Making pasta for dinner is a common go-to for many Australians. While it can be an easy and fulfilling meal, there are some tips and tricks that can enhance the quality of your creations even further. Let’s dig in.
When I first started making pasta, back in my early teens, I was a tragic. I added minced meat and onions after emptying in the sauce jar; I impatiently cooked the sauce for a maximum of five minutes, and there was that one time I garnished bolognese with lettuce to make it look fancy in lieu of having actual fresh herbs. I repeat: tragique.
Thankfully, making pasta is a muscle memory and the more times you fail, the better you eventually get. Now most of my pasta dishes are a self-described work of art.
Here are some crucial tips that have helped me along my pasta-making journey.
Cook tomato passata for as long as you can
A major key to increasing the quality of your pasta sauce is how long you cook it for. When I first started, I was cooking the garlic, onions and mince and then chucking in the passata (crushed tomato sauce) and tinned tomatoes. I hardly let the sauce simmer for 10 minutes before serving it.
That’s all wrong. You need to bring the sauce and the tomatoes up to a boil and then lower to a simmer for at least 30 to 40 minutes so all the flavours of your ingredients can soak in. But most importantly, the tomatoes need to be cooked long enough for their acids to release and then evaporate.
Remember, the longer you can keep your sauce cooking, the better it’s going to taste — as long as you’re not burning it.
Use your leftover pasta water
While most of our salty, starchy water goes straight down the drain when straining pasta, there’s a case for keeping at least a cup or two of it.
Besides the salty water adding some much-needed flavour to your sauce, it also adds starch which helps it stick to the pasta when it’s ready to be served.
In the case of simple non-tomato recipes, like cacio e pepe or carbonara, the salty leftover water is essential for spreading the subtle flavours through the pasta and stopping it from clumping together.
Al dente pasta means firm, not goopy
The perfect density for pasta is often referred to as al dente, which means ‘to the tooth’ in Italian. The pasta should be firm to bite into, not crunchy or goopy.
Most pre-made pasta packets will offer you directions on the recommended cooking time but the best way to ensure you’re getting al dente pasta is to check yourself.
If the packet recommends seven minutes, at the five-minute mark you should be getting your fork ready to try the pasta. If it’s still a bit crunchy, it’s got a few minutes to go but if it’s tearing or melting in your mouth, it means the pasta has been overcooked.
The quality of your tomato does matter
Tinned tomatoes flew off the shelves during a panic buying saga caused by the coronavirus outbreak. While any can of tomatoes will do the job, quality options are going to make your dish taste noticeably better.
Whole tomatoes are usually the highest quality as they’re picked ripe and put into the can soon after but you’ll have to crush or dice them if you don’t want a chunky sauce. Crushed or diced tomato cans tend to be lower in quality and sometimes have tomato paste or puree added for texture. However, these are the most convenient to use.
The best tasting tomatoes for pasta sauces are from San Marzano near Naples so if you can get your hands on these, fresh or tinned, you’re in for a treat.
Whichever ones you decide to use will still be acidic, however. To counteract that, you’ll need to add a pinch of sugar to your sauce.
At the end of the day, your pasta dish will only be as good as the quality of your ingredients, which leads to my next point…
Add fresh herbs when you can
Dry herbs are great as they tend to last a long time and don’t normally require you to cut them up. The problem is their reduced flavour which I describe as “jar taste”.
While you can certainly tell the difference if using dried herbs, they have a mellow punch compared to the real deal. Buying fresh herbs isn’t always practical and can often be expensive but if you’re committed to making a good quality dish, it’s worth the effort.
To make things easier and cheaper, start your very own herb garden so you’ll always have fresh herbs on hand. The most common ones that go into your pasta sauce are: oregano, Italian basil, parsley, thyme, sage and marjoram.
Bonus tip: Add the pasta to your sauce while it’s still hot
Once you’ve taken your pasta off the heat and drained it, it’s time to add it to the sauce. I got into a habit of packing away the pasta and sauce separately for leftovers and in hindsight, I realised why I could never replicate the rich quality of the sauces my mother and grandmother prepared.
When you add freshly cooked pasta to a sauce, the flavours will stick to the pasta. Just make sure you’re taking your sauce off the heat so it doesn’t overcook the pasta.
Buon appetito, amici!
Water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource around the world. We're told to limit showers, reuse bath water and rely on natural rain to clean our cars. But nobody really talks about cooking. If you regularly cook pasta for you and your family, that's quite a lot of water you're wasting. Welp, it turns out there's a very practical reason to save some — helping the environment is just a bonus.Read more
This article has been updated since its original publication.