How to make extraordinary pasta
With just a few extra steps, and a dash of precision, your pasta and your sauce can form a beautiful friendship
Since my earliest experiments with Kraft Dinner, I have been trying to make dried pasta and sauce be friends.
Over the years, powdered cheddar has been replaced by San Marzano tomatoes. Jamie Oliver has led to Marcella Hazan. But the goal has remained the same.
A perfect bowl of pasta is a comfort like no other. “Life is a combination of magic and pasta,” Federico Fellini is supposed to have said. But I have become convinced that the right combination of pasta and sauce can itself be magic.
After many bowls of mediocre pasta and a few transcendent ones, I have developed my own set of Pasta and Sauce Bonding Principles that I would like to share here with you. (SPOILER ALERT: butter is key.)
QUANTITY FOR THE RIGHT QUALITY
The ‘diamater-of-a-quarter-amount-of-spaghetti-per-person’ thing has never worked for me. Instead, having a kitchen scale has been the perfect way to measure accurate portions of pasta per person and not have to toss out a bunch at the end of the night.
For me, 120 grams dried pasta per person makes a fairly generous North American main-course serving of pasta. 70 grams is a nice Italian ‘primi’ (starter) portion of pasta, though I challenge you to eat that small a portion of pasta and not want more. 100 grams is a good amount for lunch.
If you don’t have a kitchen scale, eyeball judiciously, divvy up accordingly, and be okay with some leftovers.
DRAW THE BATH
It is very important to cook the dried pasta in a large pot of fairly aggressively salted water. 1.5-2 litres of water per 100 grams dried pasta is a good guide.
Regarding salt: I like to use one tablespoon Diamond Kosher salt for every one litre of water. If you are using table salt or fine sea salt, use only 1.5 teaspoons per litre. Follow your own preference, of course, but I believe the water should taste a bit salty. More reading on salinity levels in pasta water here at Serious Eats.
Add pasta to boiling water.
IMPORTANT: A minute or two before draining the pasta, reserve at least one cup of the pasta water. I use a coffee mug to scoop up some of that salty, starchy water. Reserve.
Cook the pasta to just slightly less than al dente, as we are going to continue cooking the pasta a little more with the sauce. (TIP: almost all dried pastas have the suggested cooking time somewhere on the package; TIP 2: This time usually errs on the side of just undercooked, and thus serves as a good maximum length of time to take out your pasta for these instructions.)
Put the drained pasta back into the pot (or even better, in a large frying pan/skillet) over medium-low heat. Add a GOOD KNOB of your best butter. One tbsp of butter per 200 grams dried pasta is a good rule. You can use slightly less if you’re on a diet or weird about butter, but be warned: it won’t be as good. Stir to melt butter and coat noodles.
Now add the sauce to the buttery pasta. A little sauce goes a long way!
If you are using something like ragu Bolognese, which can be really closer to a paste, 1/2 cup sauce per 100 grams dried pasta should be plenty. (Any more and it will just end up sitting at the bottom of the pot without any noodles to hang with.) Using tongs or two forks, gently incorporate sauce into the pasta.
Now is when you add the reserved pasta water, a little at a time. Start with a 1/8-1/4 cup pasta water. Turn the heat up to medium if needed. The sauce/pasta water/butter mixture should be bubbling gently and the starch in the pasta water should be helping to bind the sauce to the noodles. Continue to stir and lift the pasta and encourage a sticky kinship to develop between the pasta and sauce.
After a few minutes, the liquid should be bubbling nicely and be mostly reduced. You want it to look just a TINY bit loose and liquidy, with a nice glossy sheen from the butter.
If you added too much pasta water, just continue to reduce over medium-low heat. If your mixture is looking thirsty and dry, add a couple more tablespoons of the pasta water and continue to simmer. The pasta will continue to absorb the liquid.
Take the pasta off the heat when it is just barely loose and liquidy which should result in the perfect consistency at the table a few minutes later.
WARNING: If you added too much water or your pasta was underdone and you had to boil hard in this stage for a long time, be very careful as the pasta will become VERY HOT. In this case, let it cool a bit before eating.
Serve in your most rustic dishes or in a communal bowl (pre-warmed!) a la Lidia Bastianich. Either way, use the tongs to twist the pasta into an attractive heap.
CHEESE PLS (BUT NOT TOO MUCH!)
Grate or sprinkle a little bit of an appropriate cheese on top, but remember what Mario Batali says in this incredible Ragu Bolognese video: “Abundanzo is an American myth!” (i.e., don’t put too much cheese on top or you are a New World heathen! Lol!)
Buon appetito! Results may vary! Comments, suggestions and criticism welcome!
Andrew Sainsbury is Masi’s Regional Manager in Ontario (though he prefers to go by ‘MASI guy’). He holds a Certified Sommelier designation which means he is legally allowed to drink wine for breakfast and he makes up for his lack of Italian heritage by subsisting on a strict diet of ragu Bolognese.