When it comes to making pasta, the secret's in the sauce ... and the salt.
Pasta aficionado and New York City-based chef Albert Di Meglio told TODAY Food that the two most common mistakes he sees home cooks make when cooking pasta are when they miscalculate how much salt they need (adding way too much or much too little) and not being able achieve the right sauce consistency.
Di Meglio, who is the head chef of Barano (an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, New York), features a menu inspired by his Italian nonna and the small island off the coast of Sicily where she grew up. His pasta plates feature classic Italian flavors in dishes like potato gnocchi and linguine with clams, but he also experiments with produce that is not native to Italy, like delicata squash.
And when he's not in the restaurant, Di Meglio loves cooking for his kids at home. Despite being professionally trained, the chef admits to the occasional kitchen screw up — but he's worked out several foolproof ways to perfect pasta.
After mastering how to portion out pasta, there are simple measures any cook may take when cooking boxed or fresh pasta to make it perfectly every time.
Here are four common cooking mistakes, partnered with Di Meglio's expert advice on how to fix them.
1. Never salting the pasta water ... or adding too much salt.
Ever wonder how much salt is enough? Or do you ever pour in a few heaping spoonfuls only to realize once dinner is on the table that the pasta basically tastes almost too salty to eat? To take full flavor control, Di Meglio researched the composition of seawater and used that as guidance for how to salt pasta water. However, the type of salt of being used may greatly affect the final taste.
For every gallon of water (or 4 quarts, which is about what you need for a full box of pasta), cooks should add in 2 - 3 tablespoons of Kosher salt.
It's also important to note that the salt should be added to the water before the pasta is added, not after, or you will not achieve the desired results.
2. Adding extra salt to the water before cooking fresh pasta.
Making pasta at home is not as hard as it looks. Whether you're jumping into homespun Italian fare for the first time or are a practiced pro, Di Meglio swears by a slightly unconventional technique for ensuring that his fresh pasta tastes great every time.
"Don't salt the water when you make fresh pasta. Instead, salt the dough," Di Meglio told TODAY Food.
Salting the dough instead of the water allows cooks to maintain better flavor control of the final product.
3. Pouring sauce over cooked pasta and serving it right away.
Di Meglio finds that many people think it's totally OK to simply cook their pasta and sauce separately, and then combine them right before serving. This is a big mistake in his eyes because it doesn't allow the pasta to absorb any flavors of the sauce — whether you've made a creamy Alfredo or decadent, meaty bolognese.
Think of the pasta and the sauce as ingredients for a final dish that must be cooked together before serving. Di Meglio recommends cooking dried pasta in its sauce for about six to seven minutes, while fresh pasta takes about three to four minutes to absorb the sauce's flavors.
4. Throwing out the pasta water.
When you're done cooking that pasta water, the leftover water shouldn't be discarded right away. It's salty and starchy which means it can add loads of flavor to any sauce and help it come to right the consistency as it cooks with the pasta.
To prevent winding up with that familiar watery puddle at the bottom of your otherwise beautiful dish of penne with marinara sauce, reserve the starchy water after you've drained the actual pasta. During the final cooking stages, Di Meglio adds it in liberally to his sauces and told TODAY that the starch in the water actually helps the sauce bind better and becomes a wonderful thickening agent when used correctly.
Now that you're a pasta pro, check out some TODAY Food's favorite takes on Italian classics: