When it comes to making a perfect plate of pasta, the secret's in the sauce — and also the salt.
While boiling pasta might seem like a pretty basic task, there are plenty of ways in which a dish can easily go wrong before it's served.
Pasta aficionado and New York City-based chef Albert Di Meglio told TODAY Food that there are two very common mistakes he sees home cooks make when cooking pasta: They miscalculate how much salt they need (by adding way too much or much too little) and they are not able to achieve the right consistency of their sauce.
Di Meglio, who is the head chef of Barano (an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, which is currently accepting takeout and delivery orders amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic), was inspired by his Italian nonna, and the small island off the coast of Sicily where she grew up, when he created his restaurant's menu. 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.
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 should take when cooking boxed or fresh pasta.
Here are four common cooking mistakes, partnered with Di Meglio's expert advice on how to fix them.
1. Never salting pasta water or adding too much salt
Ever wonder how much salt is enough? 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 two to three tablespoons of kosher salt. 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 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.
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, 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. Plus, it can help home cooks achieve a beautifully velvety sauce consistency.
To prevent winding up with that familiar watery puddle at the bottom of your otherwise beautiful dish of penne with marinara, reserve the starchy water after you've drained the actual pasta. During the final cooking stages, Di Meglio adds it to his sauces , spoonful by spoonful, and told TODAY that the starch in the water actually helps the sauce bind to the pasta better and, when used correctly, it can become a wonderful thickening agent, too.
Now that you're a pasta pro, check out some of our favorite takes on Italian classics: