Pasta is the king of the pantry—incredibly versatile and reliably delicious; it’s our go-to dinner more often than we’d like to admit. But even we have room to up our pasta game with some sage advice from the pros. From mastering the art of salting to successfully deploying a hit of acid, here’s how to create a more perfect pasta.
Pump up the starch: Restaurants use the same batch of water to cook pasta all night, and as the night wears on, that water gets more and more starchy. This is a good thing—starch acts as a stabilizer and helps create a smooth sauce that evenly coats each noodle, as opposed to a pool of broken butter water that slips to the bottom of the plate.
But what if you’re not cooking dozens of batches of noodles every night? No problem, chef Thomas McNaughton of flour + water in San Francisco says. In his cookbook flour + water: pasta (Ten Speed, $35), McNaughton recommends adding a handful of semolina flour to four quarts of pasta water as it boils. Once the pasta is cooked, use tongs or a spider to transfer it directly from the boiling water into the sauté pan with your sauce, so the sauce can pick up some of the starchy water clinging to the noodles. Keep the boiling water on hand while you toss in case you need an extra spoonful to loosen the sauce up.
Salt in layers: You probably know it’s important to salt your pasta cooking water (taste it! McNaughton adds ¼ cup kosher salt to four quarts boiling water, along with the aforementioned semolina flour), but you should be just as mindful of how much salt is going into your sauce, too. In fact, many pros like to season the sauce heavily, then pull the pasta from its cooking water a few minutes earlier than package instructions and let it finish cooking in a well-seasoned sauce. What gives?
Once the pasta hits the sauté pan, it begins to pick up flavors from the sauce surrounding it (note that the flavors don’t actually absorb into the pasta, rather they stick to its surface). Letting the pasta finish in the pan versus keeping it in boiling water gives you more control over seasoning. Taste the noodle before it hits the pan—is it too bland? Add more salt to the sauce. Plenty salty on its own? Adjust the flavor of the sauce with more water, stock or olive oil.
Brighten up: Every chef we spoke to agreed that there’s an important final step between that last toss in the pan and your first bite of pasta—adding acid, which brightens the flavor of the whole dish. Chef Joshua McFadden of Ava Gene’s in Portland, Oregon, who trained with pasta wizard Mark Ladner, likes to add a spoonful of milled tomatoes to tomato-based dishes. If tomatoes aren’t your style, there’s a whole realm of other acids that serve the same purpose, from sherry vinegar to lemon zest to a dollop of Greek yogurt.
Whichever acid you choose, add it after turning the flame off—high heat can transform acid’s bright flavors into something astringent and bitter. Likewise, if you’re adding fresh herbs, toss them in at the end, McFadden says. Like acid, they’ll help cut through the richness and perk up your entire plate.