We all know what pasta is. It's that huge range of funny shapes made out of dried flour and water that are a centrepiece in Italian cookery. What we don't all know is how to cook it properly.
A Pan To Cook With
The first mistake people make when cooking pasta is the size of the pan to use. Pasta needs a lot of space to move around in while it cooks. If it doesn't have this space, then there is a good chance that the pasta will stick together or to the sides of the pan, with disastrous consequences for the finished dish.
To cook 500g of pasta (the amount needed to feed four people), you will need to use 4 litres of water. This requires an enormous sized pan by normal UK culinary standards. But there really is no alternative if you want to make a high quality pasta dish. You may very well have to go out and buy yourself a new giant saucepan just for pasta, but it will be worth it.
Salt, Oil, and Spices
Salt should always be added to the water when cooking pasta. You need to add 30g (2 tablespoons) of salt to the water when cooking pasta for four. The addition of salt is vitally important to the cooking process, as it ensures even cooking throughout the depth of the pasta. If you don't add salt, the integrity of the surface of the pasta is destroyed and it acquires a slimy texture when cooked.
Very little of the salt stays with the pasta when it is served as it is all in the cooking water. So there is little reason for those on a low salt diet to worry about the amount of salt that goes into the water.
When cooking short pasta such as macaroni or penne, it is a good idea to add a small amount of oil to the cooking water to ensure that the pasta doesn't stick together in the pan.
For some recipes you can add herbs and spices to the cooking water to impart a mild flavour to the pasta. It's a nice addition where required, but not generally necessary for most dishes.
The Art of Timing
Timing is quite simply the most important part of successfully cooking pasta.
A guide to the cooking time for the pasta will be given on the packet, and it will depend upon the type of pasta that is being used. Three minutes or so should be enough for fresh pasta, 10 to 15 minutes for dried varieties. But these timings are only a guide and the final decision is down to individual circumstances.
Bring the water, complete with salt, to a nice vigourous boil. Add all of the pasta to the water in one go and bring the pan back to the boil. Give it a decent stir with a wooden fork just to make sure that nothing is sticking together at the start. Don't ever add pasta to cold water or to water that isn't fully boiling, or you will end up with a glue like mess!
Once the pan is boiling again, keep a very close eye on the clock. From time to time lift out a piece of pasta with a fork and bite it to see if it is cooked. Repeat this more and more frequently as the pasta nears the point of perfection. The pasta is cooked when it is slightly firm to the bite, a condition called al dente. As soon as this point is reached you should stop cooking straight away and drain the pasta through a colander.
If you've slightly overdone the cooking, adding cold water to the pan before draining the water will stop the cooking process immediately and you can then drain the pasta as normal. If however you've totally overcooked the pasta, then there is no hope. You would be better off throwing it away and starting again, as there is no better way of ruining a meal than to use overcooked pasta.
How Much Pasta To Cook
This partly depends upon how hungry you are. It is more important to work out the ratio of pasta to sauce.
The pasta is the meal, and the sauce is the flavouring. To be authentic you should not have a 'soup' of sauce with some pasta floating around in it! When served, the pasta and the sauce should be well mixed together, with the sauce as merely a coating for each piece of pasta.