Italian

Mario Batali's 6 Essential Tools for Cooking Pasta

October  8, 2014

As home cooks, we rely on our instincts, our knowledge, and our curiosities -- but we also have to rely on our tools. Which is why we're asking the experts about the essential tools we need to make our favorite foods attainable in our own kitchens.

Today: Italian cooking expert and restaurant mogul Mario Batali, whose latest book is America Farm to Table: Simple, Delicious Recipes Celebrating Local Farmers, shares the six tools he turns to for making a perfect bowl of pasta.  

When you taste perfectly cooked and dressed pasta, you instantly understand why Italy is such a great place to eat. Italian cooking and eating is well-conceived and well-executed, but it doesn't have to be confined to Italy. With the proper tools, the pastas of Bologna are not hard to replicate in almost any kitchen.

  

Italians like their pasta al dente -- that is, toothsome -- and just barely sauced. The secret to great pasta is the balance between the pasta and the condiment. Try holding back on the sauce, and let the deliciousness of the noodle sing. 

Here are the six tools you need to make pasta the Italian way: 

1. Large pasta pot
The most common mistake I see home cooks make is not using enough water or using a pot that’s too small. Don’t crowd the pasta -- give it room to move and dance as it cooks! For a pound of pasta, I boil about 6 quarts of water.

  

2. Salt
The pasta cooking water should be well-salted -- it should taste like the sea. Adding salt to the water adds flavor to the pasta. I use two teaspoons of salt per quart of water. While the pasta is cooking it absorbs the salt, which adds flavor to the end dish.  

More: Give your salt a nice little home in this California-made salt cellar.

3. Tongs and a spider
Many home cooks use a colander to drain pasta. That’s perfectly fine, but I prefer tongs and a spider. They’re quick and efficient and versatile -- use them to take the pasta straight from the pot to the sauté pan, to toss the pasta in the sauté pan, and then, of course, to plate. This technique also leaves all of the pasta water in place so that you can use it in the final mixing of the pasta with the condiment.   

4. Sauté pan
For most recipes, it’s important to finish the pasta cooking process in a sauté pan. It binds the pasta to the condiment. I use a 12- to 14-inch sauté pan for a pound of pasta.

  

5. Ladle
I always add a ladle-full (about 3 ounces) of pasta cooking water straight to the sauté pan. The starchy pasta water will help the noodle adhere to the sauce, will loosen a thick sauce, and will create a generally beautiful consistency. All pasta should be dressed like a salad -- that is to say, not over-dressed. By using pasta water, you are able to work with the ratios to keep the pasta lightly-dressed.

  

6. Olive oil
There are very few dishes in the Italian kitchen that don’t benefit from a light drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil at the end -- pasta is no exception. After you take the perfectly sauced pasta off the heat, add 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil per pound and toss one more time before plating.  

Photo of Mario by Kelly Campbell; book cover photo by Lara Cerri; all other photos by James Ransom

9 Comments

Francesca September 28, 2015
Just a humble home cook here but the salt/pasta/water ration seems way off to me. If you use 6 quarts per pound of pasta and 2 teaspoons per quart of water, you'd be using 12 teaspoons of salt. That seems outrages to me. And yes, while some does remain in the rater when you drain it (colander or otherwise) it's still an awful lot of salt. This sentiment that it must taste like seawater is unheard of in Italy….<br />
 
audrey M. February 24, 2016
http://www.epicurious.com/archive/blogs/editor/2014/02/golden-rule-for-pasta-how-much-salt-in-pasta-water-recipe-and-tips.html Many other xperts agree with him!<br />
 
Bev B. May 18, 2015
Trying to find the name of some type of draining spoon? About 3" wide and 4" long with a handle. Almost round, flat bottomed with circular ridges and holes around the base of the ridges. Each side is serated. Can you help?
 
paseo October 8, 2014
I am with Jonakocht - less water=more starch in the water (I don't pour into a colander either). I am usually cooking less than a lb of pasta and got tired of waiting for that much water to come to a boil so started using much less years ago. Works really well and don't salt as heavily either. I know Batali is an expert but other ways work well too.
 
jonakocht October 8, 2014
"Rules" #1 and #2 have both been debunked (check out Serious Eats, among others). As long as the pasta stays submerged it'll cook just fine, and if you salt your pasta water to sea levels (3.5% salt) it'll be inedible.
 
Giuseppe F. October 9, 2014
wiki is not The Bible, 3,5%? no way. 10 times less: correct!<br />I've just reviewed the page,<br />regards
 
lazychef October 8, 2014
This is a ridiculously juvenile question, but what pasta:sauce proportions do you generally shoot for? That is to say, about how many cups of sauce are ideal for a pound of pasta? I know it varies by sauce/pasta type, but I have a tendency to over- or under-sauce my pasta and am always frustrated because I'm never quite sure how much sauce to shoot for.
 
Pegeen October 9, 2014
lazychef, there is no precise formula, because there are so many different types of sauces. You need to just use your senses of look and taste. <br /><br />Add some sauce to the cooked, drained pasta, swirl it in, taste some sauced pasta. Always better to start with adding less sauce rather than more, as you can always add more, but trying to thin out the flavor after the fact generally involves cooking more pasta and adding it to dilute. Too much work.
 
Pegeen October 9, 2014
p.s. Once you have done it several times, and the taste is to your liking, you'll be able to do it by eye. Note that the amounts of sauce change depending on the sauce and type of pasta you're using. So harking back to the rule of thumb: start by adding a little sauce, taste. Add more to taste. Always easier to add more rather than to try to reduce a flavor.