Credit: Top tips from Cristiana Grassi and Cleopatra Zukas, from Coco di Mama the masters of all things pasta and Italian cuisine.
What are the biggest mistakes people make when cooking pasta?
- Mistake #1. Putting the pasta in the water before the water has reached boiling. For al dente pasta, the pasta needs to have the least contact with water possible (3-4 minutes for fresh pasta) or it will go mushy. So you only want to put the pasta in when the water is boiling and drain is on average 2 mins before the recommended cooking time.
- Mistake #2. Simmering the pasta on a low heat, or keeping in the water for longer than necessary. Again this will lead to mushy pasta – keep the water at boiling temperature and then remove from the heat & drain as soon as it is cooked through.
- Mistake #3. Forgetting to add salt to the water. The salt (which should be always rock salt) raises the temperature of the boiling water even further which is best for al dente pasta, and it also adds more flavour to the pasta. A couple of teaspoons of coarse rock sea salt in a large saucepan is recommended.
- Mistake #4. ‘Cooking’ or heating your sauce in the same pan as the pasta after the pasta has cooked. For the tastiest, al-dente pasta it is best to cook and heat through the sauce in a separate pan beforehand as it takes longer to cook and reduce, and then stir the sauce into the cooked pasta afterwards.
- Mistake #5. – Should you break spaghetti up before stirring? No. Use a big enough pot so you don’t need to break it, or you can simply cook a pasta shape that doesn’t need breaking if so (ie. Penne, fusilli).
What are the biggest myths and misconceptions about pasta?
- One of the biggest myths is that pasta should be avoided if you are on a healthy eating diet. Pasta has been considered a part of a healthy diet since ancient times, and carbohydrates are having a comeback as part of a clean eating diet as they provide slow release energy that will keep you fuller for longer and less likely to need to snack between meals. A regular portion of pasta with a Slow-cooked Bolognese sauce from Coco di Mama is only 453kcals (less than your average sandwich from a supermarket or Pret) and will keep you more energised for longer. There are over 1000 types of pasta to accommodate for different dietary preferences – you can also substitute with wholewheat, gluten-free or vegetable-based pasta (i.e. red lentil pasta) for options which are better for your gut-health and digestion as the carbohydrates are less ‘refined’. The Italian and Mediterranean diet is considered one of the healthiest with the lowest obesity rates, and pasta is one of the staples in their diet. So go on… don’t be afraid to get your carb on!
- Another myth is that you shouldn’t eat pasta or carbohydrates in the evening. It is widely believed that if you consume carbs closer to your bedtime, you get less time to ‘burn them off’ and when you fall asleep and these carbs are converted to fat. But this is just a myth. Studies now show that it’s not the specific time of day which is important when you eat your carbohydrates, but ‘the length of the carbs-free ‘fasting’ period that precedes your meal’ (Michael Mosley, the doctor behind the 5:2 diet). To help your body process carbohydrates best it is recommended to allow a fasting period or break from carbs for a long period of time (around 10-12 hours). This break can either be whilst you sleep or during the daytime. Another tip is to choose to eat your carbs after you workout to help you to repair the micro-damage that happens when you work out and fill you with energy again. So if you workout in the morning, eat your carbs in the morning after your session, and if you workout in the evening, the same applies.
- The most fun misconception is that you should throw pasta at the wall or ceiling to check it’s cooked. This is a complete myth – all you need to do is nibble a piece of the pasta to test it and as soon as it’s cooked immediately drain from the water.
- You don’t need to add oil to the water when cooking pasta – it doesn’t stop the pasta from sticking, instead make sure you stir gently and don’t overcook the pasta.
- Myth – Dried pasta is always inferior. Whilst fresh pasta is usually much nicer, it’s not as practical to keep in your store cupboard. Dried pasta is not always an inferior quality, and you can get good quality dried pasta, especially if it says it is dried at low temperatures.
What do Italians think Brits are doing wrong – what is sacrilege?
- Covering everything in cheese. Italians also love cheese, especially when it comes to Parmigiano & Pecorino. However, this shouldn’t mask the flavours of the sauce and they should be paired with the right sauce, and it definitely shouldn’t be a strong cheese like mature Cheddar or Red Leicester! Also, there should never be cheese on top of a seafood pasta.
- Cooking Carbonara with bacon? It’s guanciale, not bacon! Guanciale is from the pig’s cheek rather than the belly, which determines its flavour and consistency and gives the Carbonara an overall different taste. Same goes for mushrooms – they don’t belong in a classic Carbonara!
- Garlic bread with pasta is an absolute no go for an Italian. The garlic has such a strong flavouring to it, that you’re just detracting from the flavour of the pasta.
- Chicken in pasta – no Italian will ever really know why Brits love chicken so much. To the extent that it will end up in every pasta dish they cook. Safe to say a chicken pasta dish doesn’t exist in Italy!
- Ketchup is NOT a sauce for pasta. Pomodoro is.
- Twirling your spaghetti with a fork on a spoon. It isn’t rocket science, so put that spoon down and simply use a fork!
Is there a best type of pasta for specific dishes?
- In classic Italian cuisine, a Bolognese ragu would be served with a flat pasta like tagliatelle or fettucine and not spaghetti. Same goes for meatballs.
- Is there a best type of pasta for specific recipes? Penne & Rigatoni are always recommended with a red sauce as the ridges on the shape helps to soak up more sauce.