one litre of water for every 100 grams of dry pasta.

2) Bring the water to boil

If you want pasta al dente, then boiling the water is essential, as the pasta has to be in contact with the water as little as possible. Another important aspect is that boiling water will prevent the starches contained in the pasta from gelatinize, making it more digestible.

boiling water

Add the salt when the water is boiling.

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Using a small post is the best option to ensure your pasta will stick together.

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Everytime you break the spaghetti an Italian cook cries.

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Lowering the heat to simmer will end up with mushy pasta.

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don’t rinse your pasta

3) Add salt only once the water is boiling

If you add the salt to cold water, it will delay the time it takes for the water to reach boiling point. However, when added to the boiling water, the salt will raise its temperature: the water is now as hot as possible.

4) Never simmer

Keep the temperature high on boiling. It will cook the pasta quicker, and it’s the only way to achieve pasta al dente. As soon as you lower the heat to simmer, you’ll end up with mushy pasta, which is harder to digest (always keep in kind our worst enemy here: gelatinization of starches).

5) Don’t break spaghetti or other long pasta

The length is important. When you wind the spaghetti around the fork, it will help you catch the sauce more efficiently. Fan your spaghetti in  pot of the boiling water, then gently push them down.

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Tasting the pasta is the only reliable way to check cooking.

6) The only way is to bite.

To check whether the pasta is cooked, flicking it at the wall and waiting for it to stick is pointless. You just end up with a messy wall.

Other pointless methods include touching the pasta or breaking it to check whether the colour inside is uniform. The only way to be sure is to bite it. The pasta should be soft enough to bite without feeling a crunch, but still quite hard. If you want the pasta al dente, look at the section of the bit pasta. In the middle, you should be able to see a thin segment that is paler than the rest. That is called Punto Verde (green point) in Italian and indicates that the pasta is al dente. Once it is gone, the pasta is no longer al dente.

7) Don’t rinse it

Before you drain the pasta, you might want to reserve some of its cooking water, in case your sauce is too dense. Drain the pasta, but never rinse it: you want to keep the starches on its surface, to help the sauce stick to it. Also, you don’t want to stop the cooking process, which continues until the pasta is plated.

8) Have your (large) pot of sauce ready

Put the pasta into your cooked sauce, turn on the heat, and sauté for a couple of minutes. If your sauce is too thick, then add some of the reserved cooking water – one or two tablespoons is plenty – which has plenty of starch, enriches the sauce, and makes it stick to the pasta

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9) Serve immediately

Pasta is best served hot and freshly cooked. You can enhance the flavour of your dish by adding grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano, or chopped fresh herbs such as basil or parsley. Pasta is traditionally eaten by itself, not as a side for meat or fish. This is to enjoy the delicate harmony of flavours in full. Meat or fish are served afterwards with a side of vegetables.

10) Make a new dish out of your leftovers

Don’t reheat your leftover pasta: microwave or pan, it will still taste awful. Instead, make another dish out of it. In Italy, leftover pasta is usually baked with other ingredients, such as cured meat, mozzarella, boiled eggs, and vegetables, to make what’s called a pasticcio (literally meaning ‘a mess’!), or mixed with eggs and transformed into a sort of tortilla pasta, called frittata di maccheroni.

If you follow these guidelines, you have definitely graduated in cooking pasta like an Italian: you will have the best pasta of your life and will make Italians proud!

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