Monday, August 5, 2013

Perfect Pasta: Dead Chef's Technique

As promised, here's my almost-magic technique for cooking perfect pasta... so perfect you can serve it to your Italian guests without fear of silent judgement or, God forbid, tears.

I personally* developed this technique over 10 years ago, and it has made such a difference in the pasta I eat at home it's almost ludicrous. The pasta ends up perfectly cooked and absorbs the sauce's flavor in a way that does not happen through simple sautéing. Plus, you get a slight creaminess that just makes the whole dish look and taste almost professional. I'm boasting, I know. But I'm also drooling, so you know I'm sincere.

First things first: If you haven't, read this post to learn about the correct amount of pasta, water, and salt for your recipe: American Pasta: 11 Ways You're Doing It Wrong. You have to know the basics, right? Done? LET'S DO IT!

Note: The recipe here is simple whole-wheat penne** with tomatoes, black cured olives, and mozzarella. What you'll see is two Italian portions, enough for a quick lunch for me and my 2-year-old.


1. Cook or reheat your sauce in a large pan while the water is boiling or the pasta is cooking, depending on how long it takes.

2. Boil the pasta in salted water (really, salt it!), and taste it 12 min before it's supposed to be ready. When you see the "soul" of the pasta (or the tiny white ringlet of uncooked-ness), move to the next step.

3. Pour one full ladle of cooking water into a cup and set aside.

4. Drain the pasta and pour it in the pan with the sauce, stir, and keep cooking at medium heat.

5. Add a splash (I'd say a few tablespoons) of the reserved pasta water and stir gently until the water has been absorbed.

6. Keeping adding water to the pasta and letting it absorb until the pasta is perfectly cooked and still al dente. You don't have to use the whole cup, and in my experience 2–3 rounds will do. How do you know it's ready? TASTE IT.

RESULT: Here is the finished pasta. I added some mozzarella at the very end so it would stay firm and not melt into a single squeaky block. Notice the pasta's color: you can see it has absorbed the juices from the olive oil, the tomatoes, and the black olives.

N.A.Q. (Never Asked Questions)

Gratuitous close-up.
I don't have a list of F.A.Q. because I just published this, but I know what you all might wonder...

WHAT DOES THIS DO? I have no scientific insight on the matter, but I think the salt and starch in the cooking water allows the pasta to absorb the sauce better. What I do know, is that the starch in the water will thicken into a creamy sheen that will prevent your pasta from drying out. 

I FORGOT TO RESERVE THE PASTA WATER. CAN I USE HOT WATER OR BROTH? No, I tried and they don't work. They simply dilute the flavor and the broth also alters it too much. Finally, neither created the creaminess I obtained with the pasta water. (Please note that whole-wheat pasta will be less creamy, but not less flavorful.)

IS THIS THE RISOTTO-STYLE TECHNIQUE FOR PASTA I READ ABOUT? No, because in that case the pasta is cooked from the beginning by adding liquid gradually as you would with risotto. I tried the technique and it's great, but in my opinion it takes too long, and the pasta ends up being a little too starchy (if you need a more professional opinion, then please know that Mark Ladner, executive chef of Del Posto restaurant in NY, said the same in the 2013 Winter issue of Lucky Peach.)

WON'T I RUIN THE SAUCE BY BASICALLY BOILING IT? This is an excellent question. Well played, my friend! Runnier sauces like marinara will be fine, but if you're cooking seafood or vegetables that should retain some "crunch", then yes, adding water and prolonging the cooking might ruin everything. In that case, put the condiment in another plate and let just enough juices in the pan to follow the process. Stir everything back together once the pasta is ready.

YEAH, BUT WHAT IF I'M USING PESTO? Thank you for paying attention, you culinary hawk! For all your recipes with an uncooked sauce, like pesto, you sauté the pasta in extra-virgin olive oil (13 tbsp depending on quantity) and add the pasta water little by little as explained above. When the pasta is cooked, transfer it to a warm bowl, add the sauce, stir, and serve. I found this oil-and-water technique in a cookbook by Allan Bay, unfortunately published only in Italian (by Feltrinelli). 

So, are you ready to try this? Let me know how it goes! 

*OK, I'm sure I'm not the only one who came up with this. If you cook pasta like this, please share!!!

**I get my whole-what pasta from Trader Joe's. It's organic, it's cheaper than many other supermarket brands, and it does a great job at staying al dente. Plus, it tastes like pasta, not like gritty cardboard, which I appreciate.


  1. Ben detto. Sfamando gruppi di amici stranieri mi rendo conto che il loro palato non è pronto per sapori così netti e tendono a uniformare ogni piatto pasticciando con salse e formaggi improbabili.
    Grazie per questo post!

    1. Ho dei racconti davvero raccapriccianti a riguardo... Quando torno in Italia in vacanza mi piace raccontarli e godermi gli sguardi orripilati dei miei amici!