I’m just joking a bit with the title of today’s post, but in all seriousness I hope you gain lots of tips and tricks to make cooking pasta (and gluten free pasta) so much easier (and tastier)! I don’t have a ton of restaurant experience, but I did learn several things that have revolutionized the way I cook, (especially how I cook pasta). The biggest thing most people struggle with in the kitchen is timing – when there are so many things going on, it’s easy to wreck dinner in just a few minutes of inattention. Today I have a set of tips to make your life easier on how to cook pasta, and really own it!
One thing I learned to do well during my time in a professional kitchen, is how to cook pasta restaurant style – each and every order that comes in is made ‘to order’. So… how do they do that? It’s actually really simple (really!) and it’s all about the prep work. When a chef gets several orders at once, there could be 3 or more different plates of pasta being prepared at any given time – and depending on the restaurant there could be 20 or more pans on the stove at the same time! All the vegetables are prepared and chopped, and the biggest secret of all is what they call Double Cream. Double cream is an absolute essential – (it’s already reduced heavy cream). By pre-reducing the cream they take the time factor out of each order.
So how does this translate to the at home cook exactly? It’s about knowing your dish – you know exactly how long and how to cook pasta, and with that information the timing comes together much more easily, especially when you do your prep work ahead of time. Below I have a list of 10 things that will turn around the stress of cooking pasta, and make your dinners even more delicious! I’ve put together the short list version first, and in the second half I have lots more to go with each of the 10 tips.
So… here are 10 steps to cook pasta (like a boss/chef):
For the super quick version:
- prep everything you need before starting to cook the pasta
- reserve some of the cooking water
- salt the cooking water – ratio: 1-2 Tablespoons sea salt to 4-5 quarts of water for 1 pound of pasta
- use enough water – ratio: 1 pound pasta to 4-5 quarts of water
- have your sauce ready to go before cooking the pasta
- warm the serving bowls
- be ready to sit down and eat when the pasta is ready
- cook the pasta to Al Dente
- take it out when it’s still pretty firm to finish cooking it in the sauce
- garnish with elements of your recipe for a more enjoyable visual experience
And… now for the more involved version if you’re up for a bit of reading!
1. Always have your prep work done before you turn on a burner – this really takes the stress out of things. And, is there anything worse than mushy pasta after you put in a good effort?
2. Reserve a bit of the cooking water. Right before your pasta is done, scoop out about 1 cup of the pasta cooking water. You probably won’t use that much, but it’s perfect for loosening the sauce if your pasta becomes a bit dry. Because the water already contains starch from the pasta and salt, it actually adds to the flavor of the dish unlike plain water.
3. And speaking of salt, SALT THE COOKING WATER – this is beyond important! I use 1-2 Tablespoons of sea salt for every pound of pasta. The salt permeates the pasta as it’s cooking and adds a level of flavor that cannot be added in simply by salting the sauce. Feel free at any point to roll your eyes because I can be a bit pedantic about this stuff, but it really does make a difference in your food – that’s why chef’s use these techniques!
4. Use enough water to cook your pasta – if there’s not enough water for the pasta to ‘swim’ you run the risk of having a massive lump of gluey pasta, and there’s really no way to fix it. The normal ratio is 1 pound of pasta to 4-5 quarts of water.
5. Have your sauce almost ready before ever putting the pasta into the cooking water! The only thing I do once my pasta is cooking is chop some fresh herbs, and grate parmesan if I’m using it.
6. Warm your serving bowls. When you get a plate of pasta at a restaurant, it comes in a warm, almost hot serving dish. This really extends how long the pasta stays hot, and doubles the goodness of the overall eating experience. Feel free to insert another eye roll here, but it really is the little things in life. I don’t have a warming oven so I put my pasta bowls in the oven before I start making pasta and turn it to 150ºF, when it reaches temperature I turn off the oven and leave the bowls in to stay warm until I’m ready for them.
7. Once the pasta goes in the water, everyone had better be ready to eat! Pasta can’t sit on the stove, sauced and ready for an extra 10 minutes without getting a bit mushy.
8. Al dente – what is that anyway? Al dente literally means ‘to the tooth’ and by that they mean there should be a light resistance when you bite into it. In visual terms, this means when you bite into a piece of pasta, there will be a small white core in the center of the pasta. With gluten free pasta (the pasta in the photos today is Delallo’s gluten free brown rice pasta), this can be a bit more tricky – when you bite into it the center won’t be white but it will be darker in the center than the edges, (refer to the photo below).
9. Drain the pasta when it’s still a little firm. This is probably the #1 restaurant chef tip – they always pull the pasta out of the cooking water before it’s perfectly cooked. The pasta goes straight into the prepared sauce, and they’re simmered together for a few minutes. This helps the sauce adhere to the pasta because the pasta will release a bit of starch into the sauce – this is also where that reserved cooking water comes in, if the sauce seems dry a chef will either add a bit more cooking water, olive oil, or double cream – just to loosen the sauce for the perfect ‘coat’!
10. Garnish – a chef always garnishes the food, and it makes it so much more appealing! When we were at Mercato in Calgary, it was like watching the ballet the way the chef moved around the kitchen, every movement was so fluid. I especially enjoyed how he plated the pasta in traditional Italian style, once it’s on the plate, it gets a drizzle of good quality extra virgin olive oil and freshly grated parmesan. He had a different set of garnishes for each dish – for example the handmade gnocchi with spring peas was topped with fresh pea shoots, grated parmesan, and slice of prosciutto wrapped into a rosette on top, simply stunning! Not that it has to be that involved, just take a couple elements from your pasta dish and use them for a garnish. For my summer penne, (photo below) I saved some cherry tomatoes and freshly grated parmesan to top it with. It’s simple, but it really adds a visual element to your dish!
I hope you enjoyed this how-to post, and be sure to let me know if there’s another subject you’d like to hear more about?