I don’t want to be dramatic; it would be very unlike me, anyway, but I do want to make this perfectly clear in the best way I can: pasta is the best food on any planet in the entire history–past, present, or future–of the universe.
Pasta is like magic. It can be transformed into so many shapes, textures, and flavors, and making it is like art: creative, unpredictable, fluid. At least, it can be. Making pasta can be just a necessary thing: something quick, easy, and cheap to make a lot of. In fact, this is one of the reasons I love pasta so much: it was always there for me during my post-college downward financial spiral. Dried, store-bought pasta is cheap, and one of the easiest things to make. Pasta is there for you, man. It’s as majestic as you wanna be and can make an elegant dish, or it can fill you up when you’re poor, busy, and a little drunk. I mean, or a little drunk. Who would be all three at once? Not me, certainly, how uncouth. Anyway, pasta!
In all my years of pasta connoisseurship, as with any set of expertise, I’ve gained some, well, expertise. Employing the tactics I outline below with any pasta dish, be it a treat-yo-self-style meal or a crap-I-forgot-to-eat one, will result in definitively better pasta. It’s that simple, my friends. I dare say that you can succeed in pasta…without really trying.
Make Your Own Sauce
Okay, whoa, we’re starting off with a biggie, I know, just stay with me. For people who haven’t made pasta sauce before, the thought of doing it yourself can seem daunting or time consuming. I mean, why would they jar it up and sell it in grocery stores if pasta sauce were easy to make, right? Because they’re capitalist pigs, dude, and it is easy as hell to make. That’s how they get you!
So, no, you don’t have to be an Italian nonna or stay in the kitchen simmering the gravy on the stove all day like you’re a wife in Goodfellas, you just need a saucepan and like 10 minutes. And I promise you, I promise you, no, come closer–look at me, I’m serious–once you make your own sauce, you will never use store-bought sauce again.
A simple homemade marinara sauce is just that, simple–and also cheap, easy, and quick to make. I have my own recipe for it here, because of course I do, I have a blog. Check out my post, make your own sauce, and then you will instantly have leveled up in life. There’s no going back.
Always Salt the Water
There’s a saying in Italy that goes something along the lines of: when cooking pasta, the water should be as salty as the sea. Salting the water is absolutely essential to flavoring the pasta–it is literally the only seasoning the noodle will get before it goes into the sauce. Are you going to be one of those people who eats their food without seasoning? Why? Are you lost?
If you don’t want to salt your pasta water because you’re worried about your salt intake for health reasons, oh, pipe down and relax a minute. It’s not that serious. First, you won’t end up consuming very much of the salt anyway–the water needs to be very salty in order to lightly season the noodles. You’ll end up throwing most of the salt out with the water when the pasta is done, not consuming it. But, I dunno, if you’re seriously gonna die of sodium poisoning because you salted the pasta water, then yeah, I guess don’t do it. Or, do it! But don’t blame me.
Now, how much salt should you put into the water? A lot. No, more. Yup. Once you think you’ve put in enough, add more. Then taste it. The water should be immediately taste salty on your tongue, no doubt about it. The sea, remember? Oh, and there’s some debate about whether you should put the salt in the water before it boils, or after it’s boiling. I’ll tell you a secret: it literally does not matter one bit. It dissolves either way. Do what your heart desires, kiddo, just put in the salt!
Never Rinse Your Pasta!
Did you see how I put an exclamation point there? What are you, a masochist? Do not rinse your flippin’ pasta!!!
I’ve heard rumors in my lifetime about people dumping their hot, salty, starchy, delicious pasta into a colander and then dousing it with cold tap water before preparing it to serve. I can’t…I don’t know how to effectively describe how repulsive, unnatural and abhorrent this is. I can’t imagine why anyone would do it…to stop the cooking, I guess? I don’t know! It’s maniacal!
When the pasta is cooking in the luxurious salt water, it starts to develop its starchiness, the thing that gives pasta it’s texture. This starchiness is exactly what you’re going to need to get any sauce, a.k.a. the flavor and the whole point, to stick to the noodle. Rinsing your pasta will only result in slimy, cold, wet gunk. GUNK!!!
Ahem. The only exception to this rule, I suppose, would be if you’re cooking pasta to later use in a cold pasta salad. In that case, sure, rinse it, yeah, in that case you probably won’t want the starch on the noodle. But, please keep in mind that cold pasta salad is not real pasta, so if someone tells you to rinse the pasta THROW IT IN THEIR FACE!!
Finish Cooking the Pasta in the Sauce
So, you’ve followed all my rules and you think you’re a big shot now, huh, pasta guy? Well, good on you, and almost. You can still fuck it up by not following this last and perhaps most important rule. Remember when I was screaming and in shambles about never rinsing the pasta? Well, that was the old me. This is the new me, and the new me is leaning in way too close to your face, my hot palms gripping your cheeks, and my voice barely a whisper, saying: finish cooking the pasta in the sauce.
This is the part where it all comes together. Your beautiful sauce, your seasoned, starchy pasta…they’re at the altar and all you need to do is marry them, honey, and it’s gonna be a beautiful ceremony. When the pasta is almost done (you’ll know this by tasting it; it should be just a notch before al dente), transfer it from its salty home directly into the saucepan that has your finished, simmering sauce. You can transfer using a colander if you want, or scoop out the pasta with a slotted spoon, or grab with tongs–the best method will depend on the type of pasta you’re cooking. Use your intuition to start. Then, stir in the pasta so that the sauce coats the entire surface area of every precious piece. Keep stirring the pasta in, and the starch will activate with the sauce, creating a silky, wonderful texture. The heat from the sauce will finish cooking the pasta, it’ll be fully coated, and the sauce will have achieved its full potential. This is also where you can stir in any cheese, fresh herbs, or any other extras you want.
So, there it is. All my secrets: the very best of my soul. Some simple modifications to your technique while cooking, all of which take almost no effort or skill, will result in better pasta every time, whether you’re cooking homemade orecchiette in a sage and brown butter sauce or a cheap box of spaghetti with some cheese you found in the back of the fridge. May you succeed in all your pasta endeavors.