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Use Your Noodle

Pasta-Cooking Tips from a Pro

Elena North-Kelly

March 11, 2018

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Cacio e Pepe Kugel (Photo: Evan Sung)

To pay homage to our favorite carb, we enlisted the help of renowned chef (and newly minted 2018 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef: New York City) Missy Robbins, who spins pasta into gold at her Brooklyn hot spot Lilia.

"I have spent many years studying and perfecting my pasta cookery, which, when done correctly, is both an art and a science," she explains. Follow Missy's commandments below, and you'll be armed to cook like a pro—then put your skills to the test with her inspired riff on the traditional noodle kugel, which combines her Jewish heritage and love for Italian food.

  • Use a bigger pot than you think you need. There should be enough space for the pasta to move around so that it cooks evenly.                             
  • Heavily salted water is essential for great pasta. Just as you want your sauce seasoned properly, the pasta should be well-seasoned too. The key is to cook it in very salty water.
  • Never, ever put oil in your pasta water. It prevents the sauce from sticking to the pasta.
  • Don’t drain your pasta into a colander in the sink. You’ll lose all the cooking water—an important ingredient in pasta-making. Some pots have a basket insert, which is a larger version of the pasta baskets we use in restaurants; if your pot doesn’t have one, you can purchase one separately. Alternately, you can remove pasta from the pot with tongs (for long shapes) or a spider (for small ones).
  • Pasta cooking water is your friend! As pasta cooks, some of its natural starches leach out into the water. These starches add body and salinity to your sauce. Stir in a little pasta water during the final stage of cooking, when you combine the pasta with the sauce.                             
  • Fresh pasta is not necessarily better than dried pasta. They are just different. And buying expensive artisan pasta isn’t essential to making a delicious dish. 
  • Disregard the cook times on packaged pasta; they are usually overestimated, and don’t take into account the additional time the pasta cooks once it’s in the sauce. I usually cook store-bought dry pasta for 1 or 2 minutes less than suggested. You’ll get a feel for the appropriate timing once you’ve mastered finishing your pasta in sauce.
  • You need 1 1⁄2–2 cups of sauce per pound of pasta. A pound of pasta usually serves 4.
  • Remember that pasta water, properly salted, will also add salt to your sauce. Keep that in mind and be careful when making and seasoning sauces. If a sauce becomes too thick or salty, you can always thin a sauce out and adjust the salt by adding small amounts of water.
  • “The Marriage” in pasta is crucial. Those last few minutes that the pasta spends cooking in sauce help it absorb more flavor and finish cooking. This is also where the salted pasta water seasons your sauce.

Got it? Now put your pasta prowess to the test with Missy's recipe for cacio e pepe kugel (pictured above).

Pasta tips excerpted from Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner...Life! Recipes and Adventures from My Home Kitchen by Missy Robbins with Carrie King/Rizzoli Publishing

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Elena North-Kelly is managing editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.