Few things bring joy like a plate of pasta – which is why on any given night millions of Australians sit down to a comforting bowl of carbonara, a slab of cheesy, homemade lasagne or a quick-and-easy spaghetti creation.
And while most of us talk a big spag-bol game, a lot of our pasta attempts fall short of the perfect plates served up at our favourite Italian eateries. There’s just something about those dishes that’s better (except for the pasta made by our nonnas, of course). But what is it about their handling of the same ingredients that makes such a difference?
Whether you’re buying packet pasta or rolling your own, we asked some of Australia’s most acclaimed pasta wizards for their essential pasta-cooking tips.
Toss and season in the saucepan says Andreas Papadakis – Melbourne’s Tipo 00 and Osteria Ilaria
Restaurant-quality pasta is finished in a pan one portion at a time. A 26-centimetre pan will fit 100 to 120 grams of pasta comfortably, and if you want to stretch it, you can use a 32- centimetre pan for 200 to 240 grams of pasta. That allows you to toss the pasta comfortably and to emulsify the starches with the sauce.
Tossing the pasta for at least 30 seconds in the pan to perfect the consistency, along with adjusting the seasoning, is one of the most important steps. While you are tossing the pasta in the sauce, taste for seasoning and add some stock or pasta water to get the right consistency. Adding some olive oil, salt, pepper or parmigiano makes all the difference to the finished product.
It’s all about the pasta water says Elizabeth Hewson – author Saturday Night Pasta
Pasta cooking water is liquid gold. Pasta releases starch as it boils away, and when this starchy water meets your sauce, it emulsifies everything and makes your dish the luxurious and silky pasta of your dreams. Just remember to give your pasta and sauce a strong stir in the pan to encourage that emulsification.
Having the sauce ready when your pasta is done is a vital step. As the great [Italian-born cooking writer] Marcella Hazan says, “there should be no pauses in sequences between draining, saucing, serving and eating”. Pasta waits for no man. Cooked pasta should not be allowed to sit, or it will turn into a clump. You should never serve sauce on top of pasta so toss, toss, toss. Tossing your pasta through your sauce allows it to become one. Then add a little more pasta cooking water – you’ll always be surprised at how much the pasta and sauce drink up. Toss some more, then stir in your cheese little by little and, if using, butter or oil. Oh, and dress your pasta in sauce, don’t drown it. The pasta should be the star, not the sauce.
Make sure to include acid says Scott Williams – Sydney’s Ragazzi
Always finish your pasta with a kick of acid. This doesn’t just mean a squeeze of lemon, which doesn’t always work or make sense for the dish, but good quality vinegar to cut through any richness. There are some seriously interesting vinegars kicking around the country these days, so invest in some to stock your pantry. I use vinegar in some form in every dish at Ragazzi – it’s not super Italian, but neither am I.
At Ragazzi, every noodle spends at least 90 seconds in the pan with the sauce after boiling – just ticking over on the stove. It helps everything get to know each other and gives you a chance to work out your sauce consistency. Just when your sauce is almost there, add a good whack of butter, take it off the heat, toss (or vigorously stir), taste, season and serve.
Hydrate and laminate your dough says Joel Valvasori-Pereza – Perth’s Lulu La Delizia
Hydration is key to pasta making. Doughs that are too wet are hard to work with because they’re sticky, meaning you need to work with too much flour when rolling the sheets to stop them fusing together. Doughs that are too dry struggle to form but are easy to fix. When forming a dough, start on the dryer side of the equation. Use a water spray gun on the mist setting to distribute extra moisture around the dough more evenly.
In pasta-sheet making, a process called lamination is used to add layers of developed gluten into the dough. These multiple layers help give the dough more spring and bite. This helps give the pasta a good al dente feel without the need to undercook the pasta for bite. Pasta lamination is about stretching the gluten to its extremes while folding it back on itself several times to give the layers.
Always finish pasta in the sauce says Will Cowper – Otto Brisbane
Finish the pasta in the sauce. Particularly at home, I find it’s best not to fully cook the pasta in the pot. Take it out a few minutes early and then pop the pasta in the sauce, as this helps thicken the sauce with the starch from the pasta and helps to coat the pasta with the sauce while it’s finishing cooking. As always, make sure to add some of the pasta water.
I don’t like to use filled pasta straightaway – if it’s too fresh, it cooks too quickly. If you are making filled pasta, give it a day in the fridge as that will allow it to set.
Boil big and liberally salt says Tania Nicolo – Perth’s Monsterella Pizza
Make sure you have plenty of water in the pot and don’t even think about putting the pasta in unless the water is boiling, not simmering. Pasta needs room to move, and cooking it in the intense boiling water stops it from sticking together.
Salt the water like the sea ... [W]hen you think you have added enough salt, add more – salt gives pasta flavour.
Jazz up pasta water using semolina flour says Laura Sharrad – Adelaide’s Nido and Fugazzi Bar & Dining Room
Add a small handful of semolina flour to your cooking water. Add a ladle of your boiling water to a bowl with a small handful of semolina or 00 flour and create a slurry, then add this to your cooking water with lots of sea salt. This ensures your cooking water is super starchy, and a ladle of that liquid in your pasta sauce brings the glossiest result to your pasta.
Adding a small handful of parmigiano or pecorino cheese when you’re tossing the pasta through the sauce does a few things: it thickens it, it makes the sauce glossy and gives it a slight creaminess.