Pasta is one of the most versatile and beloved dishes a private or personal chef can make. It is also possibly one of the most misunderstood. Too often, conventional training results in bland and forgettable pasta.
For chefs looking to serve restaurant quality meals at home, there are commonly practiced pasta preparation methods that need to be ignored:
Coating Pasta in a Rich Sauce
There’s nothing wrong, per say, with a homemade alfredo sauce, or creamy tomato. The problem happens when the pasta is overwhelmed by too much fat: overwhelming, rather than enhancing, the natural starchy components. Cream based sauces can also overwhelm lighter elements, like vegetables or seafood. If you do go with a cream sauce, using less than you would an acid based (like tomato) sauce), and be sure to balance other fat components. Chef Mario Batali, for instance, recommends that, for butter sauces, cold butter works better as a finishing emulsion.
Rinsing Pasta After it’s Cooked
This isn’t a preparation method everyone follows, but it is a short cut way, so to speak, to cool the pasta so it can be handled more quickly. But not only is this unnecessary; it may end up in ruining the texture of the pasta. Rinsing pasta washes away the starches that help sauces adhere to it.
The one exception? Cold pasta salads. Rinsing with help get rid of the gummy texture and help cool it sufficiently.
Adding Oil before Boiling and Not After
You’ve likely heard that adding oil to a pot helps the pasta from sticking while boiling. In reality, you want to add oil after, rather than prior, to cooking. Ever heard of the phrase “mixing like oil and water?” It applies here. Oil does little to prevent sticking, tends to surface at the top of the water, and may even strip the pasta’s natural starches that help sauce adhere after it’s cooked.
Exception: A light drizzle of high quality olive oil, for cold pasta salads, can be used after its cool, to add a bit of flavor and help herbs and seasonings adhere to the pasta.
Sticking with Familiar Sauces
Alfredo or Marinara sauces are “safe choices”. They are popular, well known, and easy to prepare. Sticking with only these two types of sauces, however, places undue restrictions on all a hot pasta dish has to offer. In order for personal and private chefs to stand out from their competition and create a dish and experience worth remembering, it may be wise to try some more adventurous options.
Salting with a “Grain of Salt”
This is a bit different, because this is an instruction that should be followed-salting water before you boil pasta- but often is ignored as a “negotiable” order. If anything, there are many who think that salting pasta afterwards is sufficient, or want to cut back in salt and skip this step.
In reality? The original rule trumps the flexible “maybe I will, maybe I won’t” attitude. Salting the water beforehand is one of the most important things a chef can do to create a flavorful dish. Just a little sprinkling of salt not only seasons the pasta, but helps preserve texture. Without any salt, the pasta may become slimy or overly starchy.
Taking Instructions to Heart
For chefs less confident in preparing pasta, they may assume safer is better. In this case, maybe not. Following instructions on pasta boxes may steer you wrong. Think about it: just like anything else, cooking instructions are more often guidelines than strict rules. There are many factors: how hot the water is, what kind of pasta and how much is being cooked, and how cooked you want your pasta to be.
Best Bet? Test the pasta a few minutes before the shortest suggested cooking time. To do so, take a single piece and cut it in half: if the inside is a different shade than the outside, it needs more time. Al dente pasta should be slightly hard/ chewy in texture, but easy to pierce and cut.