It’s a culinary staple in almost everyone’s home – as likely to be found in a Michelin-starred restaurant as it is in student digs – and quite possibly Italy’s greatest export after Sophia Loren. Its beauty is its simplicity, so why can’t the British cook pasta right?
We asked experts in the field to offer their top tips on how to get pasta right the Italian way. Stevie Parle is the celebrated chef-owner of several London eateries, and Diego Cardoso is Chef Director of Harry’s Dolce Vita in Knightsbridge. Here’s what they had to say…
You're making things far too complicated
Producing your own pasta from scratch can be very rewarding, but Cardoso suggests you stick to the four basic ingredients in pasta-making so as not to over-complicate things. All you need is flour, good eggs, salt and “great” olive oil. The chef specifies: “Get the best eggs you can find, as this will make a huge difference to the end product.”
Failing to knead the pasta for long enough
According to Cardoso, this is of paramount pasta importance. “Make sure you are prepared to knead for a good amount of time,” says the chef. “And knead until you have a smooth dough. It’s easy to just make a very wet dough, but the end result won’t have as good an ‘al-dente’ bite. Plus, it will be hard to stretch thinly if it is still too wet.”
Not adding even a pinch of seasoning to the water
According to Cardoso, cooking pasta in water that had not been seasoned at all — even with a pinch of salt — will result in a very bland pasta, as it “basically washes off all seasoning”. Stevie Parle also agrees: “Remember, you don’t eat all the salt, but you need a fair amount to season the pasta as it cooks.”
Throwing away your pasta water like an amateur
“Pasta cooking water is full of starch and it’s the secret to making a wonderfully silky pasta,” reveals Parle. Cardoso, too, sings the praises of the starchy water. “If the pasta is going straight into a sauce,” he adds, “drain the water but reserve a little. This water will have flavour, so if you find that your pasta dish is a little dry, you can add some of this water back in.”
Over-cooking pasta until it's a sorry soft mess
Not only will over-cooking your pasta render it stodgy and horrible, Stevie Parle says that it will also leave you feeling more bloated after eating. If you want to make sure it’s cooked, follow Diego Cardoso’s advice: “Fish out one piece of pasta to check, and just bite through it. It should just have a small white dot in middle”. Don’t forget, also, that fresh pasta cooks incredibly quickly.
Adding oil in the pan
If you’re putting oil in your pan, stop now. Otherwise you’ll have Stevie Parle to deal with. “It’s hard to grind my gears,” says the chef, “but why, oh-why, oh-why would anyone think that putting a teaspoon of olive oil to bob around at the top of your pan of boiling pasta will stop it sticking together?!”
Putting the sauce on the top
“Mix it in,” says Parle. “Look at everything carefully, add a little cooking water, some butter or olive oil, maybe some Parmesan. Make your pasta silky and smooth not stodgy and lumpy.” The chef adds that using a larger pan will help here — and don’t forget another generous pinch of salt.
Over-complicating the sauce
Parle also reminds us “there aren’t any rules, there are some traditions, which I’m happy to ignore, but it is true that some pasta goes better with some sauces.
“You want a pasta that will be coated nicely,” he adds. “Spaghetti, for example, isn’t actually that good with a meat sauce, as you often end up with a bowl of sauce after you’ve eaten the pasta. However, it is perfect with a wide pasta like pappardelle, where sauce and pasta sit perfectly together.”
Cardoso, however, suggest you first try eschewing a sauce altogether. The best way to enjoy and appreciate the pasta in his eyes is simply — with a drizzle of great olive oil, grated parmesan and lots of freshly cracked black pepper.
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