Ten golden rules for cooking pasta like the Italians, from an artisan pasta maker

A very good way to lose friends in Italy is to mess with pasta. Fiddling with the tried and trusted Italian methods can also affect the taste of the dish, but many foreigners don't even realise their technique is unorthodox.

Ten golden rules for cooking pasta like the Italians, from an artisan pasta maker
Are you sure you're cooking your pasta properly? Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Food writer and artisan pasta writer Silvana Lanzetta shares her golden rules for perfect pasta with The Local, to ensure you end up with a delicious meal cooked to al dente perfection.

Browsing the internet, you come across many opinions on the best way to cook pasta.

I've seen everything: soaking dry pasta for a hours to give the impression of eating fresh pasta; toasting pasta in the oven before boiling it; cooking it in a frying pan without boiling the water first; and the passive method, consisting of boiling the pasta for the first couple of minutes, then switching the heat off to finish the cooking by soaking it in the hot water.

Usually, all these methods are followed by a string of comments from indignant Italian people, who cannot stand the butchering of their beloved food.

A typical comment from an Italian distressed at an unorthodox recipe.

But why do we get so upset? After all, 'it’s just pasta', they say in their defence.

The fact is that all of these fancy methods affect the pasta in ways that many cannot even imagine, and some of them are even potentially dangerous to health.

For instance, soaking the pasta and the practice of not cooking the pasta in boiling water prevent the gelatinization of the starches, which is an essential process if we want to make our pasta digestible.

And toasting the pasta destroys the lysine and all the B vitamins which pasta is so rich in. For the passive method, you need to use a lot of water- about five litres- to keep it hot enough for gelatinization to happen.

But if you want to eat a plate of delicious pasta al dente, the way Italians enjoy it every lunchtime, then you have to learn how to cook pasta like an Italian.

So here are ten golden rules for cooking the perfect pasta al dente.

Silvana Lanzetta is a food writer and artisan pasta maker. Photo: Private

1) Never add oil to your water 

The oil separates and floats on the top of the water, and won’t keep your pasta from sticking together. Also, when you drain the pasta, the oil will coat preventing the sauce from sticking to it. The only way to avoid having blobs of pasta sticking together is to use a lot of water. This way, the starches will disperse in the water and won’t act as glue. You will need one litre of water for every 100 grams of dry pasta.

2) Bring the water to boil

If you want pasta al dente, then boiling the water is essential, as the pasta has to be in contact with the water as little as possible. Another important aspect is that boiling water will gelatinize the starches contained in the pasta, making it digestible.

Wait until you see bubbles. Photo: Pete/Flickr

3) Add salt only once the water is boiling

If you add the salt to cold water, it will delay the time it takes for the water to reach boiling point. However, when added to the boiling water, the salt will raise its temperature: the water is now as hot as possible.

4) Never simmer

Keep the temperature high on boiling. It will cook the pasta quicker, and it’s the only way to achieve pasta al dente. As soon as you lower the heat to simmer, you’ll end up with mushy pasta.

READ ALSO: Don't be put off by their names – these Italian foods are actually delicious

5) Don’t break spaghetti or other long pasta

The length is important. When you wind the spaghetti around the fork, it will help you catch the sauce more efficiently. Put your spaghetti together in the boiling water, then gently push them down.

Freshly made tagliatelle. Photo: Timothy Vollmer/Flickr

6) The only way is to bite.

To check whether the pasta is cooked, flicking it at the wall and waiting for it to stick is pointless. You just end up with a messy wall.

Other pointless methods include touching the pasta or breaking it to check whether the colour inside is uniform. The only way to be sure is to bite it. The pasta should be soft enough to bite without feeling a crunch, but still quite hard. If you want the pasta al dente, look at the section of the bit pasta. In the middle, you should be able to see a thin segment that is paler than the rest. That is called Punto Verde (green point) in Italian and indicates that the pasta is al dente. Once it is gone, the pasta is no longer al dente.

7) Don’t rinse it

Before you drain the pasta, you might want to reserve some of its cooking water, in case your sauce is too dense. Drain the pasta, but never rinse it: you want to keep the starches on its surface, to help the sauce stick to it. Also, you don’t want to stop the cooking process, which continues until the pasta is plated.

READ ALSO: Nine Italian summer delicacies you simply have to taste

8) Have your (large) pot of sauce ready 

Put the pasta into your cooked sauce, turn on the heat, and sauté for a couple of minutes. If your sauce is too thick, then add some of the reserved cooking water, which has plenty of starch, enriches the sauce, and makes it stick to the pasta.

Photo: Simon Law/Flickr

9) Serve immediately

Pasta is best served hot and freshly cooked. You can enhance the flavour of your dish by adding grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano, or chopped fresh herbs such as basil or parsley. Pasta is traditionally eaten by itself, not as a side for meat or fish. This is to enjoy the delicate harmony of flavours in full. Meat or fish are served afterwards with a side of vegetables.

10) Make a new dish out of your leftovers

Don’t reheat your leftover pasta: microwave or pan, it will still taste awful. Instead, make another dish out of it. In Italy, leftover pasta is usually baked with other ingredients, such as cured meat, mozzarella, boiled eggs, and vegetables, to make what’s called a pasticcio (literally meaning 'a mess'!), or mixed with eggs and transformed into a sort of tortilla pasta, called frittata di maccheroni.

If you follow these guidelines, you will have the best pasta of your life and will make Italians proud!

NOW READ: How to spot the good quality gelato in Italy – and how to suss out the fakesHow to spot good quality gelato in Italy - and how to suss out the fakes
Photo: Alexandra E Rust/Flickr


Member comments

  1. Si, si, except for rule number 5, which was invented by someone who never eats alone. Making pasta for myself became a delight when I finally broke down and broke my linguine in half. Maybe you can tell the difference, but I’ve been eating linguine for 70 years, and I can’t.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Why Friday the 13th isn’t an unlucky date in Italy

Unlucky for some, but not for Italians. Here's why today's date isn't a cause for concern in Italy - but Friday the 17th is.

Why Friday the 13th isn't an unlucky date in Italy

When Friday the 13th rolls around, many of us from English-speaking countries might reconsider any risky plans. And it’s not exactly a popular date for weddings in much of the western world.

But if you’re in Italy, you don’t need to worry about it.

There’s no shortage of strongly-held superstitions in Italian culture, particularly in the south. But the idea of Friday the 13th being an inauspicious date is not among them.

Though the ‘unlucky 13’ concept is not unknown in Italy – likely thanks to the influence of American film and TV – here the number is in fact usually seen as good luck, if anything.

The number 17, however, is viewed with suspicion and Friday the 17th instead is seen as the unlucky date to beware of.

Just as some Western airlines avoid including the 13th row on planes, you might find number 17 omitted on Italian planes, street numbering, hotel floors, and so on – so even if you’re not the superstitious type, it’s handy to be aware of.

The reason for this is thought to be because in Roman numerals the number 17 (XVII) is an anagram of the Latin word VIXI, meaning ‘I have lived’: the use of the past tense apparently suggests death, and therefore bad luck. It’s less clear what’s so inauspicious about Friday.

So don’t be surprised if, next time Friday 17th rolls around, you notice some Italian shops and offices closed per scaramanzia’.

But why then does 13 often have a positive connotation in Italy instead?

You may not be too surprised to learn that it’s because of football.

Ever heard of Totocalcio? It’s a football pools betting system in which players long tried to predict the results of 13 different matches.

There were triumphant calls of ho fatto tredici! – ‘I’ve done thirteen’ – among those who got them all right. The popular expression soon became used in other contexts to mean ‘I hit the jackpot’ or ‘that was a stroke of luck!’

From 2004, the number of games included in Totocalcio rose to 14, but you may still hear winners shout ‘ho fatto tredici’ regardless.

Other common Italian superstitions include touching iron (not wood) for good luck, not toasting with water, and never pouring wine with your left hand.