Italian cuisine is versatile, and nothing illustrates that better than pasta. You may think of pasta noodles as simple shapes made with flour and water, but they're actually miracles of engineering designed to complement the viscosity of different sauces and create a perfect pairing of textures in every bite. Smooth shapes are designed for use with thicker sauces because they leave more sauce on the plate. Complex shapes with ridges and dimples grab a hold of thinner sauces for a more balanced mouthful.
These simple tips will help you make perfect pasta every time:
- Use plenty of water -- Water promotes even cooking and less clumping. Plan on boiling around six quarts of unsalted water for every pound of pasta you're preparing. This will require a large pot and some time, so get the water going before you prep the other ingredients. If the water boils before you're ready to throw the pasta in, put a lid on the pot and reduce the heat to a simmer. Bringing the water back up to a boil when you're ready should only take a couple of minutes.
- Add salt -- Pasta usually tastes better with a little added salt, and the best time to introduce salt to the dish is while the pasta's cooking. When you see cooks on television add an enormous amount of salt to their pasta water, it's because only a small portion of the salt, about 10 percent, is actually absorbed.
- Don't cook pasta too long -- Perfectly cooked pasta will still have a firm mouth feel - chewy, not crunchy. Overcooked pasta tastes soggy and looks limp. Bloated, overcooked pasta will ruin the most carefully prepared sauce. The most foolproof way to determine the best cooking time for a specific pasta variety is to read and follow the package directions.
- Rinse with caution -- If you're serving cooked pasta immediately, don't rinse it. The extra starch will help thicken and enrich your sauce. The only times you should consider rinsing fresh cooked pasta is if you're serving a dish cold, or need to hold the pasta a while before serving time. In both instances, rinsing pasta in cold water will stop the cooking process and help reduce clumping.
- Consider buying fresh -- Dried pasta tastes good, but it takes a while to rehydrate. If you choose pasta from the refrigerated section of your market, you'll cut your prep time by more than half. You can also take advantage of pasta varieties like ravioli and tortellini that have the meat (or cheese) cunningly wrapped inside, saving you the extra step of adding protein to the meal.
These Italian pasta dishes are some of the best we've tried. They'll get your taste buds in an uproar: