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The Blonde Cucina: Tips and Tricks to Make Perfect Pasta

by and on December 14, 2014 1:45 PM

I remember a time when I was at my restaurant, Bella II, and the phone rang.

I answered it, and on the other end was a customer who just had to call and tell me how much she loved one of my pasta dishes.

She continued to rave about just how perfectly cooked the pasta was, and she wished she knew some tips and tricks to make perfect pasta at home.

That phone call led me to think that there must be others who are looking for tips, tricks and etiquette when it comes to pasta. Look no further — I am going to explain how to buy pasta and cook it. And, I'm even going to throw in little facts you might not know that make for great dinner conversation. After reading this column, you'll have a greater knowledge of pasta and be able to make your pasta dishes at home better than ever.

When you're at the store buying pasta, go ahead and turn over the package and give it a read. (The very best pasta is made from scratch, but we know few of us have time to do that.) When you're purchasing dried pasta, the best of the best is made of 100 percent semolina flour.

It doesn't matter if it's spaghetti, macaroni, shells or bucatini -- pastas made of semolina flour preserve their shape and firmness while cooking. Also, I don't know about the rest of you, but I always have leftover pasta, so when cooked properly, 100 percent semolina flour pasta does not get mushy or sticky when stored.

I cannot stress the importance of making sure your pasta matches and stands up to its partner — your sauce. I'm all for using whatever pasta you have in your cupboard, and by all means substitute pasta types in your dishes, but remember, it is best to trade one pasta type with another one that is comparable. If you remember nothing else, remember this tip — if your sauce is thin use a flatter noodle; if your sauce is thick, rich or chunky, use a noodle that is shorter and has texture to cling to.

Now, let's discuss how to make perfect pasta every time. You don't need a lot of tools, just lots of water, a big pot and salt.

First, consider the pot you intend to use. If you want perfect pasta, remember that, for every pound of pasta, you need six quarts of water. If your pot is too small or you use too little water, your pasta will inevitably stick together and cook unevenly. (Tip: Remember, if you cover your pot of water, it will help it come to a boil faster.)

Now, let's discuss my little trick: Salting your water will always make your pasta taste better. Salt also aids in bringing out the natural flavor of the pasta itself.

You do not want to add your salt until the water has come to a full rolling boil. As I always say, taste along the way, so you need to taste this water after adding your salt and before adding the pasta. We've all got that mouthful of water when we've visited the beach. It's a flavor you will always remember and, guess what, this is what your pasta water should taste like.

Now, add your pasta all at once and wait for your water to come back to a boil. Stir after you've added the pasta to the boiling water. You need to stir your pasta immediately to prevent the pasta pieces from sticking to each other and from sticking to the bottom of your pot. Frequent stirring will help the pasta to cook, too.

Let's now talk about pasta cooking time. Remember how you flipped over your dry pasta package to find out about ingredients? Well, don't do this for cooking-time instructions. Most pastas take between 8-12 minutes to cook, and this is what your package will tell you. Those are just guidelines. As soon as your pasta water returns to a boil, start timing your pasta. At around four minutes, taste your pasta for doneness. You have to watch it very closely, because pasta can be overcooked in no time. Pasta should be cooked, but still firm.

Next, immediately drain your pasta into a large colander. Shake your colander to remove the excess water. Do not rinse your pasta. This will remove all the starch on your pasta, and you need that starch to help your sauce stick to your pasta.

Here's a little trick: When your pasta is done, scoop out a bit of the cooking water. This super-special ingredient that you have been dumping down the drain can help with your sauce. It has starch in it and, since it's water, it can help you thicken your sauce or thin it out.

Finally, a couple of facts about pasta. I know we are not all Italians, however it's considered proper to eat your pasta with only a fork. Yes folks, leave the spoon in your soup. However, don't fret — it's also considered proper to cut your pasta if twirling is too hard for you. And, remember, it's absolutely undeniably bad pasta manners to slurp your pasta. It's loud and, as I'm sure we are all thinking at this very moment, not a good look for anyone.

Below is an easy dish that I make that everyone I serve it to loves. It even uses that miracle ingredient, starchy cooking water. Give it a try and remember, your sauce can be excellent but your dish won't be perfect without perfect pasta.


Start to finish: 25 minutes

Servings: 3 to 4

2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons salted butter

1/4 cup pasta water

1-pound box bucatini

2 pints small grape tomatoes

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan

3 basil leaves, sliced into thin ribbons

Cook the pasta according to the tips and tricks in the article.

Cut tomatoes in half and place in a bowl with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, heat the rest of the oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes and cook until the skins begin to blister and bubble, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook until golden. Add pasta water and Parmesan. Reduce heat to low and continue to cook, stirring occasionally.

Remove pan from heat. Drain the pasta and place it back in the hot pot. Pour the tomato mixture over the top; sprinkle with the Parmesan and basil, toss and serve.

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

Ciara Semack is the owner of The Blonde Bistro in Bellefonte. She is the mother of one and a lifelong resident of Centre County. Her column appears every other week in the Gazette. Questions, suggestions and comments can be directed to [email protected]
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