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Now is the time to banish mushy rigatoni, lackluster spaghetti and meh ziti. TODAY Food got the scoop on how to avoid common pasta cooking mistakes thanks to our Facebook Live chat with star chef Lidia Bastianich. Lidia isn't just an Emmy-winning TV host, bestselling cookbook author and restaurateur — she's America's nonna. And no one knows how to make pasta better than nonna. Here, she shares her top tips for how to make perfect pasta every time.
1. Choose your pasta wisely
A good dried pasta is made out of 100 percent semolina flour and just water. Semolina is a durum wheat flour that has a nutty finish and a great bite because it has more gluten. When you look at the pasta in the package, make sure it isn't broken, covered with blotchy white spots or look very floury, which are all indications that the pasta has aged. You want a nice golden yellow pasta that has a uniform color. Also, for the best texture, you don’t want a shiny pasta. Pasta that has a little bit of a rough surface will collect the sauce better than a shiny pasta and also have a great mouth-feel.
2. Use the right amount of water
To cook pasta properly, you need abundant water. For a pound of dry pasta like spaghetti, you need about 4 to 6 quarts of water.
3. Add salt to the water
Before you put the pasta in, the water should be boiling rapidly and it should be salted to the point that it tastes almost like sea water. If you don’t salt the water, the pasta will be flat. Adding salt to the sauce at the end will not correct the balance that salted water gives to pasta. If you have difficulties with salt, you can minimize the amount you use.
4. Do not add oil to the water
You do not want to coat pasta with anything that will inhibit the absorption of the sauce later. A lot of people think they should add oil to the water to keep the pasta from sticking together. Instead, once the water boils, throw the pasta in, give it a mix, then cover it and try to get the water back to the boiling point as soon as possible. You don’t want the pasta to be sitting on the bottom of the pot because that’s when it begins to stick together.
Once the water is boiling again, lower the flame and leave the cover ajar. Mixing the pasta periodically will help keep it from sticking together. When you’re making a long pasta, you really want to spread it around the pot and then it will slowly sink into the water. Don’t push it in because you will break the pasta. Stay by the pot until the pasta is soft enough to be submerged in the water. Then stir it periodically to avoid any sticking.
5. Measure out the right amount of pasta
For a main course, one pound of pasta will make four really abundant portions or six regular portions. If you’re serving pasta as an aperitivo (appetizer) or primo (first course), you can get eight appetizers out of a pound of pasta.
6. Do not break long pasta
Breaking spaghetti is a real no-no in Italy, unless you want to put it in a soup like pasta fagiole. Italians love their pasta l-o-n-g. They love to twirl it on a fork and get a full bite. A broken up pasta doesn’t feel as good in your mouth as a nice rolled up forkful of spaghetti.
7. Taste test your pasta
Cook the pasta for the amount of time recommended on the box, periodically mixing it and taste testing it. I’ve cooked A LOT of pasta in my life, so I can tell almost by look now when it’s done, but for people who are doubtful, just take out one piece of spaghetti or ziti and taste it. Cook it to your liking or whatever your guests like. I like it 'al dente' (to the tooth) and that means that there is a little resiliency in your mouth when you bite through the pasta. There’s nothing worse for an Italian than to have a mouthful of mushy pasta. I mean, it’s just unacceptable. The pasta should have a little life in your mouth when you’re biting into it. If all else fails . . .
8. Throw a piece of spaghetti against the wall if you aren’t sure if it’s done
There is a reason that pasta is done when you throw it to the wall and it sticks. When pasta releases its starches, that means that it's cooked on the inside and it will be a little bit sticky. If a piece of spaghetti sticks to the wall that means that the sauce will stick to it too.
9. Save some of the pasta water
I think the cooking water of pasta always comes in handy. Even when you’re making the sauce, let’s say you’re making something as simple as a carbonara with bacon and onion, you need liquid. If you don’t have stock, you can just grab the pasta water and add it to your pan to make the sauce. Also, when you’re dressing the pasta at the last minute, sometimes the sauce might be too dense, tight or chunky — use pasta water again. Sometimes your guests are not at the table when the pasta is being served — which is a crime — so you have to wait for them. Just add some pasta water to revive the dish and reheat. Also, if you haven’t made enough sauce, you can add some pasta water to extend it.
10. Do not rinse the pasta
You don't want to rinse pasta because again the sauce won't stick to it. When the pasta is done, put it right into the sauce. I finish cooking the pasta in the sauce until the al dente texture goes away, and it absorbs the sauce and the pasta is ready to go.
11. Get the right tools
I like tongs when I’m cooking pasta so I can really get in there in the water and mix the pasta. Instead of a classic colander, my must-have is the spider strainer, which is an Asian kitchen tool that's a chicken wire basket on a bamboo handle. It’s inexpensive but boy does that do wonders to pull pasta out of the water! You just fish it out, it’s easy. For long pasta, you’ll need the tongs to get it out but the spider is fantastic with every other type of short pasta.
12. Do not over sauce the pasta
You don’t want the pasta to be soupy. You want just enough sauce to dress the pasta. If you have a lot of sauce, place some of it in a large pan, heat it until it is very hot, then add the pasta and combine. You’ll know you’ve added enough sauce when all of the strands are coated. If you haven’t made enough sauce, ladle some of the pasta water into the pasta and sauce mixture and cook it on a low flame until the liquid disappears and is absorbed into the pasta. It gives it a little fluidity until it finishes cooking.
13. Add cheese at the last possible moment
I love grated Grana Padano. Put it on at the last minute after you've turned off the flame. You don’t want to cook the cheese. Instead, you want the cheese to kind of fold in and melt in because then you conserve all of the aromas and flavor of the cheese at its best.
14. Don't put pasta on a plate
There’s a rule for what kind of dish to use because pasta is a very important food in Italy. If you use a wide plate and spread it out, your pasta will be cold and that’s the end of it. Instead, you want to use a soup bowl. It’s important for the bowl to be warm because a cold bowl will make the pasta cold right away. Mound the pasta in the center of the bowl so it continues to stay warm as you eat it.
15. Bring the cheese to the table
I always have some Grana Padano at the table so everyone can add it to their pasta to their liking. That is beautiful because you get the aromas and you really taste the freshness and silkiness of the cheese with the pasta.