Jonathan O'GuinComment

Quick Tip 33 - Pasta Principles

Jonathan O'GuinComment
Quick Tip 33 - Pasta Principles

Hello and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes Quick Tips! I’m your author, or is it auteur, Jon O’Guin. (It’s author. For one thing, I’m actually writing this. For another, I’ve only been an auteur once in my life, and while it was a fun experience, I’ve no wish to re-ascend to those heights of pretension.) Today we’re going to talk to you about some basic principles when it comes to cooking pasta! I’m going to suggest some things you probably already knew, along with some math and science to back them up and maybe one or two tricks you didn’t think about. Then I’ll end with a recipe, because I didn’t have one Monday, and that failure has haunted my sleep for the past two nights, the pain of letting you down churning in my gut. Or maybe that’s just indigestion from eating leftover Chinese food. Well, I’ll shoot some Pepto, and throw a recipe on today, and either way, sleep the sleep of the just.


Step 1: Salt your Goddamn Water (and How to do it Right)

Here’s how you know this is the most important step of pasta production: Olive Garden doesn’t do it. I know I’m late to this party, with the fact being covered by Huffington Post and John Oliver already, but it’s still something to remember:  Firstly, that Olive Garden, while a fine place if you want soup, salad, and breadsticks, is remarkably bad at making pasta, and therefore remarkably good at imitating your typical Italian American dinner table, and secondly, that you need to salt your pasta water. The typical guideline is pretty set: around 1.5 tablespoons of salt per pound of pasta. You’ll see pretty often the idea of a “small handful” being thrown around, which may sound like a lot. But here’s how much one tablespoon of salt looks like in your hand.

This also might be close enough to be a "how to forge Jon's Fingerprints" picture.

So, yeah. 1.5 Tablespoons IS a small handful. And you may say “Jon, sure, doing it because Olive Garden doesn’t is a pretty good reason, but are there better ones?” Firstly, I can’t hear you. You’re talking to a screen. Secondly, Yes: it makes your food taste better. This comes from two simple points: first, that’s LITERALLY WHAT SALT DOES, suppressing bitter compounds, complementing sweet or sour, and aerolising flavor compounds to make foods literally more fragrant/tasty. And secondly: look, how many sandwiches have you made where you put NOTHING on the bread? No butter, mayo, ketchup, mustard, anything? On their own, most simple breads are just that: simple. They need a little oomph. You can’t throw mustard into pasta water, (…I don’t think. Shit, now I have to try something.) so salt’s what you get.

So now you’ve agreed to salt your water. I assume you have, because, again, I can’t hear you. “But Jon,” you ask, at this juncture willfully ignoring the well-established rules of our discussion, “How do I do it right?” Well, I’ll tell you, because this time, I DID HEAR YOU. Haha, subverting expectations over here. Also, microphone hacking. It’s a problem, you need better cybersecurity.

The first like, 30 free images for Cybersecurity were of middle-aged white men at a specific conference about it with lackluster PowerPoint. That's not a joke, but at the same time, it kind of is...


Now, for those of you who don’t read slideshows created by corporations, or follow links I provide earlier, you may not know the REASON Olive Garden doesn’t salt their pasta: salting pasta water corrodes stainless steel pots and pans more quickly, and Olive Garden could get better warranties if they didn’t. Luckily, there’s a solution: see, the pots get corroded because the salt has a lot of time to interact with the metal. Depending on your stove, it can take from 10-15 minutes to boil 4 quarts of water, and then another 10 to cook the pasta. So that’s almost half an hour of salt-steel time. So how do you save your pots?

Throw the salt in when it’s already boiling. Seriously, the point is to flavor your pasta, why would you add it 10 minutes before the pasta? (As a note: while salt does alter the boiling point of water, this is not actually the primary reason we use it, as basic math would suggest. See, 1.6 tbsps of salt would raise the boiling point of that much water by… 1 degree, out of 212; which is literally a difference of less than half a percent.) Also, make sure you don’t use iodized salt here. You can use it later, but if you boil iodized salt, your pasta can end up metallic tasting.

Speaking of metallic tasting...

Is it clear I'm making a joke about Colossus's dick with that line? I'd hate for the nuance to be lost. 

Step 2: Love and Marriage (of Pasta Parts)

So, you got your salt in the water, threw in your pasta, and now you’re ready to go. IF you’re anything like me, here’s how your family historically handled the next step: they heated up sauce in a pan,  and when the pasta was done, they drained it, and then threw it in a bowl. Serving was a matter of scooping up some pasta onto your plate, tossing a ladle of sauce onto it, and topping with parmesan cheese. That sound about right? Well, here’s why that’s a bad idea: the very central concept, ie “everyone gets as much pasta or sauce as they want”, undermines good results. This is an arranged marriage of a meal, in fact, it’s specifically a BAD arranged marriage: The elements had no time to get together, hang out, and understand each other. Which, even people who hold to arranged marriages understand is a pretty integral part to not having one party immediately ruin things for the other.


I swear by Parvati and Shiva, if he's a Backstreet Boys fan, I am going to burn his dosa every day.

So, how do you fix this? First, stop cooking your pasta a little early. Just like, 2 minutes. Leave that little bit of white in the center. Then, when you start heating up the sauce, toss the pasta in it, and cook the pasta there for a minute or two. Second, don’t throw away all that pasta water. By the time you’re done boiling pasta, the water is a mixture of salt, water, and starch. Water and starch mixed together has a name: thickener. Steal like, a cup of the pasta water, and stir in a little bit when you add the pasta to the sauce. It’ll help the sauce cling to the pasta, coating the strands like oil on a Greco-Roman wrestler. Start small, maybe a couple tablespoons, and just simmer the sauce for a minute or two. Now the noodles are gonna be all covered with at least some of the sauce.

Last hints: hit the mixture with a little cheese or butter before you serve it. This addition of fat will make it a little shinier, a little creamier, a little more “wow”. Then just toss that in a bowl, throw in some tongs, and serve. And you’ve stepped up your pasta game.

Maybe learn to make some goddamn salad next, yeah, fatty?
(I kid, the salad bowl is under the plate.)

So, here’s the bullet points, in case you missed them:

·        For every pound of pasta, add about 1.5 tablespoons non-iodized salt to the water (which should be about 4 quarts.)

·        Add the salt when the pasta starts boiling, so you don’t corrode your pots.

·        Save about a cup of the pasta water when draining the pasta

·        Take the pasta out a few minutes early, and finish it in the sauce.

·        Add some of the pasta water to thicken or thin the sauce, and help it bind to the pasta.

·        Hit it with some butter or cheese while still in the pan to make it a little more sexy.


Step 3: Putting it all together, Po’ Boy Style

This is not going to be a flashy recipe. It’s just going to be a modified version of my family’s go-to. As such, know that there are much more flavorful and gourmet ways to make pasta. Heck, these tips I’ve given you are only the beginning. (For instance, it turns out it is way easier to just cook pasta in a big skillet, with less than half the water. But that’s a story for another day.)

So, get yourself a pound of Italian sausage in casing. A pound of dry pasta, a head of garlic, and 2 cans: 14 oz of crushed tomatoes, 14 oz of tomato sauce. (or a big can of premade, I don’t judge.) The frugally minded will note that this recipe sits at about $10, and serves at least 4. Now that’s value.

Step one: start the water boiling. Also, ball the sausage. My family does this by just tearing one end of the casing, and pinching balls out of it about every inch or so. Just get all the meat in the pan. Throw down some olive oil, and turn the heat to medium high. Keep your eyes and ears on the sausage. You just want to brown the outside. So let it sit for a few minutes, then starts shaking the pan, sautéing the balls. While it’s sitting, mince a couple cloves of garlic.

Once they balls are covered in brown (eww), toss in the garlic, and let it sizzle about 30 seconds. Then dump the cans of tomatoes on top and turn the heat to medium low. Around this time, your water should be boiling. In goes the salt, in goes the pasta, and now you play the waiting game. Make some garlic bread or salad if you want. You got about 6 minutes of relative uselessness.

Next, drain the pasta (but keep that water, remember) at about 6-8 minutes of boiling. Toss it all in the pan, and starting tossing it all together. Toss ¼ cup of pasta water in there. Let it all simmer down for 3-5 minutes, and then move it from the heat. Hit it with a tablespoon of grated Parmesan, and stir that in. Serve hot, and you’ll look like you might actually be some sort of chef or something. 

I hope these tips help you the next time you’re cooking pasta, and please, feel free to contact us on Facebook or by email if you have ideas, requests, or suggestions for the site. Until Monday, happy cooking.