How-To

How To Make Pasta Like A Pro

Pasta seems basic enough, right? It is, but a few easy tweaks can take it from so-so to sensational. Here, 25 tricks and tips to help you reach nonna level

raw noodles on a black background

Photo: Erik Putz

Chatelaine’s Favourite Pasta Shapes

1. Noodles
Thin noodles (angel hair, capellini or spaghetti) are ideal for lighter sauces, while thick ones (fettuccine, bucatini, pappardelle)
are best for hearty, thicker ragu.

2. Orecchiette
Translated from the Italian for “little ears,” orecchiette are the cutest. Ideal for chunky sauces.

3. Shells and tubes
Seashell shapes like conchiglie, and tubes like penne and rigatoni help trap sauce and flavour so more makes it into your mouth.

4. Cavatappi
Also known as scoobi doo or fusilli rigate, these corkscrews are super fun and excellent for trapping gooey, cheesy sauces.

5. Ridges: yes or no?
Ridges encourage sauce to hang around awhile and coat each piece. You spent time making a delicious sauce—go for the ridges.

The Basics

* Use a big enough pot—you don’t want water or noodles spilling over the side.

* Salt the water like the sea and you’ll notice a huge difference in the flavour of your dish.

* Resting a wooden spoon over the top of your pot can prevent water from boiling over.

* Before you drain pasta, always reserve 1 to 2 cups of that delicious, starchy pasta water—it can be used to build your sauce or loosen things up.

* Do not let cooked pasta sit too long in the colander, and do not rinse off those beautiful starches.

* Always add pasta to sauce. Never serve a naked noodle.

* Pastas can be undercooked slightly and then finished in the sauce. This is where some reserved pasta water (or a knob of butter) can take everything to the next level.

illustration of pasta and tomatoes

Illustration: Stephanie Han Kim

Know Your Tomatoes

1. Passata is uncooked tomato purée (no skins, no seeds) that often comes in a tall glass jar. It offers the quickest way to an easy pasta sauce (doctor it up with some add-ins), soup or stew.

2. Whole Italian tomatoes—and specifically those marked San Marzano—are the best for true tomato flavour when you’re making a red sauce. Crush them with your fingers or use kitchen shears in the can before adding them to your pot.

3. Diced tomatoes are best for making a chunky sauce, as they keep their shape and stay firm.

5 Pantry All-Stars

Making a quick sauce is a cinch when you stock these basics.

illustration of peas in a pod

Illustration: Stephanie Han Kim

1. Frozen peas
Add them to tomato or cream sauces toward the end of cooking.

illustration of a kale leaf

Illustration: Stephanie Han Kim

2. Frozen kale
Quickly sauté kale with thinly sliced leeks, a splash of cream and a few fistfuls of Parmesan, and you’ve got something super delicious.

illustration of olives on a branch

Illustration: Stephanie Han Kim

3. Black olives or capers
Chopped finely and added to tomato sauce, these briny dudes disappear into sauce but leave nice depth behind.

illustration of a can of tuna

Illustration: Stephanie Han Kim

4. Tuna
For a quickie puttanesca, sauté a bit of onion and garlic in olive oil until soft, and add in a jar of passata and a can of tuna (packed in oil or water—it doesn’t matter, as long as you drain it well). Throw in olives, capers and a pinch of chili flakes, simmer 10 min.

illustration of two slices of bacon

Illustration: Stephanie Han Kim

5. Bacon
Got bacon? Chop it up and sauté quickly. Remove from pan and drain over a paper towel–lined bowl. Fry some shallots in the bacon fat, add a splash of cream and some peas, simmer 5 min. Add shallot mixture to cooked pasta with the bacon and grated Parm.

plate with three pads of butter

Photo: Erik Putz

The genius of brown butter

There’s a reason kids love pasta with butter and cheese—it’s simply delicious. But brown that butter, and…whoa. Melt ½ cup unsalted butter in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Stir often and keep an eye on it—the butter will foam and turn brown and nutty, about 4 min. Remove from heat and add cooked pasta and a pinch of salt. You could add a squeeze of lemon juice or fresh thyme, but you don’t have to—it’s that good.

wooden spoon with ricotta cheese and a wedge of lemon

Photo: Erik Putz

3 Pasta Garnishes That Go Beyond Fresh Basil

1. Bread crumbs
Toasted bread crumbs sprinkled over a light cream sauce pasta, or even mac and cheese, add a pleasing crunch.

2. Squeeze of lemon
Cut the richness of creamy pasta with a little zing of lemon juice or zest. Citrus plays nicely with pastas that feature peas or kale.

3. Ricotta
A dollop of ricotta on top of a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce is so, so good. Trust.

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