Ask most people what their go-to easy dinner is and they’ll probably say pasta. Even the most clueless cook can usually manage to boil some up. But because we learn to do it so early on in our cooking life, we don’t really stop and think if we’re doing it right and just carry on chucking in a pan without much thought.
I know from the questions I get asked in my cooking classes that most people don’t know the easy tricks that make a bowl of pasta taste ten times as good. So if like me you rely on it for dinner at least once a week, read on to see how you can make it taste even better.
1. How much pasta to cook
How much pasta you cook depends on whether the pasta is a first course or main course and how hungry you are. As a guide, you should allow 75g-115g/3oz-4oz dried pasta per person .
2. Is fresh pasta better than dried?
Most Italians eat dried pasta most of the time – but they buy the best they can afford. Fresh pasta has its place, but it is hard to tell the difference between mediocre shop-bought ‘fresh’ pasta, which may have been sitting in a chilled warehouse for a couple of weeks, and good quality dried pasta. If you enjoy making your own fresh pasta, fill your boots. If not, you’re probably better buying a good dried one.
I always look for dried pasta with a rougher, matt appearance. This means the sauce will cling to the cooked pasta better. In the UK, most supermarkets have their own brand and the premium own brand is usually a good one. De Cecco (blue and yellow box) is a widely available in the UK and US.
My favourite wholegrain or gluten-free pasta
I prefer to use a wholegrain pasta most of the time as I like the extra fibre and nutrients. We aren’t gluten-free but many of my clients are so I’ve hunted down my favourite pastas that work for them…
UK I like the M&S Spelt rigatoni which isn’t gluten-free but is much easier to digest for people who struggle with regular wheat but aren’t celiac. Tesco, Sainsburys and Aldi sell spelt pasta of various shapes too. Waitrose Love Life and Dove’s Farm (at Sainsburys) gluten-free brown rice pasta is great too.
US My favourites are Community Grains brand (Whole Foods). Trader Joe’s brown rice penne and also brown rice linguini from Tinkyada Pasta Joy (Whole Foods).
3. Choose the right pasta for the right sauce
The pasta shape should be dictated by the sauce. Thick sauces need the support of the sturdier, thicker shapes of penne, tubes and shells – basically anything with nooks and crannies to hold the sauce. Oil based sauces are best with long pasta.
Heartier meaty or cooked tomato sauces work best with wholegrain pasta. Creamy, fresh or fishy sauces tend to be better with white pasta.
That said, the biggest thing that will transform your dinner isn’t the shape but how you mix the sauce and pasta. Keep scrolling to find out how.
4. How much water and salt to add, and why you shouldn’t add oil
Either cook the pasta in the sauce, or make it the traditional way…
The water you cook pasta in should be as salty as the Mediterranean sea – add about 2 teaspoons of fine grain sea salt per litre (33 ounces) of water. That way your pasta has some flavour before you add the sauce – so you need to work less hard to make everything taste amazing. Don’t panic about all the salt, you’ll throw almost all of it away with the cooking water but the pasta will absorb just enough to taste good.
There is no need to add oil, it will just float to the top and do nothing. People add it thinking it stops the pasta sticking together but the only way to stop it sticking is to cook it in plenty of water. That means around 1 litre of water per 100g pasta. This gives the pasta more space to move around. Use your biggest pan and boil your water in the kettle first and then put a lid on the pan to speed up the boiling time.
5. Keep the cooking water when you drain your pasta
The starchy, salty liquid left in the pan after the pasta is cooked is the key to a well-seasoned, full-bodied bowl of pasta. The pasta water contains starch which means it helps the pasta and sauce come together in a delicious silky way. The starch becomes the bridge between the pasta and the sauce.
Before you drain the pasta, ladle out one-two cups of the cooking water and save it. Get into the habit of keeping a small cup or jug in your colander to remind you to save some of the water rather than dump it down the sink.
6. Always mix your pasta and sauce together before serving
My heart sinks when I see a bowl of pasta served with sauce dumped on top. Always, always mix your sauce into your pasta in the pan before serving. Please. No one can manage to properly mix pasta and sauce together at the table in a little bowl and even if they do, the seasoning and texture won’t be right. this is why…
When you’ve finished your sauce and drained your pasta, keeping some of the cooking liquid, add your sauce to the pan of pasta and mix together on a low heat. After a minute of mixing you’ll see the sauce starting to dry out a bit so use some of the cooking water (see above) to gradually add to the sauce and pasta as you mix it together. If you’ve ever looked at a dried up bowl of leftover pasta in the fridge the following day you’ll see how it continues to suck up the sauce. Adding a little of the cooking water will make the sauce silky and the right texture. Trust me.
Once the pasta, sauce and some of the cooking water is mixed and the texture is right, taste some and adjust the seasoning. This is the time to add a final hit of black pepper, grated cheese and a splash of acidity – red or white wine vinegar or lemon juice to brighten up the flavour. I often stir some chopped basil, parsley, rocket (arugula) or watercress through once the pan is off the heat. The heat of the pasta will wilt it.
Get more recipes and tips like this
If you’d like to get my newsletter every couple of weeks, packed with recipes and tips like this and my meal plans, please sign up here.