Pursuing Pasta Perfection

gwloloJune 26, 2013

Despite cooking a very wide variety of foods, it is clear that Pasta is on the top of the list with both DH and DD. My pasta is good enough. I just learned a few good pesto recipes and have a roasted tomato pasta sauce recipe that I will try to make when the tomatoes are ready in my area. But I want to do it better. My pasta dishes are not predictably excellent and I think I need to choose better quality pastas and learn to cook it better. So here are my questions:

- Is there a cheat sheet of what shapes of pasta goes with what kind of sauce?
- What is a good quality dry pasta look like?any brands you would recommend? I see spagetti for a buck and for 3.99 and they both list durum wheat. How does one know which is better. I once read something about finding pasta made with bronze dies as they have a rougher texture that grabs on to more sauce. How do I even know which brands and types have this.
- Cooking pasta. I know al dente means it is not overcooked. As a venerable SCOTUS justice once said,"I know it when I see it" on the plate but I can't seem to always recognize it in the pot. Can I trust the cooking time on the package?
- Does pre-soaking pasta work? Is there a way to cook it in a smaller container instead of dragging out the big pasta pot each time?
- Can cooked pasta be frozen. It would be so convenient if I can have bags of plain frozen spagetti or penne ready in the freezer that I can combine for a quickie dinner.
- What about baking pasta. My baked pasta attempts always seem to have dry crusty edges and soggy middles. Is there a science to dish size and layering so that the veggie lasagna or the shell bake is cooked nicely, is moist but not soggy and the cheese is melted and a bit toast but not crisp.

Too many questions I know but you guys understand where I am going with this. Show me the light :)

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Don't have time to type out much but our favorite pasta is Bionaturae. It's organic and is made using antique bronze dies. Made in Italy. We have one store in town that sells it but it's available at Whole Foods. Oh, we use their whole wheat. It's really good.


Here is a link that might be useful: Bionaturae Pasta homepage

    Bookmark   June 26, 2013 at 6:24PM
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Love pasta. Haven't tried the pasta maker SIL gave us yet.

    Bookmark   June 26, 2013 at 6:32PM
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I think of pasta as having three tiers of prices.

1. The in-every-supermarket, inexpensive varieties. Of these, Barilla is what I buy if I can't find:
2. A bit more expensive, not available everywhere, but not really hard to find. DeCecco is my basic pasta. I find it to be very much worth that extra buck.*
3. Really pricey, bronze-die-level "artisanal" pasta. I've had these a few times, maybe not the very best, because I haven't so far seen a need to spring for them.

*My son had an interesting take on this when he was a near-penniless student. If all you can afford is spaghetti, don't skimp on the pasta quality. Good pasta will make you happy with a very inexpensive dinner.

    Bookmark   June 26, 2013 at 6:45PM
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As to cooking time, I set the timer for the recommended cooking time, then test a piece of pasta with the pot off the burner. If it's done, drain and eat. If not, give it another minute and test. Repeat until done.

    Bookmark   June 26, 2013 at 10:03PM
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Triciae - I will try the bionature pasta and see if they work better. One of my favorite is fresh tomato basil sauce with Angel hair and it is dissapointing when the sauce does not stick to the pasta.

Anyone tried pre-soaking the pasta or any tips for cooking on lower heat in a smaller pan?

    Bookmark   June 27, 2013 at 3:22PM
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I'm German-Russian - not Italian. So, take the following with that in mind. lol

The pros say that you should ALWAYS cook pasta in a huge pot with lots of salted water. But, I have several pasta dishes that we love that are completely prepared stovetop with the sauce and pasta cooking together in chicken or fish stock. I use about 4-5 cups liquid to one pound of pasta. One pan. No straining. No dragging out the 12-quart stockpot. :)


    Bookmark   June 27, 2013 at 3:34PM
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You can definitely find guides for which pasta goes with which sauce (see link below) - do a search for "which pasta which sauce" or something similar. I sort of already have it in my mind what sauce I want when I buy a particular pasta, however, and I try to keep all my favorites in stock, but I often run out of the one I want to use at a particular time. A lot of them end up getting baked, and then you certainly do not need to use a 12 quart stockpot when boiling the pasta. The reason for having so much water (as I see it) is so that the pasta will not stick together and also so that the water temperature will not go down drastically when the pasta is added. I have found that you can get away with using a lot less water - it just simply isn't the traditional thing to do. A friend in Tucson made pasta for us one night, and he used a medium sized sauce pan to boil pasta for four people. It barely fit into the pan but was perfectly fine when it was done.


Here is a link that might be useful: Pasta-Sauce guide

    Bookmark   June 27, 2013 at 3:56PM
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Rapidly boiling water, started with the lid on. Put pasta in and stir, lid back on to bring back to a boil 2 min. , lid off and stir, give it a good stir every few minutes to prevent sticking together. Set timer for 3 min less than stated on box. Take out a piece with your wooden spoon, place on counter and slice it. You will see immediately if the middle has a hard or distinct white or uncooked 'core'. Check again in another minute. (that is for dried pastas with 8-12 cooking times)
If it is a 6min and under cooking time, follow that exactly.

I just stopped by Fairway in Harlem and did a pasta stock-up. (and everything else for the next week). They always have something on sale to try...2 for 7buck of the lovely rustic made with bronze dyes. I like lighter, fresh sauces in summer so i'll try anything but do have basic favorites. With these style pastas, one looks like sage leaves! , i just use the recommended time and test two minutes before.
It needs a tooth test. Bite into the one removed and see if that is your preferred 'al dente'.

DH is the bread and fresh pasta maker. Winter weather. A whole different story.

Angle hair with lighter pureed sauces maybe topped with grilled or sauteed shrimp, scallops, salmon. Nice with fresh pesto. Heavier meat or chunky sauces move up to fettucini. A much wider noodle for meatballs.

The 'Foglie d'Ulivo' (leaves of olives) would be nice with just a bit of fresh herbs and a bit of parm, maybe a big swish of lemon, as a side dish pared with salmon.

My husband has a favorite cheap Barilla (sp) fettucini that has ridges and buys it when i am out of town for his stinky fish(anchovy), garlic, cheese (falls-asleep-burns-the-pot) meal.
grrr, haha.

    Bookmark   June 27, 2013 at 5:05PM
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Okay, please explain the bronze dye thing. I'm hoping the definition of dye means blade in this case, not something to color the pasta with. Is that correct?


    Bookmark   June 28, 2013 at 9:38AM
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It's "die" as in die-stamping -- how the pasta is extruded from the machine. Bronze creates a rougher surface. The rough texture is better for holding sauces than the slick surface of most pasta.
I think this is a much slower production process, therefore more expensive.

    Bookmark   June 28, 2013 at 10:22AM
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Bumblebeez SC Zone 7

I use a medium small pot for cooking pasta for the 3 of us and it's always good. The key is to stir it often so it doesn't clump. I usually break fettuccine in half, however, it's worth it for me not to drag out the big pot and I have to cut up Dad's pasta anyway, dh could care less.
I use Barilla for everyday pasta. Not big on freezing it unless it's lasagna or manicotti.

    Bookmark   June 28, 2013 at 10:39AM
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Just within the last couple of years, I've started cooking pasta in much less water and adding the pasta to cold water at the start of the process. Usually use one of those chicken fryer type deep skillets to cook spaghetti pasta. I turn off the heat as soon as the water begins to boil, stir the pasta and clamp a lid over the pot. 4-6 minutes later, you have perfect pasta.

One notable thing about starting in cold water is that there is much less tendency for the pasta to stick & clump together. And lots less probs with boil-overs.

Here is a link that might be useful: Start pasta in cold water.

    Bookmark   June 28, 2013 at 9:39PM
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Interesting questions!

Before my BF learned that he's allergic to wheat, he insisted on buying only durum semolina pasta! Now he's stuck w/ gluten-free. :p

I never understood the concept of pasta dishes being 'different' simply because the pasta shape was changed. I choose the pasta shape according to how it will work to hold the sauce or other ingredients in the dish I'm preparing, and also take into account how it plates for eating. :)

When cooking a pasta for the first time, I start with the minimum recommended cooking time and then I bite-test a piece and adjust cooking time accordingly.

    Bookmark   June 29, 2013 at 6:22AM
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I never understood the theory that "holding sauce" is an important consideration in making most kinds of pasta.

Sauces always stick very well with any kind of pasta. Besides, I can use a spoon in addition to the fork to scoop up the sauce.

The one shape that really holds sauce well is macaroni. A lot of sauce can get inside the tube and stay there.


    Bookmark   June 29, 2013 at 6:44AM
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One of the cooking classes I took on the cruise was a pasta course.

I've made my own pasta and sauces forever but was hoping to learn something new.....

One thing that struck me was the chef's view that when using dry pasta the sauce should be the star and when using fresh homemade pasta the pasta should be the star....I think I instinctively knew that but I hadn't really thought of it in those terms.

She also had very specific ideas on what pasta shapes handle what sauces best.

Lots of well salted boiling water..gentler boil for fresh pasta and always a splash of pasta water into the sauce which should be left a little thick so as to accommodate the pasta water....

She was also very particular about the use of olive oil...in fact this was something she said over and over again in many classes. All sauces should have a splash of the best EVOO at the end of cooking or a time of plating...and EVOO was a total waste of money to saute with.


    Bookmark   June 29, 2013 at 2:26PM
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Thanks, Christine. Until this thread, I never thought about the machinery that cuts the pasta; I just thought about the ingredients in the pasta.

Interesting information, Sharon. It makes sense to make fresh pasta the star.

A long time ago I saw an episode of Top Chef where they went to an age old Italian restaurant in New York. The contestants had to make a pasta dish to serve at the restaurant, and to serve the owner and his family. One of the teams made the mistake of trying to make the pasta fresh, where dried would have been better. I don't remember why they thought that, other than the fact that they messed up making the fresh pasta. But the restaurateurs and the judges also felt that whatever the dish was that they were making, dry pasta would have been better suited. It would be helpful if I remembered their reasoning better, but it was a couple of years ago.

Did the chef teacher explain why sauteing with eevo is a waste of money?


    Bookmark   July 1, 2013 at 7:59AM
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I never salt the water that I am boiling pasta in - it is really unnecessary, unless you are a salt addict, and I like to limit the flavor of salt.

Personally, I do not like the idea of pasta or sauce being a "star" in a dish - that seems a bit contrived to me, and I prefer to think of the dish as a whole rather than as separate competing elements. I frequently use whole wheat dried pasta, and it often has more flavor than plain fresh pasta, although they never have the same texture. I also never use pasta water in the sauce, as the pasta I boil generally has enough pasta water still on it to dilute the sauce a bit. Of course there are many die-hard Italian traditionalists who will keep old traditions alive, merely for the sake of tradition, despite becoming outdated. My Sicilian roommate used to tell me that sauce (He called it gravy) was always better on the second day, but I always prefered it when it was fresher. I also prefer lasagna on the first day, as the flavors seem brighter, but his Sicilian grandmother had convinced him that leftovers were somehow better - perhaps as a way to get people to eat leftovers.

BTW, I saute with EVOO - but not the expensive brands - especially when cooking mushrooms. Everyone has their own preferences, but some chefs will claim that their method is the best way or the only way, whereas in reality, it is a matter of taste, and everyone's tastes are different. I take chefs' advice without the grain of salt, as I think most of them use too much salt.


    Bookmark   July 2, 2013 at 1:51PM
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Sally - I went to a cooking demonstration given by the owner/chef of a couple well- regarded restaurants in my area and he claimed that by the time olive oil is heated long and high enough to sauté anything it's lost much/most of its flavor so he said it was a waste of money. I've never tested to confirm this. He uses olive oil for lower heat and finishing applications.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2013 at 3:48PM
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The chef said pretty much what FOAS said except that her comments were relative to Pure Olive Oil vs EVOO for high heat cooking.

She prefers pure olive oil for sauteing and EVOO for salads , dipping and finishing. Actually two other chefs at cooking demonstration said exactly the same thing....don;t waste the money for EVOO on sauteing or high heat cooking.

Interestingly her preference for frying in peanut oil.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2013 at 4:10PM
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Sharon- Yes I took his comment to mean EVOO also, though he did use veg oil for sautéing. I tend to use EVOO anyway unless I'm using high heat or a bunch of oil. I don't use a ton of oil and EVOO is always handy on the counter. Plus I buy EVOO in a big tin cheaply and it would go bad if I didn't use it up quickly enough. ;-)

    Bookmark   July 2, 2013 at 4:34PM
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Like FOAS, I use the inexpensive EVOO in a large carton for sauteing mushrooms, but I do not use high heat, and so the flavor does not diminish noticeably. It is not a waste of money because it is inexpensive EVOO, and as said, it would go bad if I did not use it for sauteing. I use grapeseed oil for high heat frying and deep frying. The grapeseed oil costs about the same as the inexpensive EVOO, and those are the only two oils I buy in large quantities. I have also used avocado oil for high heat frying, and it is much more expensive than EVOO but has a very high smoke point.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2013 at 8:12PM
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Hi GW,

One thing I am sure of that pastas should not be overcooked. The pasta (penne, elbow, spaghetti or any shape) would take different time to soften. Penne takes less time to soften and elbow takes a bit longer. Once softened cook for 5 mins in the sauce you have prepared.


    Bookmark   July 3, 2013 at 6:28AM
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Welcome to the Cooking Forum, Mahek. Many members here are very interested in Indian cooking. Hope you will share.
This is my way of determining the best pasta shape for sauce. Shapes which have the maximum surface area per given weight.

Weight equal amounts of pasta.

Soak pastas in water for the same length of time.

drain all water from the pastas

Weigh again.

The heaviest pasta is the one which has the most surface area per weight to hold the most water.


    Bookmark   July 3, 2013 at 7:29AM
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Well that would suggest that the pasta which comes out heaviest is the best for all sauces. I suspect this idea is further flawed because you're assuming an even coating across all surface area, which as you point out would not be the case. Tubular pasta such as macaroni or to a greater extent penne and rigatoni would hold sauce within, as would shells or even rotini. I didn't do the experiment but I would expect capellini to have one of the greatest surface area to weight ratios, but how much sauce it holds will depend more on how you eat it. When I eat spaghetti, for instance, I'll swirl some around my fork (without the help of a spoon!) and then scoop up a bit of additional sauce if needed.

I'm skeptical of the whole concept of choosing the pasta that holds the sauce the best; I choose pasta based on the appearance and texture I want in my dish.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2013 at 9:08AM
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"---I suspect this idea is further flawed because you're assuming an even coating across all surface area, which as you point out would not be the case. Tubular pasta such as macaroni or to a greater extent penne and rigatoni would hold sauce within, as would shells or even rotini. ----"

It is not true that you feel my theory does not hold water. :-)

That is a very important consideration. As a matter of fact, you should not shake out the water when you are doing the comparison weighing. As I said in my previous post, tubular pastas can hold more sauce because of the geometry. The combination of surface area and geometry determine the ability of a pasta's ability to hold water(sauce).

It's a great conversation topic i.e. Perfect Pasta, the OT, when you have guests over for a pasta dinner.


    Bookmark   July 3, 2013 at 9:23AM
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It's funny, but frequently I choose pasta according to what I have in my pantry at the time. lol. But, given a choice, I tend to use the tubular pastas for cheesy sauces, and the spaghetti type pastas for tomatoey sauces, with the exception of the Pasta Shuta I like to make, which is spaghetti with blue cheese, garlic and olive oil, plus whatever else I have to throw in - usually lots of basil.

I remember whenever Emeril made pasta on his show, he'd make a big deal about completely draining the pasta water so it wouldn't make for soggy pasta, or dilute whatever sauce you want to use. I'd also see Giada make pasta, and she'd always reserve pasta water to add later. I guess to each their own, but I was confused by the conflicting instructions. I finally decided it completely depends on the sauce and the pasta dish - at least I guess that's the case.

I don't know if I saute at high heat or not. I get those big bottles of Whole Food's 365 eevo, which is pretty cheap most of the time. I also get non-gmo canola oil, which is more expensive than the olive oil I buy.


    Bookmark   July 3, 2013 at 9:33AM
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I'm with Dcarch in wondering why pasta needs to hold the sauce. Eating utensils hold both of them for each bite, don't they?

It took years and a couple coats of paint to break DH of using his childhood Italian neighbor's method of testing for pasta doneness. He'd remove a piece of pasta from the cooking water with a fork, shake the water off, and throw it up against the ceiling. If it stuck there, it was done. If it dropped back down to the floor, it needed a bit more cooking. Now I just remove a piece, run it under cold water to cool it a bite, and bite into it to see if it's ready.

There is a whole world of vegetable based pasta sauces when you start considering vegetables other than tomatoes. How about puréed asparagus and leek with Parmesan and tarragon? Minced cooked red beets with goat cheese and sage? Puréed peas with cream, marjoram and pancetta?

My only good pasta hint involves tomato paste, whose main mission in life is to thicken the sauce. Many people say that sauces made with tomato paste have a somewhat burnt taste but that's because they add it at the beginning and cook it too long. If you're making a recipe with paste as one of the ingredients, make the recipe as written but without the paste and add it in the last ten minutes of cooking.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2013 at 9:57AM
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"------It took years and a couple coats of paint to break DH of using his childhood Italian neighbor's method of testing for pasta doneness. He'd remove a piece of pasta from the cooking water with a fork, shake the water off, and throw it up against the ceiling. -----"

You DH's method is a good one to test pasta done-ness.

Sometime ago, for a rushed lunch, I had a can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti in a pot of simmering water to be heated up. Someone else was cooking in the kitchen and turned the wrong knob to high heat. The water got boiled away and the pot with the can was red hot, and the can with those pull open tops exploded. All the spaghetti with tomato sauce was on the ceiling.

And yes, the pasta was very done. :-)


    Bookmark   July 3, 2013 at 10:24AM
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I do think the pasta can be the star if homemade. My DH makes rolled cut wide noodles and it dries a few hours before cooking. Usually with a light basil, fresh tomato, garlic chips, grated parm. A classic mac-n-cheese to please children and adults?...i might use an interesting noodle similar to the 'american' macaroni but not the grocery variety after going to the trouble of using better cheeses, etc.
Similar with pizza. DH made the dough for tomorrow and will be nice on the grill as guests arrive. On the grill it is such a good thin bubbly crust. Most about the crust.
when we make it for us at home it is thinner and less 'bread' and all about the quality toppings.

I made a side dish last night using the 'olive leaf' bronze die pasta. (really about the cold pasta salad for tomorrow's 4th bbq). A simple pesto with fresh herbs and toasted nuts. Good warm with a steak and artichokes but will be just as good tomorrow chilled.

Fro valentines day i made salmon ravioli in a beet stock broth. The pasta and the ingredients were equally important in texture and flavor.

Lasagna has so much flavor otherwise i just need the pasta to hold up a bit and not 'mush'. I usually use rice pasta sheets. So yes, pasta does have independent uses for various dishes.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2013 at 11:23AM
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It is really interesting to read all the tips and methods that people follow.

I did try the Bionature pasta and I really loved the texture of the whole wheat. We tried both the spagetti and the fusili and it was really good. A couple of kids who were visiting seemed to prefer that to the barilla version (I made both).

I am very intrigued by the hydrated cold water pasta method. I am going to give that a try as DH is the dishwasher in chief and he is not happy when I pul out my 8qt pasta pot with the colander insert.

Sauce coating the pasta - I feel that this is kind of important as I like to make pasta with just enough sauce - not too much. Have blobs of sauce on the plate that you can spoon up would be not nice in my books. I saw that with the bronze die pasta (Bionature), the pest kind of coated it better. I did not see the much uncoated surface of the pasta. The Barilla was not coated as much. It would be nicer to taste the sauce first and not the blandness of pasta.Whether the extra cost of the bronze die pasta is worth it or not is a personal call. Mileage may vary there and as someone suggested, it may be more important for some recipes but not others. Carrying the argument to the other extreme, a super slick pasta version might be rice noodles or one of those zero cal tofu noodles. Nothing sticks to that :)

    Bookmark   July 3, 2013 at 4:35PM
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How would you serve spaghetti and meat sauce? Most seem to serve the sauce on top. I tend to mix a bit of sauce into the pasta but still serve most sauce on top. I don't recall ever having seen it served fully mixed together, except perhaps on a child's plate.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2013 at 5:39PM
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I tried the "cold water and cook" method for my orzo.
I didn't remove it from the burner, I just turned the heat off. Of course, having an electric stove, when I came back to check on it, it had boiled over.....story of my life.

Now that I know how to do it correctly :) I will be doing it again!

    Bookmark   July 4, 2013 at 11:07AM
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