Pasta: Choices, Choices

by Jane Wangersky | October 10th, 2014 | Cooking Basics

00118Pasta is the base we build a lot of our main dishes on; it’s quick and easy to cook, most people like it, and its taste is mild enough to go well with a world of other foods. That’s pretty impressive for something that consists mostly of flour, with a little water and egg mixed in. Like any simple but versatile food, pasta presents you with multiple choices that can seem overwhelming. Let’s look at some of them.

Fresh or dried? Until a few years ago, dried pasta was the only kind you’d see in most stores. Now fresh pasta is available too, though it’s not with the dried kind because it has to be refrigerated — look for it near the meat and dairy. It’s more expensive, but cooks more quickly and has a slightly better taste and texture.

What shape? Pasta shapes aren’t just for appearances, but have functions too. For example, the ridges on penne rigate (literally, “ridged feathers”) help catch and hold the sauce. Orzo, shaped like rice, can be cooked like rice, and farfalle or bow tie pasta . . . okay, maybe it’s shaped that way just because it looks nice.

How long should I boil it? First, the water should have a little salt to add taste, and it needs to boil before you put the pasta in. From there, it’s about 10 minutes for dried pasta to cook, as little as two for fresh. You’ll see the ends of the pasta begin to whiten; give it a few minutes after that and taste to see if it’s done. Never mind the “throw it at the wall” trick unless you need to vent.

Soft or al dente? That’s really a matter of taste; but once it’s overdone (falling apart under its own weight) there’s no going back, which may be why al dente is the traditionally approved way.

Pasta insert, or draining in a sieve? A pasta insert is slightly neater and easier, but not necessary. Either one beats draining the pasta by opening the pot’s lid just a crack and holding it over the sink till you think the water’s all out. The important thing is to drain it as soon as it’s done.

Oil (or butter) on the cooked pasta, or not? A little fat keeps the pasta from sticking together, but can also keep the sauce from sticking to it. I’ve been skipping this step lately simply because I like to conserve my resources, and I haven’t noticed a problem with sticking.

We haven’t even touched on the question of oven-ready lasagna and canelloni — I’ll just say you need to use tomato-based sauce and pay attention to the amount the directions tell you to use — but if you have more questions on pasta, I’ll be happy to hear from you.

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