How to cook pasta when you already know how to cook pasta
You know how to cook pasta. I’m teaching my grandma to suck eggs. Except, do you know how much water to cook your pasta in?
I bet it varies depending on the size of the pot that’s nearest the front of the cupboard. In fact, you need a litre of water for every 100g of pasta and a deep saucepan. Even if it’s just pasta for you to eat sloppily in front of The Sinner. Before you roll your eyes and think I’m fussing over nothing, here’s why these details are important- you want your pasta to cook evenly. Pasta is very simple, which is it’s great strength. We enjoy it because it’s satisfying in every combination, it can be served with nothing but olive oil or mixed with the swankiest of ingredients. As it’s something that we come back to again and again, it would be nice if we could produce a plate of it reliably. Without knowing about the water, and the pan and the salt (I’m coming to that) then you’re likely to be eating variable pasta, unpredictable pasta, pasta as inconsistent as Nicolas Cage’s acting.
Sometimes it’s too hard, sometimes it’s gloopy and sometimes you fall upon the exact right conditions and…BAM! It’s perfect, separated, salty, with a slight bite. Wouldn’t it be nice not to eat Nicolas Cage pasta? Not to play Russian roulette every time you make spaghetti?
There’s no magic to it really. You need the right information, that’s all.
Why bother discussing such a simple task when we have the internet. Good question. Except, have you looked up how to cook pasta? There are a million websites offering their solutions. Many of them give similar information but in differing amounts of detail or with slight variations. After a quick scan of the links proffered by Google, you’ll pick one that sounds straightforward from a recognisable site that seems professional and you’ll read their instructions. Next time you want to cook pasta, you will go through the whole rigmarole (which should be a type of pasta, perhaps it is in Italy) again. Except, can you remember which site you decided on? Not at all. You’ll follow slightly different instructions and we’re back to our Goldilocksian search for evenly cooked pasta.
This is why our Grandparents had recipe cards or one dogeared copy of The Good Housekeeping Cookbook. When it comes to cooking, the internet is endlessly helpful. But its puppylike desire to serve up recipes and tips and tools and photos is a terrible match for our forgetfulness, our laziness and our love of novelty. I don’t own any cookbooks anymore, more than likely you own one of the classics- Delia, Nigella, Martha- but haven’t bought one for a while. I find all of my recipes online, on my phone usually, stood over the hob scrolling foolhardishly with oily hands. I try them once, love them and then never find them again. If there’s an app to save recipes on your phone, like a virtual recipe card box, please let me know.
I’m saving you the trouble of downloading an app, or reading through five different recipes that you can never find again. There are only five main things to remember: pan, water, salt, time, magic last step. As I said above, choose a deep pan so that your pasta has room to move around. Then use the Italian ratio of 1 litre of water for every 100g of pasta (or 30 oz of water for every 3 oz of pasta if you stubbornly refuse to use the much easier metric system). The water needs to be at a rolling boil before you put the pasta in. There’s good reason for this- you want your pasta to cook evenly. At a rolling boil, the water will be hot enough to mitigate the newly added cold pasta and begin to cook it uniformly.
For the salt, the recommended ratio is 10g for every 100g of pasta (1/3 oz for 3 oz). Or you can use the much more poetic Italian guideline ‘salato come il mare’ that means ‘as salty as the sea’. Either way, it’s more salt than you think. It will seem like too much salt, but the idea is that the pasta needs this much so that it can absorb some of it and add to the flavour of your dish. The cooking time is where you need to be strict. Use the instructions on the packaging for your specific pasta but cook it two minutes less than they recommend. Here you can precariously use your phone to set a timer, leaving oily fingerprints on the screen. Especially if you plan on mixing the pasta in with the sauce. If you just want to drain it, chuck it on a plate, pour oil on it and dig in, then by all means stick to the instructions as given. Otherwise, shave two minutes off. Your pasta will continue to cook and soften as you mix it with your sauce so you need to undercook it slightly to ensure the final result is al dente not a sticky mess.
Now for the magic last step. If you are combining pasta with sauce, which I personally prefer, then add a cup of the salted pasta water into the final mix. The salt and starch from the water will help to thicken your sauce and bring the whole thing together. Reduce it down quickly, in just a minute or two, and you’re done.
It’s not complicated. It is worth the trouble, for reliable pasta.
You probably knew all of this at some point, you just can’t find the right link to remind you of it. Maybe bookmark this one. Or print it off and start a recipe box. There are some good ones on Etsy, or your Grandparents might pass theirs on to you.
P.S: If you’re looking for a new pasta recipe to try, I recently found this one on Pickles & Honey and loved it. And here is a great list of pasta cookbooks from Serious Eats, if you do want to go old school.