We’ve all had those lazy night when we dump a jar of marinara sauce into a pot of boiled penne, but isn’t it about time you take your at-home pasta game to the next level? You deserve to be having a Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love moment each and every time you take a bite of home-cooked cacio e pepe or spaghetti al pomodoro.
In search of some expert guidance, we enlisted NYC restaurateur and pasta guru Michael White, who says, “It’s easy to put a pot of water on the stove and boil up some dry pasta, and that’s okay. And you’re going to get kind of an okay result.” But if you’re detail-oriented when making pasta—and you boil it, season it, and sauce it correctly—”the results are going to be tenfold and you’re going to look like a rock star,” promises White.
No matter if you’re making malloredus from scratch or cooking up dry rigatoni with your favorite homemade ragù, let these rules be your guiding light. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you’ll be ready to experiment and freestyle your own pasta-making traditions.
1. Salt your water so it tastes like the ocean.
Here’s the simple truth: Water doesn’t have seasoning in it. If you don’t salt your pasta-cooking water, then you get yourself in a tricky spot, in which you have to overcompensate and season the pasta sauce that much more in order for the dish to be flavorful. But then you risk over-salting the dish. Therefore, it’s extremely important to salt the water from the get-go.
2. Never, ever put oil in pasta water.
People started putting oil in pasta water back in the ’90s—thinking it would help keep the pasta from sticking together—and people are still doing it to this day. It creates a barrier on the pasta, which makes it so the pasta doesn’t absorb sauce.
3. Finish cooking the pasta out of the water, prior to it being completely cooked.
If the pasta cooks in eight minutes, you’re taking it out after six minutes. At this point it’s extremely al dente, but it won’t break if you stir it. Finish cooking the pasta in the sauce, and the pasta will absorb it.
4. Don’t overdo it with the sauce.
A lot of times in the United States, we overdo it. Really, pasta is the canvas; but at the same time, if there is too much ragù on tagliatelle, you’re really just eating a ton of meat sauce without the pasta. It’s very much a textural issue: you’re tasting the egg, flour, parmesan, and the meat sauce—and not just one of those.
5. Match hearty, textural sauces with heartier pasta shapes.
This is dictated by whatever you’re cooking. If you’re cooking a Southern Italian dish—let’s say a ragù with sausage or mushrooms—having a delicate pasta would be inappropriate. It would get lost with those hearty flavors and sauce. Ragù works better with pasta shapes like rigatoni, where the sauce can get inside the pasta.
6. Don’t dismiss the merits of dry pasta.
I know there’s a preconceived notion that fresh pasta is superior. But when you’re looking for convenience, dry pasta is awesome. And I love the texture of it. But if you want to make handmade pasta, do it. [Eds note: Check out this tutorial to learn how.] Or, you can buy pre-made fresh pasta at specialty Italian markets.
7. Work in a humid environment when making fresh pasta.
You don’t want to work in a dry environment because the pasta will dry very quickly. When making fresh pasta, you always want to have a kitchen towel that isn’t wet but lightly humidified to cover it, because that will also keep the pasta from drying out.
8. Use fresh room-temperature eggs for fresh pasta.
If you use really cold eggs, the egg won’t absorb into the flour the same way room-temperature eggs will.
9. Don’t skimp on water when boiling pasta.
You want to have plenty of water in the pot, or the pasta won’t cook evenly. You have to have enough water so the pasta can float about. A lot of times people don’t add enough water, and therefore they have this really starchy water.
10. Take sauce off the heat before adding olive oil or cheese (and always add cold butter to sauce).
If the butter is warm, it won’t emulsify in the sauce and your sauce will be greasy. Also, always add oil, butter, or cheese off the stove. If you add cheese while the sauce is cooking, the proteins in the cheese will start to coagulate and cook and get hard, leading to a grainy sauce.