Pasta: Not Just a Vehicle for Sauce

Most pasta recipes place far more emphasis on the sauce that the dish will be served with than on the noodles themselves.  You’ll come across the most mouth-watering descriptions of basil-kissed tomato sauce, rosé cream, summery pestos and more, but what about the pasta? What about those beautifully-shaped, delicious noodles that make the dish what it is?

Pappardelle pasta with lamb and mint

Photo by Daveypants

In his book Heat, Bill Buford describes his adventures in Italy, where he learned the art of making pasta by hand. Far from being an afterthought or a means of conveying sauce into your mouth, pasta is the star of the show. Have you noticed how many different types of pasta there are? We’re accustomed to the standard packages of spaghettini, vermicelli, and penne that line supermarket shelves, that we might not be aware that there are so many varieties available, it’s almost mind-boggling. There are noodles made specifically for soups (like acini di pepe), others for stuffing and small noodles like fusilli and orecchiette are ideal for meat sauces, since the tiny morsels will be caught inside hollows and between folds. Making pasta is an art form that has been perfected over the course of centuries, and each noodle should be given its proper respect.

Every single ingredient that goes into a dish serves a purpose, whether it’s to influence the taste, texture, temperature, or the overall experience of eating it, and the type of pasta that you use will influence the entire meal. Think of bigoli, which is traditionally made with duck eggs and buckwheat flour: the slight bitterness of the buckwheat would alter the taste of the sauce you use with it, and its thick heartiness would overwhelm a delicate topping. You’re aiming for a beautiful symbiosis of flavour and texture; for complementary contrast, not conflict.

Dry or Fresh?

Fresh farfalle

Photo by madlyinlovewithlife

Once you’ve decided which type of pasta you’re going to use, you’ll have to determine what style you’re going to work with. There are arguments both for and against using dried pasta for professional dishes,  but the general consensus seems to be that dry pasta is just fine, as long as it’s of good quality. It’s been suggested that fresh pastas are better for delicate sauces since the noodles are quite soft and light, while dry pastas are sturdier and can stand up to being baked, or slathered with hearty sauces.

If you’ve decided that you’d prefer to use fresh pasta but you don’t have the means or inclination to create your own, then try to buy fresh, handmade noodles from a local artisan.

Al Dente

Pre-cooked spaghetti noodles

Photo by jot.punkt

It wasn’t until I got married that I learned how to cook pasta properly. My mother’s technique was to boil the noodles in oily water until they were bloated and soggy, and then rinse them thoroughly to get all the starch off, and though I didn’t rinse or oil my pasta, I most certainly wasn’t cooking it correctly. My French/Italian husband instructed me on the proper technique, and for that I shall be eternally grateful.

The water should be salted so that the pasta itself is seasoned as it cooks. Would you ever cook a steak without seasoning it first? Hopefully not, but you get the idea. The divine Chef Mario Batali suggested that pasta water should be salted “…until it is equivalent to the saltiness of the sea.” Of course, if you’ve never tasted sea water that doesn’t really help you, so aim for water that’s salty enough to be quite noticeable, but not so salty that it’ll make you nauseated. You’ll bring that water to a rapid boil, drop the pasta in, and then give it a good stir after 30 seconds or so—this will keep the noodles from sticking together.

You don’t want to over-cook your pasta: it should be al dente when served so it has a nice “tooth” to it. It’s difficult to describe this texture to someone who has never experienced it before, but basically the noodles should have a bit of firmness to them when you bite down, but still be yielding—if the noodles flop around and are so soft they’re almost drinkable, you’ve overcooked them. As soon as you find that the noodles are approaching al dente, scoop them out of the water and into the sauce.

Saucy Starch

Tomato pasta sauce

Photo by foreverdigital

As your pasta cooks, you’ll find that the liquid in the pot will become quite cloudy; this is because all the starch that has released from the noodles is dancing around in the water, being neglected. When you cook your pasta, be sure to reserve about 1/2 a cup of this starchy water: you’ll add a couple of spoonfuls of it to your sauce to help it adhere to the noodles. Professional kitchens have gloriously starchy water that’s ideal for this technique, but if you don’t use too much water to cook with, there should be enough starch in it to be usable.

The starchy water should be added to the sauce while it’s still simmering; you don’t want to dilute it, and if you stir in the starch a minute or two before serving it, the excess water should evaporate, leaving the sauce with a tiny bit of extra, magical cling.

Feel free to experiment with different kinds of pasta, and consider keeping a journal with your thoughts and impressions of the different brands and types that you use so you can perfect your own signature dishes. You might discover that one brand has a mealy texture that works well with game meats, while another has a silken quality that goes perfectly with seafood and cream sauces. You’ll end up creating dishes that achieve perfect harmony between the pasta and the dressing, and that’s just poetry on a plate.

 Orechiette with pesto cream

Photo by Garrett Ziegler

- Lana Winter-Hébert

Lana Winter-Hébert fell in love with cooking while still in primary school. The various dietary needs of her extended family (i.e. gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, vegetarian, and paleo diets) have helped her to learn a fair bit about substitutions and meal plan modifications, and though her first love will always be the Scandinavian/Eastern European cuisine she grew up with, she has a penchant for Mexican food and can be bribed heartily with the offer of good huevos rancheros. Lana currently resides in rural Quebec with her husband and family, where she divides her time between writing, editing, design, and tending her permaculture garden. She cans and preserves whatever's in season, and is having some fantastic adventures with home cheese-making and mead-brewing.

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