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Photo credit: Rebecca Anne, "Flora's Cup" | Creative Commons License, Flickr.com

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Pasta Perfection... How to Cook Pasta Perfectly Every Time

By Vicki McClure Davidson

 

With hundreds of shapes from which to choose, pasta is the ultimate 'fast food' for frugal and filling meals. | Photo credit: Creative Commons

With hundreds of shapes from which to choose, pasta is the ultimate 'fast food' for frugal and filling meals. | Photo credit: Creative Commons

 

One of the more frugal and filling foods to include in a tight food budget is pasta. Kids love pasta, particularly the ones with unique shapes. They add interest and texture to soups and salads, or can be the main ingredient in a complete meal.

 

Pasta History

Historically, there are many theories about pasta's origins, which date back many centuries. From Wikipedia:

Pasta's origin continues to evoke speculation. While many different cultures ate some sort of noodle-like food, composed mostly of grain, the key characteristics of pasta are durum wheat semolina, with a high gluten content. Furthermore, it is made with a technique that allows the resultant dough to be highly malleable, thus resulting in the many different shapes (i.e., ziti, spaghetti, ravioli) that characterize "pasta." In North Africa, a food similar to pasta, known as couscous, has been eaten for centuries. However, it lacks the distinguishing malleable nature of what is now referred to as pasta, couscous being more akin to droplets of dough. In China, noodles of millet or rice have been eaten for centuries, but lack the durum wheat semolina paste that denotes pasta.

Historians have noted several lexical milestones relevant to pasta, none which change these basic characteristics. For example, the works of the 2nd century AD Greek physician Galen mention itrion, homogeneous compounds made up of flour and water. The Jerusalem Talmud records that itrium, a kind of boiled dough, was common in Palestine from the 3rd to 5th centuries AD, A dictionary compiled by the 9th century Syrian physician and lexicographer Isho bar Ali[10] defines itriyya, the Arabic cognate, as string-like shapes made of semolina and dried before cooking.

The following historical information is provided by the National Pasta Association:

Popular legend has it that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy following his exploration of the Far East in the late 13th century; however, we can trace pasta back as far as the fourth century B.C., where an Etruscan tomb showed a group of natives making what appears to be pasta. The Chinese were making a noodle-like food as early as 3000 B.C. And Greek mythology suggests that the Greek God Vulcan invented a device that made strings of dough (the first spaghetti!).

Pasta made its way to the New World through the English, who discovered it while touring Italy. Colonists brought to America the English practice of cooking noodles at least one half hour, then smothering them with cream sauce and cheese. But it was Thomas Jefferson who is credited with bringing the first "maccaroni" machine to America in 1789 when he returned home after serving as ambassador to France.

The first industrial pasta factory in America was built in Brooklyn in 1848 by, of all people, a Frenchman, who spread his spaghetti strands on the roof to dry in the sunshine.

 

Pasta Styles, Nutrition, Shapes, and Types

Pasta is divided into two basic styles: dried and fresh. Dried pasta made without eggs can be stored for up to 2 years under ideal conditions (cool, dry place), while fresh pasta will keep for a few days in the refrigerator. Nutritional value varies, depending on the ingredients used, but most pasta provide necessary carbohydrates, iron, folic acid, and B vitamins. Pasta meals are an important part to the Mediterranean Diet. The Mediterranean Diet is characterized by a variety of plant foods (fruits, vegetables, breads, pasta, other forms of cereals, potatoes, beans, nuts, and seeds), olive oil as the principal source of fat, dairy products (mostly cheese and yogurt), fish and poultry (low to moderate amounts), zero to four eggs eaten each week, red meat (low amounts), and wine consumed in low to moderate amounts.

Shaped pastas are available in many creative sizes and specific shapes. They include shapes that resemble shells, bow ties, spirals, snails, wheels, bumble bees, and radiators. Shaped pastas are generally found dried. The smaller shaped pastas work well with a simple sauce, but most shaped pastas are excellent when served with a chunkier sauce because they are sturdy enough to hold up with the other ingredients. They are also used in pasta salads and casseroles. There is a huge variety of shaped pastas, including bumbola, campanelle, casarecci, cavatelli, cencioni, conchiglie, conchiglioni, creste di galli, farfalle, fiori, fusilli, gemelli, gnocchi, gramigna, lumache, lumaconi, mandala, medium and wide egg noodles, mista, molloni, orecchiette, pipe, pizzichi, quadrefiore, radiatori, ricciolini, rotelle, rotini, roxetti, ruote, spiralini, torchio, trofie, umbricelli, and others.

Soup, or minute pastas consist of a variety of very small, shaped pastas, many of which have larger counterparts. They cook quickly (be careful to not overcook) and can be used as a rice substitute. The larger soup pastas are used in thicker soups, whereas tinier pasta shapes are used in lighter or broth-based soups. Some of the soup pastas are also used in pasta salads. Soup pastas have a variety of shapes, including stars, round balls, letters of the alphabet, diamonds, bow ties, thin strands, tubes, and rings. Varieties include anellini, conchigliette, corallini, couscous, ditalini, filini, funghini, grattini, occhi di pernice, pearl pasta, risi, risoni, stelle, stortini, tarhana, tripolini, tubetti, and others.

Tubular pastas, as the name implies, are in the shape of a tube. They are available in many different sizes and shapes. Some tubes are long and narrow, while others are short and wide. They can have smooth or grooved exteriors, with ends that can be cut straight across or at an angle. They are usually served with heavier sauces because they hold up well under the additional weight of the sauce. Tubular pastas can be used in salads and casseroles. Larger tubular pasta have wide openings that can be stuffed with a meat or vegetable mixture or with cheese and then baked. Tubular pastas include canneroni, cannelloni, elbow macaroni, fagioloni, garganelli, gomiti, maccheroni, maltagliati, manicotti, mezzani rigati, mostaccioli, paccheri, penne rigate, rigatoni, sagne incannulate, trenne, tufoli, ziti, zitoni, and many others.

Ribbon pastas consist of flat strands of pasta, which are available in different lengths, widths, and thicknesses. Ribbon pasta can have straight or wavy edges. Many varieties are available fresh and dried. The dried ribbons are generally used with a thick, heavier sauce and the fresh ribbons are best when served with delicate sauces. Ribbon pastas include bavette, fettucine, kluski, lasagne, lasagnotte, linguine, mafalde, pappardelle, pillus, riccia, tagliatelle, trenette, and others.

Spaghetti with a tomato-based sauce is among the top favorite meals for people of all ages, particularly children

 

Spaghetti with a tomato-based sauce is among the favorite meals for people of all ages, particularly children

Strand pasta noodles are long rods of pasta, which are generally round, but are also available in a square rod shape. The basic difference from one variety to the next is the thickness of the strands. The thicker strands hold up best with heavier sauces, while the thin varieties work better with delicate sauces. Strand pasta noodles include angel hair, barbina, bigoli, capellini, ciriole, fidelini, fusilli lunghi, pici, spaghetti, vermicelli, and others.

Stuffed pastas are pasta shapes that form a pocket, permitting a filling to be put in the center. Many look similar to dumplings. Fillings for stuffed pastas include meats, cheeses, puréed vegetables, dried or stewed fruits, potatoes, or other fillings. Many stuffed pastas are baked in the oven. Types of stuffed pasta include agnolotti, cannelloni, casoncelli, casunziei, fagottini, kreplach, mandu, manti, mezzelune, panzerotti, pelmeni, ravioli, sacchettoni, tortellini, vareniki, and others.

 

Perfectly Cooked Pasta Every Time

Cooking pasta isn't difficult, but for excellent results, there are a few rules to follow in order to perfectly cook pasta every time. Using too little water, undercooking, or overcooking will often ruin a pasta dish.

Saucepan:
Use a 10-quart pot for 1 pound of pasta, or a pot big enough to hold 8 quarts of water with enough space for the pasta to swim around while cooking. To prevent the water from boiling over, pour in a few tablespoons of cooking oil or olive oil and tilt and slosh it up and around to coat the pot's bottom and sides. This will also help prevent the pasta from sticking to the bottom of the pot when cooking. Do this before adding the water.

Water:
Use lots of water: 6 to 8 quarts per pound of pasta, and never less than 4 quarts, even for as little as 2 cups of dried pasta.

Salt:
Add salt after the water comes to a rolling boil. For the best flavor, use 1 tablespoon per pound of dried pasta, but you can reduce this according to your family's dietary restrictions.

Stir:
Add pasta all at once to the rapidly boiling water and stir hard from the bottom of the pot with a long-handled spoon to prevent the strands from sticking to the bottom of the pot or to each other.

Cook:
Once the water returns to a full boil, start timing. The times in the recipes are usually minimum cooking times. Use your own judgment, experience, and taste. Cook, stirring occasionally to keep the pasta moving about in the water. To determine doneness, scoop out a pasta piece with a slotted spoon; blow on it so you won't burn your tongue, then bite into the pasta. It should have no crunchiness, but still be firm. You will soon learn to identify the term al dente, or "firm to the bite." Be careful to not cook pasta to mush; it should have some texture.

Drain:
Place a large colander in the sink. Protect your hands with mitts or towels; slowly start to pour out the water, especially if you are working with a large amount. There will be lots of hot steam, so keep your head up high. Do not rinse pasta, unless it is to be used in a salad. For many pasta sauces, using a bit of the pasta water is recommended to add a creamy texture, so be sure to save some water when draining.

 

Additional Pasta Tips:

 

 

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Sources:
Dunn, Jancee, Redbook magazine website, "Giada's Recipe for the Good Life," (www.redbookmag.com/fun-contests/celebrity/gaidas-recipe-for-life), December 2007.
National Pasta Association website, (http://www.ilovepasta.org/).
RecipeTips.com, (http://www.recipetips.com/kitchen-tips/t--171/types-of-pasta.asp#shapes).
Simmons, Marie, 365 Ways to Cook Pasta, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., NY, NY, 1996.
The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook: Featuring More Than 1,200 Kitchen-Tested Recipes, America's Test Kitchen, 2005.
The Italian Chef website, (www.italianchef.com/marinara.html).
Wikipedia.org., (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pasta#History).