Italian

10 Pasta Tips We Learned from Cookbooks

Tips that'll have you making pasta like a pro. 

Italians eat pasta almost every day—sometimes, twice a day. And they're onto something. Spaghetti, penne, orecchiette, fusilli, farfalle, linguine, tagliatelle: There's no noodling around. Pasta is pretty perfect.  

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But even pasta—the Hail Mary pass of weeknight dinners and easiest comfort food in the books—can be finnicky. Let it cook too long, and pasta goes from al dente to al mushy; don't salt your water and end up with paste-tasting noodles. Pasta problems call for cookbooks, of course—and in some we found techniques that'll change the way you sauce, season, and cook.

Here are 10 pasta tips from cookbooks that are anything but impastable:

Tip: Salt your water like you mean it.
Urban Italian by Andrew Carmellini

“Now, I’ve heard all the kinds of arguments, pro and con, about the medical implications of salt. I’m no doctor, but I am a specialist in flavor, and I can tell you for sure that if you don't salt your water, your pasta will taste like plain wet cardboard. Salt is what gives food that elusive quality known as 'taste': It brings out the sweetness in carrots and the acidity in tomatoes. Me, I’d rather skip that bag of chips or those movie-theater nachos and salt my pasta water instead."

How to: Salt your pasta water aggressively—really. It should taste like the sea.

 

Tip: Embrace the freeze.
The Scarpetta Cookbook by Scott Conant

“I always freeze my fresh pasta before cook it. I know that sounds sacrilegious, but freezing actually makes fresh pasta cook up better. When submerged in simmering water, the frozen-fresh pasta does not absorb as much liquid as would just-made pasta. It holds its shape without expanding so much that it becomes flabby, and its flavor does not become diluted with excess water.”

How to: For fresh pasta like spaghetti and tagliatelle, portion it “into nests by wrapping around your hand” (Conant suggests 4-ounce portions). Dust the nests with a litte flour, place on a baking sheet, freeze until hard, and then transfer to a freezer bag or airtight container where it will keep, frozen, for up to 1 month. 

 

Tip: Give your ragu lots and lots (and lots) of time.
The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan

“There are three essential points you must remember to make a successful ragu:

  • The meat must be sautéed just barely long enough to lose its raw color. It must not brown or it will lose its delicacy.
  • It must be cooked in milk before the tomatoes are added. This keeps the meat creamier and sweeter.
  • It must cook at the merest simmer for a long, long time. The minimum is 3 1/2 hours; 5 is better.”

How to: Take your favorite ragu recipe and apply Marcella’s tips. A 1/2 cup of milk is the right amount for 3/4 pound ground beef and 2 cups canned Italian tomatoes. Steve with tagliatelle, tortellini, rigatoni, conchiiglie, ziti, or rotelle.

 

Tip: Pasta sauce can be whey cool.
Genius Recipes by Kristen Miglore 

The sauce has only two components: thick yogurt and starchy, salty pasta cooking water, which together create the soothing texture of alfredo sauce, lightened up with yogurt’s tang. But it won’t taste austere, especially once you garnish with caramelized onions and Pecorino to balance out the sweetness and salt.” 

How to: You're in luck—here’s the recipe. If you’re looking to shake things up, Kristen suggests blending the sauce with tahini or mint or adding greens—like spinach—to the pasta’s water as it finishes boiling.

 

Tip: For better lasagna, make meatballs.
Family Table by Michael Romano and Karen Stabiner

“Homemade meatballs, made from a mix of beef, pork, and veal, then cooked and sliced, provide more flavor and texture than mere ground beef.” 

How to: Start with your favorite lasagna and meatball recipes. Make the meatballs—slicing them into 1/4-inch thick slices after they’ve finished cooking. Layer the sliced meatballs in the lasagna as you would meat sauce and bake everything as usual. 

 

Tip: Cooking perfect pasta is a two-step process.
Franny’s by Andrew Feinberg, Francine Stephens, and Melissa Clark  

“Step 1 is to undercook the pasta by about 2 minutes. This ensures that the pasta maintains an essential spine of chewiness. Step 2 is to finish cooking the noodles in the sauce, which, ideally, you’ve just simmered together in a skillet on another burner. Finishing the pasta in the sauce gives the noodles a chance to meld with and absorb all the good flavors in the pan. It makes for a deeper-tasting dish in which all the ingredients are wedded into a well-balanced whole.”

How to: Do as described above, letting the pasta cook in the sauce for 1 to 3 minutes. If the pan is looking dry, add a splash or two of plain water (not the pasta’s cooking water, as this could make everything too salty). 

 

Tip: Make pasta for one and cook it like risotto.
Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys by David Tanis 

“It’s a bit like Spanish fideos, in which pasta is cooked like risotto and the broth is added in small increments. My version is rather soupy and littered with vegetables. I boil the pasta until it’s half-done and cook the vegetables until they’re half done, then combine them and finish the cooking with a small amount of pasta water.”

How to: Tanis suggests using a short pasta like orecchiette or pennette. Start some vegetables (chopped zucchini, artichokes, beans, etc.) in a skillet with a bit of olive oil, onion, garlic, tomato, and pancetta if you’d like. When both the pasta and vegetables are half-way cooked, add the pasta to the skillet with a ladleful of the pasta’s water and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the pasta’s al dente and the vegetables are cooked how you like them. Pour into a bowl and eat with a spoon. 

 

Tip: Go nuts with fresh pasta—literally.
Crazy Good Italian by Mike Isabella

“Using nut pastes in pasta dough adds a really interesting depth of flavor, especially when you toss it with complementary sauces and herbs.”

How to: Use a tablespoon of nut paste in your pasta dough (this can be added along with the egg yolks). Isabella makes pistachio pasta dough with pistachio paste, cuts it into fettucine, and pairs the pasta with lamb ragu, feta, and mint. 

 

Tip: Don’t let vegetables ruin your ravioli.
Mastering Pasta by Marc Vetri and David Joachim

“You don’t see too many ravioli with raw vegetables inside. The vegetables would leak too much water. There’s the rub with vegetables: they’re 70 to 95 percent water. I usually roast, sweat, or somehow cook them first, before mixing them with herbs and seasonings. If you puree the vegetables, keep the filling firm by mixing in some bread crumbs, cheese, or bread soaked in milk. Even so, it’s a good idea to freeze vegetable ravioli right after you assemble them. Quick freezing will stop the liquid from seeping into the dough.

How to: Do as Vetri says above. Don’t be afraid of the vegetable ravioli—you’ve got them beet. 

 

Tip: Toast your black pepper, toast it real good.
Saveur: The New Classics Cookbook by the editors of Saveur magazine

“Merely sprinkling preground black pepper over the finished pasta won’t come close to achieving the desired flavor in a classic sauce. Instead, crush whole black peppercorns in a mortar and pestle or grind them on the coarsest setting in a spice grinder. Then ‘toast’ the cracked pepper by frying it in the olive oil you’ll be using for the pasta sauce, heating it until it smells very fragrant.”

How to: Whether it’s Cacio e Pepe, Primavera, or Carbonara, toast your peppercorns. It’ll add an extra depth and the “uh-huh” flavor the preground stuff sorely lacks. 

Have a favorite pasta tip? Tell us in the comments below!

Photos by James Ransom, Sarah Coates, Posie Harwood, and Bobbi Lin 

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19 Comments

Avira T. December 7, 2017
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ZOBX September 14, 2015
Lucky duck you. Don't miss Bolgna, Pio Cesare's brother's restaurant...drink the wine served in pitchers, it's the best and never leaves the country those smart Italians! Oh, Milano , the mortadella from the outdoor markets at the park across from La Scala, just google "milano24ore.net" for the excitement at the opera house while you're there, the duomo, great food, gorgeous buildings. Then there's always Florence, the Medicis gardens, Ponte Vecchio, black truffles, the flea markets...it takes several trips. Next we want to visit Sicily. Oh just thought, CinqueTerres. I gotta' go back. Have a FABU time, eat eat eat! Walk walk walk! ZZ
 
ZOBX September 14, 2015
heatheranne...make it a point to visit Italy and eat what they offer in different regions...no spaghetti & meatballs...pasta is so important and yummy and different from that served in U.S. regardless. Or, eat pesto from each town/city you visit. I tried that one trip...what a treat, all pesto, all different. Or, better yet, we had individual cheese pizzas in the hills of Peruga, they were served with huge handful of fresh arugula...I discovered arugula that night, 1994, in Peruga, and every other town/city for 3 additional years of travel to Italy when I ordered pizza I requested arugula...no one else had arugula for my pizza, purely regional I learned. ZZ
 
heatheranne September 14, 2015
How opportune. I leave for Italy this week! <br />The food I get at my in-laws is most definitely not Italian-American fare. The pasta is so tasty and she serves lots of traditional Northern Italian fare - polenta, baccala etc. I can't wait to go and eat for 10 days!
 
tamater S. September 14, 2015
Very interesting tips. But I'm wondering about the Marcella Hazan tip: "..cook at the merest simmer for a long, long time. The minimum is 3 1/2 hours; 5 is better.” - wonder if it could be done in a crock pot, on the low setting. Why not, eh? I'm gonna try that.
 
tamater S. October 3, 2015
Yup, it works well. From now on, my crock pot is the go-to m.o.
 
thelastmike September 13, 2015
Here's a tip I discovered myself and is along the weeknight/time-saving/one-pot meal line. <br />Frozen vegetables and small dried pasta ( I like broccoli simple elbows actually), water over the pasta to the first knuckle on your index finger (ala rice). Salt. Lid on pot. Heat on. <br />Note the water is cold and indeed the veggies are frozen lowering the temp more still. So the pasta won't stick together immediately as this is a function of starch release that is temperature induced. So you have to stir it several minutes in when the heat has begun to build in the water as this in when the pasta will want to stick all together. <br />Once it comes to a strong simmer/light boil I take the lid off. By the time the pasta is cooked the water is all but completely absorbed. Perhaps just a little to drain. <br />The water that is there will be extremely starchy and so readily mix with whatever you like to make nice sauce. <br />
 
HalfPint September 10, 2015
Love these tips. I disagree about salting pasta water, though. Yes, pasta water should be salted, but it does not need to taste like the sea. I've always salted until it tastes like my sweat (I know "ewww" but my pasta always tastes perfectly seasoned). I once salted my pasta water to taste like the sea and OMG, was it salty. So salty, I could not eat the pasta and had to throw it out. That was the last time I did that.
 
CaffeineSpasms September 8, 2016
I'm with you on that. I eyeball it every time and it always tastes great. Some people just don't salt their water though!
 
Andrea September 10, 2015
I am Italian ( and chef) , lived in Rome till 2 years ago, and yes, we eat pasta everyday :) Not joking, and I also can tell you guys that in the real ragout recipe there is nor canned nor fresh tomatoes but just concentrate tomato paste. Actually ragout color should be orange-ish not red. Absolutely I agree with the first tip, I was shocked watching chef cooking pasta in plain water, an Italian can instantly recognize if salt wasn't added. And what it's really unacceptable for italians ( especially from Rome like me) it's the cream in the carbonara :(
 
Marylouise S. September 9, 2015
To the poster who said her in-laws are Italian and they only eat pasta once a week...are they Italian-American or Italians who live in Italy? My experience has been that Italians in Italy DO eat pasta once a day (I've spent a lot of time in Italy and my parents lived there for 3 years). Italian-Americans...maybe once a week (or more in my case!)
 
heatheranne September 10, 2015
Interesting. They were born and raised in Italy, but emigrated to Canada in the 50s/early 60s. I'm sure their eating habits have been shaped in some way by that. My FIL is also Northern Italian so they eat a lot of polenta. Maybe that takes the place of pasta at many meals.
 
Aditi September 9, 2015
One recipe I found quite interesting was cooking pasta until 3-4 minutes before it's done, adding it to a basic tomato sauce, adding milk at the same time, then finishing cooking the pasta. The logic was that the pasta not only absorbs flavor from the sauce but also releases starch that makes the tomato-milk sauce creamy without needing to add cheese. I think this was from one of the Moosewood cookbooks.
 
cv September 8, 2015
The two most important pasta tips in Italy:<br /><br />1.) Pasta should not sit. People wait for pasta, not the other way around. Italians accomplish this easily because pasta is small starter course; it reaches the table in prime condition and is consumed at its peak. Pasta in Italy is not a gargantuan mountain of noodles as the main course.<br /><br />2.) There should be no leftover pasta if you cook it the old school Italian way. The portions for a "primi" starter course are small, basically 2-3 ounces. One eats a little bit of pasta, not a lot.<br /><br />Here in America, people tend to make enormous portions of pasta as a main course which leads to leftover and hence bizarre leftover pasta pies, cakes, galettes, and other monstrosities that would be given speechless stares by Italians.<br /><br />There's nothing wrong with making too much fresh pasta: just freeze what you aren't going to serve immediately. The key is not to cook excessive amounts of pasta in the first place.
 
Smaug September 8, 2015
To most of this stuff, i merely say "meh". To Marcella, who I generally trust implicitly- for years, I faithfully cooked Ragus for hours, though I really couldn't see what was improving. I finally abandoned it; I cook the meat for a long time in milk, then wine, finally adding whatever liquid can be gleaned from the tomatoes (depending if they're fresh or canned), but I reserve the tomato pulp to the very end.
 
Smaug September 8, 2015
About as true as you'd expect from a generalization about 60 million people.
 
heatheranne September 9, 2015
Well, yes. I was just curious about others experiences as I held that stereotype and was surprised when I discovered how little pasta figured into their eating habits.
 
heatheranne September 8, 2015
I don't really have a tip to share, as I'm still learning the pasta ropes myself, but I was curious about the comment that kicked it all off - that Italians eat pasta every day or more. How true is that? My in-laws are Italian and they eat it once a week - to start off Sunday lunch. They might have it one other time for lunch if they need something quick, but it's certainly not all the time.
 
beejay45 October 18, 2015
I think they're referring to Italians in Italy, where most do eat it every day -- at least the ones I know. ;) Italians in other countries incorporate other cuisines into their diets, just as any other immigrant group does, so that changes things a lot.