Close your eyes and imagine the sound of water boiling, the delicate sent of starchy steam filling the air. If you’re lucky, there’s also the rich, tart odor of tomatoes cooking with basil. Yes, what you’re imagining is pasta—exquisite, delicious, Italian pasta. And while it may be no trouble to imagine this familiar, comforting dish, there may be a lot you don’t know about pasta.
For one, despite it being the undisputed national food of Italy, it seems that pasta actually originated in Greece around 1000 A.C., as thin sheets to be boiled in water. Pasta was first documented in 1154 a kind of “tourist guide” of the era, when an Arab traveller spoke of eating the dish in what is now Palermo, Sicily. And we have the Arabs to thank for dried pasta, which was created so it could be easily transported across long distances.
The original recipe for pasta called for just durum wheat with tepid water, although over time the durum wheat was more commonly mixed with soft what. And today, even eggs are added. But whichever type of pasta is your favorite, they are all quite similar from a scientific point of view. The primary ingredient, flour, makes pasta a super concentrated source of starch, captured in a web of protein. Egg pasta contains even more protein, which is why it tends to be less “sticky” when cooked. To help reduce the risk of sticky pasta even more, you can quickly rinse homemade pasta under a thin stream of cold water, while continuing to knead, which helps to remove some of the starch. Then, of course, pasta can be dried by putting into a pre-heated oven at 90°C—the perfect temperature for preserving the characteristics of starch—once it’s been rolled out and shaped on a tray. At this point, whichever pasta you are using, you should keep a few cooking rules in mind.
First of all, pasta should always be cooked in boiling water—a rolling boil, that is. To the contrary of what many people do, it’s not necessary to add oil to the water: studies have shown that, statistically speaking, cooking pasta rarely passes through the “oil slicks” in the pot. What is helpful, however, is adding a bit of acid to the water, like a teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice. In this way, proteins isolate themselves from the starch even more—which means that the pasta remains firm and not sticky.
And now, the fundamental question: for how long should it be cooked? The time you see on the package is for pasta that is very, very “al dente”, or firm. If you are acidifying the water, add a couple more minutes for dried pasta, just one more minute for fresh. Once you drain the pasta, add a couple of teaspoons of oil and stir, then add your favorite sauce. The oil ensures that each strand of pasta remains slippery enough not to stick, while binding the sauce nicely.
If you follow these simple suggestions, you’ll notice a marked difference in your dinner. Instead of a hastily thrown together dish, your meal will resemble something that you might be served in a fine restaurant. And if the pasta is of high quality, you’ll need just a light sauce: even a bit of butter and parmigiano cheese is enough to bring out the delicious, delicate flavor of the starch.