I am falling in love with Marcella Hazan and her cookbook, “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.. New York, 2003). Not only are the recipes that I have tried delicious, using simple-yet-beautiful flavors combinations, but the book contains helpful tips for making Italian food.
I have said it a million times: one of the best things about Italian food is its simplicity. But as it turns out, a simple process like boiling pasta can actually be quite complicated. Hazan addresses all the little things I have always wondered: are you supposed to put olive oil in pasta water? How much salt do you put in the water? Are there any tricks to boiling pasta? (As it turns out: no, a lot, and yes.) I would like to share a few of her secrets with you, along with some of my own techniques that I recently picked up.
- Use a lightweight pot.
I made the mistake of using a heavy pot in the past (why did I think that heaver = better?). As it turns out, pots made from lighter materials, like aluminum, actually transmit heat more quickly. Plus, they are easy to pick up: a pot full of boiling water and pasta is quite heavy! Make sure that you use hot, hot water from your faucet to make the water boil even quicker.
- The more water, the better.
Fill your pot as high as you can. Hazan recommends 4 quarts for each pound of pasta, and warns us NEVER to use less than three quarts. Dually noted. I recommend using water that is already hot from your faucet: it will speed up the boiling process ever so slightly.
- Always add salt, and do this when the pasta reaches a boil. Then, wait for the water to return to a boil before you put in your pasta.
I had always thought that salt should be added before the water comes to a boil. Why take note of this seemingly minor step? Salted water takes longer to boil than unsalted water. And what’s that old saying about a watched pot boiling?
- Add a LOT of salt.
Hazan recommends 1 ½ tablespoons per pound. As they say on Masterchef Australia, it should “taste of the sea”.
- Never put olive oil in the pasta water.
This only reaffirms what Mario Batali recently said during his Food & Wine Q & A over Facebook (see our recap here).
- Don’t break up long noodles like spaghetti: let them naturally fall into the boiling water, or press them down with a wooden spoon.
I have seen this done time and again. It makes perfect sense: isn’t the beauty of pasta noodles like spaghetti how beautifully they twirl around your fork for the perfect bite? How much twirling can you do if your noodles are cut in half?
- AL DENTE!
So what is al dente? Most know that it translates from Italian to “to the tooth”, meaning that there is a bite to the pasta after cooking. A common misperception is that it means “to the tooth” as in that the pasta should stick TO the teeth: this is an obvious opposite of the true meaning of al dente, which is that the pasta should have a bite to it and NOT be sticky.
On another note, al dente can also be used to describe rice, beans, and veggies. Who knew?
- Always put the pasta into the sauce, not the other way around. Pasta is absorbent: it will soak up the flavors of the delicious sauce you spent time making.
- On that same note, timing is everything. Drain your pasta, immediately put it into the sauce to let it absorb the flavors of the sauce. Serve immediately.
There are many more helpful hints in this section of the book. I highly recommend that anyone who is serious about learning Italian cuisine and how to cook it at home invest in this book: it truly is a jewel in the culinary world! Thank you, Mrs. Hazan, for providing us with a book that teaches us so many useful hints.