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Al Dente! A Beginner's Guide To Pasta

Al Dente! A Beginner's Guide To Pasta

What are the Origins of Pasta?

The origin of pasta is a heavily disputed topic and depending on who is asked, there are a number of answers. Many believe that pasta was invented by the Etruscans in 400 BC and there is evidence that shows that they developed tools that were used to mix flour into dough, roll dough out on a surface, and cut it into strips. Others believe that pasta was invented by the Chinese long before the Etruscans and brought to Europe by Marco Polo. Despite its origins, pasta is practically ubiquitous today and while it is most commonly associated with Italy, it is eaten world wide.

Pasta is popular in many cultures, is made using many different types of flours and flavorings, and comes in a variety of shapes and forms. Most commonly, pasta in Italy is made from semolina flour, made from a hard wheat called durum. Durum wheat holds up better than any other flour when it is cooked as pasta. Other less hearty flours have a tendency to go from uncooked to mushy very rapidly and are not very forgiving. Some other types of flour used to make pasta in other countries are all purpose, spelt, whole wheat, quinoa, rice, potato, soybean, buckwheat, mung bean, chick pea, yam, and sweet potato.

What Makes Pasta so Popular?

There are many reasons pasta holds such popularity in so many cultures. It is easy to make, inexpensive to buy, and the dried version stores very well indefinitely. Pasta is extremely versatile and lends itself to many different preparations and accompaniments. It can be eaten as an appetizer, an entree, in soups, and in salads. It can be layered, stuffed, baked, boiled, fried, and sauteed. Pasta dough can be flavored with anything from black pepper to squid ink or it can be made plain and then stuffed with different ingredients. It is also almost always additionally flavored after it is cooked by sauces, broths, or even just olive oil and garlic.

There are over 350 different known dried pasta shapes in Italy today (some say there are as many as 500!). Shaped pasta is designed to grab and hold onto sauce and often has ridges or grooves on the outside, which aids in holding the sauce better. Fresh pasta is more tender than dried pasta and cooks much more quickly. Dried pasta tends to be a little chewier and holds up better to heartier preparations such as ragus and cream sauces whereas fresh pasta holds up better with simple sauces and additions.

Get Fresh: How to Make Your Own Pasta

While making pasta at home is a fairly simple task, it takes numerous attempts before you really get a feel for pasta making. Once you do grasp it, however, and can tell just by sight and touch whether or not your pasta is correct, the possibilities and variations are endless. Proper measurement of ingredients is the key to great pasta. It can be made entirely by hand, or much more easily in a food processor or stand up mixer. It is imperative that once the pasta is made, it is allowed to rest for a period of time so that the gluten in the flour is given a chance to relax before being worked. Allowing the dough to rest results in pasta that is much more pliable and easier to work with when rolled and shaped.

How to Cook the Perfect Pasta

Cooking pasta is very easy, but certain procedures ensure perfectly cooked pasta each time. Pasta needs to be cooked in the proper amount of rapidly boiling water in a vessel that is large enough to allow it room to expand as it cooks. Oil should never be added to pasta water because sauces will slide off the pasta. Pasta water should always be generously salted because pasta dough is typically made with very little salt. It is easier to impart the flavor into the pasta as it absorbs the water than it is when adding it to the cooked pasta. It is crucial that pasta be stirred immediately upon being placed in the water and then occasionally while it cooks, to prevent it from clumping together and to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pot.

How Long to Cook Your Pasta

The cooking time for pasta varies depending on which type of pasta is being cooked. Fresh pasta usually cooks in about 5 minutes while dried pasta takes anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. If the pasta is going to be cooked again, like lasagna or baked pasta, it should be pulled before it is fully cooked to avoid ultimately overcooking it. You can shock cooked pasta in ice water or run it under cold water to stop it from cooking immediately. However, you never want to do this to pasta that is being served immediately because you can rinse away the starch that assists in sauce adhering to the pasta.

Al Dent - To the Tooth!

Pasta that is going to be eaten right away should be cooked to 'al dente' or until it is just soft, but still has a little bit of a bite to it. 'Al dente' translates as 'to the tooth' meaning that it should not be soft or chalky when you bite into it, but should be cooked through but still a little bit firm. Once cooked, pasta should be immediately removed from the pot and then tossed in sauce or placed in warm bowls and sauced immediately thereafter. It is always a good idea to keep a little bit of the cooking water to loosen up sauces if they become too thick before you serve them. Once plated, pasta should be eaten right away while it is fresh and piping hot.

The Perfect Pasta Dough Recipe

Check out the recipes to the right for more detailed instructions on preparing the perfect pasta!

About the Author

After receiving degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the Culinary Institute of America, Andrea Rappaport moved into a full-time career in the restaurant business. For over 12 years, she worked in various culinary jobs, including as a cook for Wolfgang Puck at Spago, and ultimately as the executive chef and partner of the highly revered San Francisco restaurant Zinzino. For the past seven years, Andrea has worked as the private chef for one family in the San Francisco area, and continues to expand her culinary portfolio by catering, teaching, and consulting.