Pasta is a delivery mechanism for children as far as I can tell. It is the universal canvas upon which nearly any flavour can be introduced. So why do so many adults sneer at it? The benefits of fresh handmade pasta over dried shop bought are real, but with a little science and the right tools we can narrow that gap to nearly nothing.
Dried pasta is an inexpensive, portable and versatile food. It has relatives all over the world. Rice flour pastas, mung bean flour pastas, couscous, they all follow the same story. What I’m interested in for this post is the stuff you can get in any supermarket or corner shop here. Dried durum flour pasta. “Italian” pasta.
The shape of pasta seems almost infinite, but it’s not. I’ll come to choice of pasta shapes in another post.
Durum is the hardest variety of wheat (i.e. highest protein content). Pasta dough made with durum wheat flour is very stiff, which gives our dried pasta its unique resilient texture when cooked.
Durum wheat kernels are ground through steel rollers, separating out the bran and the germ then cracking the starchy endosperm into pieces. Semolina comes from here too.
Producers take great care when they dry their pasta. Dried pasta dough has an optimum moisture level of 12 per cent. If it’s dried too quickly or more than that, it breaks too easily, but too slowly or less and bacteria start partying.
Once you get your dried pasta home, all you have to do is cook it in a big vat of boiling salted water for ten minutes, right? Regardless of shape, size or intention of pasta, those seem to be the instructions.
Uh, not exactly.
Let’s consider what happens in that pan when we cook pasta.
The starch in the flour has to hydrate in the water then gelatinise in the heat. If you put cold dry spaghetti into hot water the surface starch hydrates and becomes sticky, so if you don’t stir it will stick together. There is a pernicious myth that adding oil to the water will help this. It won’t. Oil and water don’t mix, the oil will just float on the surface. It will reduce the surface tension of the boiling water / starch mix reducing that annoying boilover problem, though.
Ok, so if we have a really huge pot of boiling water, that’ll reduce stickiness, right?
Theoretically, you will need to stir it less because the large volume of moving, boiling water will do the work for you. Theoretically.
In practice, Harold McGee published an article in the New York Times in 2009 showing you could cook dried pasta perfectly in a bare minimum of water. What’s cool about this is if you use a minimum of water, you can even use the water in funky ways…. but that’s for another post.
So what is going on here?
We’re going to look at what professional kitchens do with dried pasta, and then what we can do at home. In my opinion, this is one of the cases where we can win this game.
Most large restaurants parcook their pasta before service. They take it to very al dente then shock it in ice water, and coat it in a neutral flavour oil. This way they can cook it really really quickly in the pressure of a service.
This doesn’t sound like a method to transfer to the home to me. The pasta is easily overcooked. If there isn’t enough oil the pasta will give up starch and glue itself together as it cools. Either that or, worse, it will continue to absorb moisture as it cools making it flabby and, well, nasty.
Finally, if there’s too much oil, the pasta itself is now adding oil to the sauce I want to cook it in.
There must be an answer, and with a little science, and the right tools, there is.
The answer is a cold water soak. This completely separates the hydration process from the cooking process. The time spent soaking depends on the thickness of the pasta. Linguine takes 90 minutes ish. Fettucini two hours. Rigatoni 4 hours. Spaghetti one hour. It’s a beautiful and amazing process, as you have very fine control over how you like your pasta done.
If fully hydrated, the pasta starts cooking the moment it comes into contact with boiling water, and it takes just 60 seconds.
Let’s go nuts. The pasta will absorb the flavour and colour of the hydrating liquid. So once you’ve tried this method and become a convert, water will become a very boring way of cooking pasta. But that’s another post.
Uh, some dried pasta.
Your choice what type and how much.
Some cold, water-like liquid, seasoned well.
Cover the pasta with the liquid, then wait between one hour and several until it’s the consistency you want. Drop it into boiling water for 60 seconds. Drain and serve.