Have you been getting pasta wrong this whole time? Here's the long and short of it
There are many rules but a whole heap of mythology surrounding Italy's favourite carbohydrate – so which tips are true, and which are just plain fusilli?
1. THE MYTH: Adding oil to the water will stop your pasta sticking
THE TRUTH: Still wasting good olive oil in your pasta water? Get a grip! Sure, it might stop the pasta sticking – but it also means your delicious sauce will just slide right off. "Only add sea salt to your water," says Alessandro Verdenelli, Executive Head Chef at Italian restaurant Chucs. You've been told.
2. THE MYTH: Salt will speed things up
THE TRUTH: A generous pinch of sea salt improves the flavour of the pasta, that much is true – but the old legend that adding salt to your cooking water will bring it to the boil faster? Get in the sea. Science isn't totally lying on this score – adding salt to water does elevate the boiling point – but you would need a colossal 3 tbsp salt in a litre of water to raise the boiling even one degree. Come on, you're not in that much of a hurry.
3. THE MYTH: Always put pasta in boiling water
THE TRUTH: Still feeling impatient? Then you'll be glad to know you don't have to stand around waiting for the kettle to boil. It might not be the way your imaginary Italian Nonna would teach you, but food scientist and all-round technical genius Harold McGee swears by starting dried pasta off in cold water, then bringing it to the boil. This helps it cook more evenly throughout, and makes it easier to achieve the perfect al dente result.
(Unless it's fresh pasta)
The from-cold method works a treat with dried pasta shapes like penne, fusilli and macaroni, but when you're cooking fresh pasta or long shapes like spaghetti and linguine, plunging it straight into boiling water is crucial to stop things turning mushy. Capice?
4. THE MYTH: You should always leave the lid off
THE TRUTH: Put a lid on that lie, guys, because there's no shame in covering your pot to help your water boil. Some people even swear by energy-saving 'passive cooking' for pasta, which means boiling for just two minutes before turning the heat off, putting a lid on the pot and leaving the pasta to sit in the hot water for the remaining time.
5. THE MYTH: Al dente pasta is for pretentious gourmet types
THE TRUTH: It's not like ordering your steak blue, guys... pasta really is just better 'with bite'. "The majority of pastas should be cooked for about 90 seconds less than the recommended time," advises Alessandro. But contrary to popular belief, this doesn't mean it should be eaten while still hard in the middle (unless that's your thing), because pasta continues cooking for a minute or so after you've drained it, and more if you're adding it to hot sauce. So taking it off the heat early prevents it becoming overcooked and mushy. You should try a piece every 15 or 20 seconds towards the end of the cooking time, to catch it before it turns. But the most important rule of all? If you like it, that's fine. Cook it how you like it. Nobody's going to give you an award for chomping your way through a plate of hard penne.
6. THE MYTH: You should rinse cooked pasta in cold water
THE TRUTH: Nope, nope and nope again. Unless you're making a pasta salad, rinsing hot pasta in cold water won't do your dinner any favours – you'll just wash away all that lovely starch and leave it slimy. Blech.
7. THE MYTH: Drain pasta until it's dry
THE TRUTH: No! Stop it! Allowing your pasta to sit steaming in a colander might feel like the right thing to do, but you're thinking of potatoes. POTATOES. Pasta, on the other hand, will turn gummy and stick together if it sits for too long in hot steam, so transfer it from pot to sauce as quickly as you can – ideally with tongs or a slotted spoon, straight from the cooking water. And speaking of cooking water... that starchy elixir is total magic for thickening up your pasta sauce, so always save half a cupful back and add it before the pasta goes in.
8. THE MYTH: All pasta shapes taste the same
THE TRUTH: Not when you get your sauce on them, they don't. Just like building a house on the right foundations (or wearing a dress on the right foundation garments), your pasta and sauce need to work together for a seamless result. "To get the best from each pasta dish, you need to associate the sauce with the right shape and type of pasta," says Alessandro. "Fusilli and conchiglie (that's the shell-shaped one) work well with rich, water-based sauces like tomato, as they hold the sauce well. Spaghetti and rigatoni are good with more structured sauces, such as bolognese. And thin pastas like taglioni are good with lighter sauces, such as pesto." So next time, stop and think before you dollop.
9. MYTH: Italians actually prefer dried pasta to fresh
THE TRUTH: Some cooks believe fresh pasta must be better because it has the word 'fresh' in it, while others will tell you that Italians actually rate dried pasta more highly... but you can all stop bickering because the truth is, neither is better or worse. They're just different beasts. Fresh pasta is made from egg, flour and water; it's silkier and softer, works better with light sauces, and in delicate dishes like ravioli. Meanwhile dried pasta usually contains no egg and has a sturdier texture that holds up well under heavy sauces like ragu. OK? So everybody wins.
10. THE MYTH: Wheat-free pasta isn't worth it
THE TRUTH: Going gluten-free doesn't mean life in a carbonara desert. With courgetti and brocconoodles revolutionising the pasta game, gluten-free alternatives are giving our traditional wheat-laden favourites some serious competition.
11. THE MYTH: Using a spoon to eat your spaghetti is sacrilege
THE TRUTH: Hey, you do what you gotta do to get those noodles in your mouth. But even if you're determined to eat your pasta like a true Italian, there are several different strands to the tale – some say twirling your spaghetti against a spoon is basically a crime, but in other regions it's totally acceptable. As a general rule, use a spoon if you're given one, but if not, twirl your fork against your plate and manoeuvre the bundle to your mouth. We're all agreed on one point though: cutting it up is only to be done in your own home, behind closed curtains. For a five-year-old child to eat. Put your fork skills to this test with our meatball and spaghetti recipe.
12. THE MYTH: You must pre-cook lasagne sheets
THE TRUTH: You can, if you really want to – but as long as every inch of the pasta is well-covered in sauce and bechamel when you construct the lasagne, the raw sheets should cook through to the perfect al dente without needing to be blanched first. Do make sure though, because there's nothing worse than a surprise crunchy corner.
13. THE MYTH: Lasagne is an Italian classic
THE TRUTH: Ah, but IS IT? Medieval British cookbook The Forme Of Cury, which dates back to the 1300s, contains a recipe for 'loseyns' (pronounced 'lasan'), a dish made from layers of pasta covered in cheese. Sound familiar? Could the famous all-Italian pasta creation actually be as British as roast beef, bowler hats and being stoical about rain? Researchers at the British Museum certainly think so. But if you plan to shout about it in your local trattoria, you didn't hear it from us.