Lesson 22: How to Make Pasta Dishes

How to Make Pasta Dishes

In my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, pasta is a fundamental food staple. Until writing this book, it never occurred to me that other people outside of St. Louis may not know anything about pasta. So in this section, I am going to pretend that you are space alien who has never seen pasta before and teach you the fundamentals of pasta.

Pasta vs Noodle

Pasta vs Noodle is a bit like Square vs Rectangle. All pastas are noodles, but not all noodles are pasta. Pasta is a specific Italian form of noodle making that utilizes durum, semolina, or macaroni. These are all types of specific wheat flours. For a noodle to be considered pasta, it has to be made out of one of these flours.

Dried vs Fresh Pasta

The very first thing you will notice about pasta is that it is available in 2 major categories:

1 Dried Pasta
Dried pasta is what most people associate with pasta that you purchase in a store. It has been created and then dried for long term storage. This pasta is made without eggs. Dried pasta, when cooked, has a more firm texture.

2 Fresh Pasta
Fresh pasta comes in 2 forms: refrigerated or frozen. Fresh pasta is made with eggs, which makes for a softer texture. Ideally, fresh pasta is used in applications like ravioli or tortellini, where you are going to stuff the noodles with a filling.

There is a major misconception involving the word fresh. Fresh pasta is not better than dried pasta. It is just different in construction and texture. Dried pasta is more appropriate for most situations involving pasta. So please remove any inherent bias that you may have about pastas when the word “fresh” is involved. Remember, when speaking about pastas, fresh means soft.

Pasta Shapes

Every brand of pasta uses their own recipe to create their brand of pasta. So if each shape of the pasta is identical in recipe, how can we account for the actual measurable taste difference that occurs between the different shapes of pasta? The quantifiable explanation is that each shape of pasta creates a different texture, which then creates a different flavor. The pasta recipe is identical for each shape, so therefore, it must be the texture of the shape itself that is influencing flavor. If you eat the same weight of fettuccine and the same weight of spaghetti, you will find that the fettuccine feels heavier and more filling. You will also find that the spaghetti feels lighter and less filling. The only difference between the 2 pastas is its shape. So we can draw the conclusion that the shape of pasta effects not only flavor, but also the perception of fullness and weight as well.

This is why it is so important to choose a shape of pasta that is complimentary to the sauce and other ingredients that you will be serving with it. Angel hair pasta is incredibly thin and delicate. This angel hair pasta compliments lighter, more delicate flavors like seafood, basil, or scallops.

Large tube pastas, like rigatoni, are heavier in weight. They compliment heavy cream sauces and big, bold flavors. This is why rigatoni is usually served with a heavy cream sauce and lots of cheese.
The shape of pasta influences both the adhesion of sauce to the pasta and the thickness of the sauce in the dish. Shell shapes are particularly effective at holding little reservoirs of sauce, which create flavor explosions when you eat them.

How To Properly Cook Pasta

Properly cooking pasta is actually extremely easy. The key is to have water that is salted until it tastes like the ocean.

1 Fill your pot with hot water. About ¾ of the way full.

2 Add kosher salt to the pot and stir until all salt is dissolved. The amount of salt is dependent on the size of the pot and the natural saltiness of the tap water. Remember: You want it to taste as salty as sea water.

3 Bring water to a rapid boil.

4 Carefully and slowly, drop your pasta into the boiling water.

5 Return water to a boil. Make sure that hot water does not over flow and spill out of the pot.

6 Set a timer based on the cooking time recommended by the manufacturer. Each brand and each type of pasta cooks for a different amount of time.

7 While pasta is cooking, stir every 2 minutes to prevent noodles from sticking together. If noodles are sticking together, they will not evenly cook.

8 When timer is finished, remove 1 or 2 pieces of pasta from the pot and taste for doneness. Dried pasta should have a firm bite, but not raw or crunchy. Low quality dried pasta will become extremely mushy if over cooked, so use caution. Fresh pasta takes as long as the package says and simply needs to be brought to temperature, which will in turn fully cook the pasta naturally. Take care not to over cook fresh pasta as it will disintegrate if it is over cooked.

9 Using a dry kitchen towel or pot holders, remove the spaghetti pot from the heat and drain pasta and water through a colander that has been placed in the sink.

10 Using olive oil or canola oil, lightly oil the pasta while it is still in the colander to prevent pasta from sticking.

11 Your pasta is now ready to be used in your dish.

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About the Author:

Chef Ryan Callahan is an award winning author and chef. He is the author of Chef Ryan's How-to-Cook Cookbook, Cooking for Chemo ...and After!, Cooking for Kids with Cancer, and Chef Ryan Callahan’s Tasting Journal. Chef Ryan won a 2016 Gourmand World Cookbook Award (Best Health and Nutrition USA) for his ground-breaking book, Cooking for Chemo ...and After! Chef Ryan Callahan is a hospitality industry veteran with over 15 years of hands-on culinary experience in the kitchen and front of house. When he isn't cooking, eating, talking or thinking about food you can usually find him nestled up with some manga or playing video games on his computer.