An editor who sits nearby likes to show me his lunch every day. He presents it for my approval like I’m the Mother Confessor of cooking.
The great thing about this is his enthusiasm. He takes such pride in cooking and packing his own lunch every day. He likes to discuss the smallest details with the seriousness of a scientist.
His regular debate: Pasta. How do you pick the right shape? How do you decide what kind of sauce? Should you rinse it after you cook it?
How can one small thing have so many mysteries?
Actually, I look forward to his daily quizzes. Like my lunch friend, I like thinking about the mysteries of small things.
So, here are the 10 things I know about pasta:
1. Pasta comes in all shapes and sizes because no single shape is perfect for everything. Thin, smooth noodles need light, smooth sauces. Heavier noodles hold heavier sauces. Flat ribbons are for cheese and cream sauces. Tubes, shells and curls are for chunky sauces with bits of meat and vegetables.
2. Always start with a big, deep pot and lots of water.
3. Temperature counts: Make sure the water is really boiling. The most efficient way to bring water to a boil is to cover it while it heats. But don’t cover the pot while the pasta cooks or it will boil over.
4. Always salt the water just before you add the pasta. Salt added to the cooking water will flavor the pasta better than adding it later. If you season it after you cook it, you’ll use more salt because it won’t get absorbed into the pasta as it swells.
5. Keep things stirred up at the beginning.
6. Don’t add oil. If you do it right — lots of water at a full boil and stir it at the beginning — your pasta won’t stick together. Besides, the oil will keep the sauce from clinging.
7. When you drain pasta, save some cooking water. A splash or two of starchy cooking water is magic for pulling a sauce together. (Try this: Put a heatproof serving bowl in the sink and drain some of the pasta water into it as you drain the pot. Use a splash or two of the pasta water as needed, then empty the bowl and add the pasta and sauce to the warm bowl.)
8. Never rinse pasta. The starch clinging to it helps it hold on to the sauce.
9. Strike while it’s hot. If you add hot pasta to hot sauce, it will absorb more sauce and flavor.
10. Give things a chance to come together: Cook the pasta until it’s almost, but not quite, done, then drain it and add it to the sauce. Add a splash of cooking water. Stir it all together and cook for a couple of minutes longer. Add anything you need to finish it, like cheese or fresh herbs, and serve.