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Learn The Basics Of Pasta From A Professional Chef

If you take a peek at the menu of almost any mid-level to upscale restaurant, you’re likely to find at least one pasta dish, unless of course it is specifically themed to ethnic cuisine. For some reason, pasta just works here and it’s a lot of people’s go-to when they patronise restaurants. I’ll be the first to admit that when I go to a restaurant, if I can’t figure out what to have (and that’s extremely rare), pasta is my safety net.

Pasta doesn’t have to be reserved solely to occasions when you feel like being all fancy at a restaurant. You would be surprised to learn that some of your favourites can actually be duplicated in your own kitchen. Some parts of the process can be straightforward while other parts are not that simple, but if you’re a pasta lover, the risk is worth the reward. That being said, there are a number of do’s and don’ts to consider in addition to some tricks of the trade that could have you well on your way to being the envy of your group of friends. So today, I’ll take you through the various stages of pasta; from making the dough or buying the packaged varieties at your local supermarket, to cooking the pasta itself, the best practices when making pasta dishes and finishing your pasta. Hope you keep this copy of Propa Eats handy because you won’t want to forget this.

What Is Pasta?

First off, allow me to define pasta. Pasta is a food item that originated in Italy. It was originally made from an unleavened, durum wheat dough which was then rolled, cut or pressed into different shapes and finally, cooked in boiling water. Durum wheat is known for its high-gluten content and is ideal for pasta making because it is said to make what is called a strong dough. Nowadays, other types of grain, legumes and even vegetables are used to make alternative versions of the traditional staple, in addition to those with and without eggs. Long story short, there’s a pasta out there for everyone. You too, my vegan friends.

Authentic Italian chefs are almost notorious for their purist approach when it comes to their cuisine and as such, are unbending when it comes to traditional recipes. If one strays from the way in which they do it, it would not be considered Italian, plain and simple.

A Basic Recipe

The following is the recipe for authentic, Italian pasta dough:

  • 150 grams Italian ‘00’ flour
  • 50 grams durum wheat semolina flour
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 pinch sea salt

There is beauty in simplicity. Four ingredients – that is all you need to make pasta dough from scratch. That must give you at least a little motivation to try making it yourself, right? Well, rolling, forming and creating the various shapes deter the average person from a do-it-yourself (DIY) pasta. There are more than a few people I know in the food industry that run from the very notion of it, so don’t judge yourself too harshly if the ‘from scratch way’ isn’t your cup of tea.

Shapes Of Pasta

Fortunately, we live in an age of mass production and distribution so we have the luxury of purchasing pasta that someone else, most likely a machine, had to go through the trouble of making. This brings us to the topic of the various shapes of pasta. The shapes, while they seem fun or even frivolous at times, serve a purpose. Some are meant to hold sauce such as shell pasta (conchiglie) and penne; some are meant to be layered such as lasagne and some are even meant to be filled such as cannelloni or ravioli. The takeaway here is that you should choose your pasta based on its purpose for your dish.

Cookery Of Pasta

Now, onto cooking pasta. As mentioned earlier, pasta is cooked in boiling water; best practice here is that the water should be well salted. The same stands true whether it is fresh pasta that you’ve made yourself or pasta that you picked up at your local supermarket—the difference is cooking time. Fresh pasta always takes less time to cook so this must be taken into consideration. Dried pasta cooks during a range of cooking times which is determined by the shape of the pasta. One major rule for pasta cooking holds firm across the board: Pasta should be cooked until al dente. This term is directly translated to mean ‘to the teeth’ and describes that the pasta should be cooked only until the centre still has a bite to it, or rather, a firm texture.

Many run into problems with the cooking of pasta and tend to make the same mistake: overcooking. To avoid this, pasta should be timed while cooking and tested periodically (actually eat one) to ensure that a gauge for how far along the pasta has come is determined. This approach will also help you avoid the common problem on the other side of the spectrum: undercooking. When pre-cooking pasta that is meant to be finished in a sauce, it is best to undercook the pasta in the boiling water because it will continue to cook when it is placed into a simmering sauce. If the pasta is cooked until al dente in the water, it will almost certainly be overcooked by the time the final dish is finished.

Pro tip: If cooking pasta that is meant to be used much later or even overnight to finish a dish, use the following trick – cook pasta until just before al dente then shock in an ice bath immediately after cooking. Transfer cool pasta to an appropriately sized mixing bowl and drizzle with a generous amount of olive oil and mix well with both hands to ensure that all of the pasta is well-coated with oil; this prevents sticking. The dressed pasta can then be transferred to a resealable bag, sealed and refrigerated until needed. The pasta will hold in the fridge for about five days. It can then be added to a simmering sauce or tossed in a pan with other ingredients when you are ready to make your pasta dish.

How Do You Finish The Pasta?

When finishing the pasta, there is more in doing less. The Italians keep it simple and attempt to bring out the best of each ingredient they use without marring flavours. Classic ways of finishing pasta dishes depend on the type of sauce used for the dish but most times include a drizzle of finishing grade extra virgin olive oil, or a few rasps of Parmigiano Reggiano shaving, cracked black peppercorns, fresh basil leaves or even truffle shavings. Whatever you decide to use, it needs to make sense as it pertains to the dish you are preparing and should add to the dish rather than overpower it.

The last thing I will share today about making your pasta at home is that it’s a million dollars cheaper. So if you’re up for the challenge, go find your favourite pasta recipe and give it a whirl. I promise it’s a rewarding feeling. Do you remember when I said earlier that you’ll be the envy of your friends? Well, that isn’t exactly accurate. You will just be the go-to dinner destination when your group decides to get together, meaning that you’ll be cooking while everyone else is enjoying your place, your snacks and your drinks. So trust me, there will be no envy there. Pro tip number two: don’t post your amazing pasta dishes on social media!

Khary Roberts

Khary Roberts is a chef and managing director of Épice Culinary Services. You can keep up with Khary and Épice Culinary Services by following him on Instagram @kharyroberts and @epiceculinaryservices.

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