Friday, October 15, 2010

How to Cook & Serve Al Dente Pasta?


This tip is on how to cook & serve al dente (pronounced as AHL DEN-tay) pasta. 

1. Start with clean, fresh, cool water.
Pasta is absorptive.  If water tastes at all “off,” or contains any impurities, it will taint the finished flavor of the pasta.  Filter home water if possible, and resist the temptation to use water from the hot water tap.  Water from hot water heaters can taste flat or oxidized, either of which will adversely affect the taste of home cooked pasta.

2. Use as much water as possible.
100g pasta will need minimum 1 litre water, but 1.5-2 litres water is ideal.  More water will keep strands of pasta from sticking together and will reduce the tendency of the pot to boil over.  It’s science.  Bring the water to a rapid boil. 

3. Use salt, but not oil.
Most chefs recommend about a tablespoon of salt added per litre of boiling water just before laying in the pasta, to enhance the flavor of the grain.  Adding oil was a promotion started by cooking oil companies to get homemakers to use more oil, under the guise that oil will keep the pasta from sticking.  However, using a larger pot with more water is the solution.  Oil has the unwanted effect of coating the pasta so the sauce doesn’t stick.

4. Do not break long pasta.
Never break long pasta in half for hot pasta dishes, or there won’t have enough to twirl.  The only few exceptions are, e.g. for soups and certain salad dishes.  If the pot is not tall enough, simply hold the top of the pasta with your hand or tongs for a few moments.  The under water portion of the pasta will soften naturally to allow the above water portion to slide under the water line.  Then, bring the water to a rapid boil again before lowering the heat.

5. Stir frequently.
Stir the pasta frequently after it has been added to water, and before it resumes a healthy boil.  This, plus a large-enough pot and enough water, is the only precaution to ensure that the pasta does not stick either to the pot or to itself.

Avoid Overcooking Pasta:
1. Test strands.
Use the recommended cooking time specified on the package as a general guideline only.  Depending on the quantity of water, the particular batch of pasta and the strength of the heat source, cooking times will vary.  Lower quality pastas can go from underdone to overcooked in two minutes. 

If recommended cooking time is 8-12 mins, start following tests at 7.5 mins with one/two strands a time.  Keep doing at 30 secs interval till desired texture is obtained.  

(a) Visual Test
When pasta is not cooked, white line/dot can be seen when pasta is broken.  Al denta texture is when this white line/dot just disappear from sight.
(b) Tasting Test
If the pasta is stiff, offering any true resistance, it needs more time.  If it seems relatively soft, but sticks slightly to the teeth, it is almost there.  Give it another 30 secs.  Then it’s ready.

(c) Pot Wall Test

2. Drain immediately.
As soon as the pasta is done, drain it at once.  If pasta is cook regularly at home, do consider buying a pasta pot (as illustrated) with a colander insert that enable removal of pasta from hot water at once without tangling.

3. Remember, it keeps cooking.
Like all cooked food, pasta continues to cook even after it’s been removed from heat and has been drained.  If it’s hot, even warm, and especially if it’s under a hot sauce, it’s still cooking!  To deal with this fact of thermodynamics, the best chefs typically

(a) under-cook their pasta slightly if it is to be immediately plated with a sauce, or
(b) shock their pasta in cold/room temperature water (refer below).

The intentional undercooking of pasta is especially important if plan to leave just cooked pasta in a large serving dish for a dinner party. 

Cooking & Serving Tips
Try the under-cooking concept on small “test batches” of pasta.  Try all the techniques below till you’re comfortable with how they work. 

1. Shock pasta in cold/room temperature water.
If pasta is overcooked, it is possible to salvage by giving it a "shock", i.e. placing it briefly in cold or room-temperature water.  It is mentioned everywhere else that one should never, ever rinse pasta because it removes the important surface starch that helps the sauce cling to the pasta.  This is true, but given the alternative of mushy pasta, it is better to give up some cling. 

Trade secret: Most American restaurants generally employ this technique, not because they overcook their pasta, but because it allows the chef to halt the cooking process at precisely the right moment.  It is recommended to slightly under-cook rinsed pasta if it is going to be re-heated with other ingredients in a pan just before serving time.  There will also be some breathing room in case attention is diverted during cooking, it will still be assured of perfect doneness when finally ready to plate the completed dish.

2. Skillet finish pasta instead of waiting for it to boil to al dente.
This technique uses a pre-heated cooking pan to better integrate the pasta and the sauce prior to serving.  Have the sauce simmering in the pan, then add the slightly under-cooked and drained pasta and toss in the sauce for about a minute or so over high heat to finish the dish.  Since the pasta is still absorbing moisture, it will pull in the flavors of the sauce.

3. For a simpler integration technique, add a spoonful of the pasta’s cooking water to the sauce.
The cooking water is filled with the natural starch from the pasta, and will help to bind and thicken the sauce naturally.

4. Consider warming your plates in the microwave.
It keeps the pasta warmer, and is also why the pasta should be slightly under-cooked.  Italians call family and guests to the table before the pasta is served, so everyone will be sure to get a piping hot plate.

If toss pasta gently against the pot wall and it sticks, then pasta is done al dente.


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