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Ask an Italian: How do you sauce pasta properly?

Cooking pasta and sauce sounds simple enough - how could you go wrong? You might be surprised.

Ask an Italian: How do you sauce pasta properly?
Photo: Roberto Serra/Eatalian with Roberto

If you want your pasta dish to taste as good as those served in your favourite restaurants in Italy, then there are some tips and tricks to be aware of.

You probably already know that your pasta should be cooked al dente, but mistakes are often made when adding the sauce.

READ ALSO: The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

“Saucing pasta is not a hard task, but it requires knowing some mandatory steps, and the things to be avoided,” says Italian food writer Roberto Serra.

“It is something that most Italians can do quite well since it’s part of our culture, but of course pasta is not a worldwide thing.”

If you’re keen to do things the authentic way, here Roberto shares his advice for saucing your pasta as it would be done in Italy.

Get the sauce ready first

“The first thing you have to do right: get the sauce ready before the pasta is. This is important, because pasta does not like to wait! 

With a few exceptions, like cacio e pepe or carbonara, which are express preparations, the sauce can be prepared in advance. 

I actually recommend stocking up on some sauces in the freezer, for last minute Italian dinners: bolognese ragù and pesto genovese are perfect for this.”

Pesto genovese. Photo: Caroline Attwood/Unsplash

Cook the pasta al dente

“Many people may ask: what do you mean by al dente (literally: “to the tooth”)? There’s an easy answer, and a more advanced one.

The easy answer is: just read the instructions on the pasta packaging, they always tell you how many minutes are required to cook it properly. My advice is to remove the pasta from water two minutes earlier than the packaging instructions say.

READ ALSO: The ten ‘unbreakable’ rules for making real Italian pasta alla carbonara

The more complicated answer is: when you get skilled enough, you’ll just taste the pasta and you’ll know when it’s not undercooked but actually al dente and needs to be removed from the water. My advice is to use the previous method and train yourself to taste the pasta when you remove it, so that you’ll soon be able to just taste it – like Italians do 

Why is it important to cook the pasta al dente? Because this allows you to execute the next steps properly and get perfect pasta.”

In the pan

“The easiest way to move the pasta from the pot to the pan is with a colander. I use it to drain the pasta water, but only after having saved a mug of it. 

Pasta water is rich in starch, and this is an incredible asset for all your pasta recipes.

When the pasta is in the colander, drop it into the pan where you have prepared the sauce. 

It is very important that you don’t rinse the pasta with tap water! This is something that I have read in forums, but it is definitely a mistake, since it will wash away the starch from the pasta’s surface. The starch is your best ally to make the sauce cling to the pasta.

When the pasta is in the pan, mix it with the sauce. Now you need a few minutes until the pasta is completely cooked and the sauce correctly sticks to it. 

Consider that if you stopped boiling the pasta two minutes earlier than expected, it will take about 4-5 minutes in the pan. 

During this time, you slowly add the amount of pasta water that is required to make it gently cook. The heat should be medium-high.

Add pasta water and olive oil (not cream)

“Another trick is to add some fat, usually extra-virgin olive oil (EVO), so that starch combines (emulsifies) with it, and the sauce will cling perfectly to the pasta. 

This tip is super important when the sauce is a very low-fat one, e.g. a simple tomato and basil.

It is also very important when the sauce is veggie-based or with large chops of fish or prawns, since it is the proper way to create an emulsion that will make the pasta stick. 

Pasta alla gricia. Photo: Luca Nebuloni/Wikimedia Commons

Another typical mistake seen in inauthentic Italian food is the use of milk cream (aka heavy cream). 

Apart from a few recipes in which cream is a key component (e.g. penne alla vodka, or tortellini alla panna), it is usually an easy and quick trick to create a thick sauce, but the taste of the ingredients will be flattened by the cream. This is definitely not Italian.

Add cheese and herbs (only when needed)

“Now remove the pan from the heat and add some grated cheese, when the sauce requires it. 

There are some general rules to this:

  • never use cheese in recipes with fish or shellfish – vongole, cozze, gamberi… these never need cheese, no matter which kind.
  • tomato sauce – there is not 100% agreement on this, but I strongly recommend not using cheese with simple tomato sauces
  • bolognese sauce, tortellini – yes, definitely! And, of course, Parmigiano Reggiano here
  • carbonara, amatriciana, gricia, cacio e pepe – yes, use pecorino here!
  • always remember that Italian food is strongly regional. If you don’t know which cheese to add, use Parmigiano Reggiano for recipes from northern Italy, pecorino for central Italy (e.g. Rome, Tuscany), ricotta salata (an aged variant, perfect to be grated, of fresh ricotta cheese) for southern Italy.

READ ALSO: ‘What’s the difference between Italy’s Parmigiano Reggiano and parmesan cheese?’

“Finally, serve your pasta and add some fresh herbs on top. Here my recommendation is: in Italy a lot of pasta dishes are never served with herbs on top, while abroad parsley and basil are everywhere. 

Please consider that:

  • basil is usually added to tomato sauce
  • parsley is often used with fish or shellfish sauce
  • you will never see lasagne, tortellini, bolognese ragù with herbs on top

“Of course, some recipes will not follow these rules, but these are the best practices that apply to most sauces – from a simple tomato and basil sauce to a complex fish and shellfish sauce like shrimp and tuna pasta.”

Read more about authentic Italian cuisne on Roberto’s blog, Eatalian with Roberto.

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