Technique of the Week: Cooking Pasta
It seems too simple to write anything about how to cook pasta. Everyone can do it, right? Well, I've got a couple tips that you might find useful. I'm focusing only on manufactured dried pasta. We can consider fresh pasta a little further down the road.
To start - the brand and type of pasta you choose to cook is more important than ANYTHING else I have to say about pasta. You want a good quality semolina pasta. I think Barilla is the least expensive, good quality pasta out there, with major brands like DeCecco widely availble at a slightly higher price. Some of the super high end pasta's, such as Rao's (pronounced ray-o's, made by a near century old New York family restaurant) are worth a splurge from time to time. You'll often find them to be thicker, richer in taste and be available in uncomon shapes.
1. How much water to cook pasta in? Frankly, as long as the pasta is well covered, it won't matter if you don't have gallons and gallons of water to cook it in. Filling an 8 qt stock pot to three-quarters full will alwys be sufficient for a pount to a pound and a half of pasta. Some sources recommend much more, but it will just take that much longer, and more energy, to get the water to a boil.
2. Adding Salt vs. Oil. This is a practice that is frequently debated, with some even saying not to add anything. I prefer a small drizzle of oil, since it will coat the pasta slightly after cooking, and a little salt will help bring out flavor. But frankly, I think these are minor embellishments.
3. Pasta Cooking Time. When manufacturers added suggested cooking times to pasta packages it was a great help in many kitchens. The issue is that both products and kitchens vary greatly. If you use the same brand of pasta repeatedly, you'll learn whether the cooking time on the package is spot on, or too much or little. Whenever I cook a brand I've never used before (or use infrequently) I set my timer for about 3 minutes before the recommended time, and check from then on. One decent manufacturer (Central Market in Texas) has so mis-judged their stated cooking time that even 3 minutes early resulted in overcooked pasta. But once you know that about their product, you can be prepared next time.
One last thing - if you need to make a few batches of pasta at once, use the same water multiple times, retreiving the pasta with a strainer. You'll get a rich soupy pasta water that is a great thickener for sauces.