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12 Things You should Know Before Cooking Pasta

Pasta, it’s the one thing that’s near impossible to botch. Boil some water, wait eight(ish) minutes, and voilà! You’re done. To a hungry cook in a hurry, no quick-and-easy meal is quite like plain, old pasta. Toss together some noodles and sauce, and voila! Dinner is served. There’s just one problem: Most of us don’t have the patience (or time) to wait for the pot to boil. But if you think you can save a few minutes by using a smaller pot, you might want to think again.

1. Ingredients make all the difference

Let’s be honest, even slightly overcooked pasta with butter is good because, well, carbs. What separates a mind blowing pasta from an everyday pasta is the ingredients. Even if it’s just investing in a good tomato base (like San Marzano tomatoes), or above-average cheese, or making your own pasta with a great flour like semolina and fresh eggs, you’ll take your pasta from good to extraordinary. Italians also operate around seasons so when possible, keep it seasonal and local.

2. You don’t need butter or cream to make something creamy

On our first night in Italy, my friend and I were stuffing our faces in Venice when she proclaimed “this is only good because there is so much butter.” When we asked our waiter how much butter they added, he looked horrified. What we were eating was a Vongole, and that never has butter, only the starch water from the pasta, olive oil, and a little white wine. In general butter isn’t a huge staple in Italian cuisine. The velvety sauces can be achieved by working olive oil into the pasta at the right time.

3. It doesn’t have to be the main attraction

There came a point on our trip when we realized that every time we asked a local where a good place to grab a snack was, they suggested pasta. Pasta in Italy is typically served as a primi or appetizer course. So, when in Rome (or anywhere in the world), you should probably start your dinner with spaghetti. You won’t regret it.

4. Lemon. In everything

When pairing lemon and pasta, one typically thinks of  fresh herbs, pesto, and spring-based dishes. On our trip we saw lemons everywhere, folded into ricotta that then made it into our ravioli, to a quick squeeze in tomato-based sauces. Lemon, according to one chef, adds the perfect amount of acidity and makes your dish brighter and fresher, particularly when you’re low on ingredients.

5. No chicken

I would start most conversations with “tell me something uncommon about pasta.” Unanimously, every Italian started with “no chicken.” Their beloved carb is not meant to be paired with heavy proteins, which are meant for the following course. Meatballs? Those too are not traditionally served with pasta.

6. Cook pasta in its sauce before you serve

The one thing you’re always supposed to do with pasta? Cook it in the sauce. That means all those years of boiling pasta and tossing some gravy on top wasn’t exactly what you’re supposed to do.  The head chef at Sabatini told us this is because you want the pasta to absorb the taste of the sauce and not stick together. He even compared pasta to tofu saying you cook tofu in the things you want it to taste like.

7. If you tried to eat every type of pasta in the world (one each day), it would take you over a year

While one woman told me there are thousands of different kinds of pasta, after a bit of research there are closer to 400 kinds with many types having multiple names.

8. The water you use matters

While we couldn’t find any proof, we also couldn’t refute the claim many chefs made that the kind of water you use will impact what your pasta tastes like. One chef explained that the minerals found in different waters lend to varying textures and starch levels in your dough.

9. Even a bad cook can make good pasta

Arriving in Florence, the hotelier of Grand Amore Hotel and Spa told me that even terrible cooks like himself can make Italy’s most famous dish. All you need to know is the basics, like mixing your pasta with the sauce, saving the starch water (see below), and, when possible, using fresh ingredients. He even went so far as to say that if you have good ingredients, but can’t make a simple pasta like Cacio e Pepe, you’re not Italian.

10. Save the (salted) starch water

When straining your pasta you should always save a little starch water (that you salted, of course). The theory behind this is that the starchy water helps bind the sauce to the pasta while thickening it. Some pasta dishes completely rely on the starch water as the liquid agent while others use it to help thicken and enhance the sauce.

11. Add an egg or cheese to make any sauce creamier

In addition to saving the starch water, you can also add an egg, egg yolk, or cheese to make a sauce more creamy. While most people have seen this in Carbonara where you take eggs, cheese, pancetta, and starch water (not cream), chefs were adding eggs to tomato-based sauces as well. The trick, they told me, is to take your pasta off its heat source and add the egg so it doesn’t scramble but turns into a melt-in-your-mouth pasta.

12. This one everyone knows: make it with love

The last thing I learned about pasta? Make it with love and from the heart. Another lesson learned? It’s near impossible to get sick of pasta. I would know, I’ve been trying to ever since I got back.

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