Don’t get lost in the sauce.

By Natalie B. Compton
March 29, 2019
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Photography: Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Anna Hampton; Prop Styling: Mindi Shapiro Levine

Like many carb dishes, pasta is overwhelmingly better when served fresh. Store-bought will do, but biting into a forkful of just-made spaghetti or linguine or rigatoni is real living. If the idea of making pasta for the first time is daunting, fear not. We’ve asked professionals in the pasta world to help break down beginner basics. Here are things to avoid, tips to pick up, and moves to master so that you can upgrade your homemade pasta.

Have the right tools

The beauty of making pasta is that it doesn’t require having a ton of crazy equipment at home. “Making pasta is more about your own skill development and less about fancy tools,” says Spago Beverly Hills chef de cuisine Tetsu Yahagi. What you will need are pretty simple. “A rolling pin, hard wooden surface on which to work, a pasta machine for rolling the dough out, and a good cooktop/burner that is capable of maintaining a rolling boil,” says chef Alexander Bollinger of Angel Oak in The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, Santa Barbara. Additional items you’ll need include a large pot, strainer, tongs, and the right ingredients. You could also cop some extra equipment like a pasta maker. “I would also suggest using a Kitchen Aid with a dough attachment so you don’t have to work so hard to knead the dough,” says Portland’s seven-time James Beard nominated chef Justin Woodward of Castagna and OK Omens.

Not all pots are created equally

On the note of pots—using the wrong-sized pot for your pasta will get you off on a bad start. “If you use too small of a pot, and there isn’t enough room for the pasta to move around, it will cook unevenly and stick together,” says Leah Ferrazzani, owner of Semolina Artisanal Pasta. Eater Portland 2017 Chef of the Year Gabriel Pascuzzi of Stacked and the soon-to-open Mama Bird recommends a large 12- to 16-quart pot with tall sides.

Watch: How to Make Creamy Spring Pasta

 

Follow your dough recipe with caution

For your dough, find a straightforward recipe to follow, and follow it carefully. “Common mistakes when making homemade pasta include not using enough liquid causing the dough to be too dry, or not using enough flour which makes the dough too wet,” says Bollinger. “Also, the length of time spent kneading the dough is very important—not kneading it enough causes the gluten to be underdeveloped, resulting in tough, flat dough.” On the other end of the spectrum, over kneading your dough will lead to over-developing gluten and resulting in subpar dough. Once your done making the dough, leave it alone for a while for best results. “Let it rest for at least an hour, but it is better if it is overnight,” Woodward says.

If you mess up, don’t stress out too much. “It’s OK to make mistakes! Pasta is somewhat like Play-Doh, you can always re-work the dough and start over,” Bollinger says. “The more you practice the better you get at it, so have fun with the process and experiment with the liquid to flour ratio to find what works best for you. Play around with different shapes and sauces—pasta-making should be fun!”

Get the recipe: Class Pasta Dough

Salt your water

With your pasta made and rested, fill up your large pot with water and bring it to a boil, then throw in some kosher salt. “Most pasta has no salt in the recipe, so the water is what seasons the noodle,” says Pascuzzi. Salting your water is a game changer for your pasta’s natural flavor. Forgetting it will be a detriment to your finished product. “Salt turns up the volume on the wheat flavor,” Ferrazzani says. “Under-seasoned water equals bland pasta.”

Don’t overcook it

This might sound like the most painfully obvious advice in the world, but don’t overcook your pasta. Chefs site this as the most common mistake people make when cooking pasta. “You can always cook it more not less, furthermore you can continue to cook it in the pan once it's out of the pot,” says Woodward. “Cook fresh pasta briefly (it depends on the thickness), and test it. Fresh pasta doesn’t need to be cooked very long.” What you’re shooting for is pasta that’s al dente, Italian for “to the tooth.” You want a pasta with some chew to it, not a soggy mess. “Pasta should have some bite without being crunchy,” Ferrazzani says. “The only way to ensure you’re cooking it well is to taste it as you go. Poor quality pasta will be softer in the palate than pasta made from 100% Semolina.”

Save some pasta water

When your pasta is finished cooking, it’s integral to keep some of the water in which it was cooked. “The starch in the pasta water helps your sauce stick to the noodle (that, and using bronze-die extruded pasta),” Ferrazzani says. That starch helps the flavor and consistency of your pasta sauce. “In dishes like Cacio e Pepe, it makes the sauce entirely,” Ferrazzani says.

Sauce it up

Your pasta is cooked (AL DENTE) and ready to sauce. Don’t overthink this part. “Cook what you love to eat. I love simple pastas at home,” says Joe Vigortio, Executive Chef, L’Artusi in New York City. “[Try] anchovy, garlic, chili flake a little bread crumb for crunch. And always a good olive oil.” Ferrazzani suggests Marcella Hazan’s simple tomato sauce. “All you need are whole peeled tomatoes, and onion halved, some butter and some salt,” Ferrazzani says. “It’ll make you wonder why you’ve always bought jarred sauce.” Her other suggestion is pasta al limone, a bright sauce from the Amalfi Coast that simply calls for lemon juice, lemon zest, and pasta water. As far as your cheese garnish goes, high quality Parmesan is almost always a great idea but not mandatory. “Switch up the Parmesan once in a while, try a nice goat or sheep's milk hard cheese,” Pascuzzi says. “I like the saltiness of Pecorino Romano.”

Get the recipes: Sicilian Spaghetti Sauce

 

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