Pasta basically comes in two forms, fresh and dried. Of the two, dried pasta is much more widely used and comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. In Italy, particularly in the south, pasta is eaten on a daily basis and good, dried pasta is cheap and readily available.
The drying of the pasta plays an important role in the final quality of the product. It was once done in the sun which is why many of the Italian pasta factories are located in areas with a particularly sunny climate such as the coastlines of Campania, Puglia and Liguria. The drying process needs to be long and slow and, depending on the size and shape of the pasta, it took between 40 and 80 hours. Today this drying process has been industrialised but is still done using the same long and slow process.
The bulk of the commercially produced dried pasta in Italy is made from Durum wheat and water and the choice is staggering with usually two or three aisles of it in the supermarkets. Italians know their pasta, know which is their favourite brand and know how to cook it. For the rest of the world it is a bit of a mystery which we can hopefully help you to solve with the following information.
In Italy pasta is eaten as a first course but the rest of us tend to make pasta as our main course. It is, therefore, even more important that good quality, Italian pasta is used along with fresh produce to produce a mouth watering and satisfying dish.
The quality of pasta can easily be assessed by quickly checking some simple guidelines. Firstly, outside of Italy, make sure that you buy only pasta that has been produced in Italy and then exported. The clue to this is reading the packet where the list of ingredients and all other information should only be in Italian and not translated into several languages. Secondly, check the type of flour that has been used; it should be pure durum wheat. Pasta made from durum wheat is more resistant and tenacious than that made from other types of flour which means it holds it's shape better during cooking.
The very finest, high quality commercially produced pasta will have been made using brass molds and will look paler and rougher than other dried pasta. The rougher surface means that the sauces will stick to it much better. Pasta that has been made using this method will have the words 'trafilata al bronzo' written on the packaging.
Dried pasta should not be brittle but should, instead, be tough and slightly elastic and able to resist the pressure of being squeezed between your fingers.
All good dried pasta should have a bright, smooth texture, be a golden yellow colour and have a pleasant smell. When held up against the light it should be clear and bright with a slightly grainy appearance indicating the presence of wheat germ.
Any good, dried pasta should be able to withstand at least 20 minutes of cooking without breaking up and without making the water cloudy or sticky or leaving any trace of colour.
Cooking dried pasta well is a very simple process, there are just certain rules which need to be adhered to.
Starting with the saucepan, it needs to have a good, thick bottom which conducts heat evenly. The saucepan needs to be around three quarters full of water and the rule is 1 litre of water for every 100g of pasta. Therefore,depending on how many people you are cooking for you can choose your size of saucepan accordingly. If you are adding salt to the water (this is not necessary and depends on your taste) it should be added immediately after the water begins to boil.
Let the water boil rapidly for two or three minutes before adding the pasta. Keep the heat high the whole time the pasta is cooking and stir it when necessary with a wooden fork.
Short pasta is easier, it can just be dropped straight into the boiling water and stirred around a little. Long pasta, such as spaghetti, rest it in the water and then fan out the top. As the bottom softens then gently push it down into the saucepan. As with short pasta it is necessary to stir it from time to time to stop it from sticking. A traditional wooden fork is by far the best thing to stir pasta with but any other large fork will do.
The cooking time will vary depending on the shape, size and manufacturer of the pasta. All dried pasta has the recommended cooking time written on the packaging and in Italian it is written, for example, as 'Cottura 7 minuti'.
To taste at its best, pasta needs to be cooked 'al dente' and away from Italy we are all a little guilty of overcooking it. It should be soft on the outside with a very slight 'bite' in the middle. The times stated on the packaging are pretty accurate but it is always best to 'taste' a piece just before the time is up. If you think it is seconds away from being perfect then take it off the heat immediately and drain it. Short pasta is best drained in a normal colander but long pasta should be removed from the saucepan with the fork. It is best also to reserve a few spoonfuls of the pasta water in case the sauce you are going proves to be a little thick or dry.
Now your pasta is ready you need to move quickly. Italians do not put pasta on a plate and pour copious amounts of sauce on top, but instead use only a couple of spoonfuls per person and mix it into the pasta. This combining of the two should only take one or two minutes and is different for long and short pasta.
Short pasta should be added to the sauce in a large pan and then moved and 'thrown' until all of the pasta is covered in th sauce. You will no doubt have seen this done in Italian restaurants. This method of mixing the pasta and the sauce is easier than it looks but if you don't want to risk your lunch landing on the floor then use a large spoon and fork to gently and quickly mix the two.
Long pasta, such as spaghetti, should be mixed with the sauce by using a spoon and fork and using a stirring and lifting action. The golden rule is that it should only be stirring in one direction and only lifted vertically.
Once the sauce and the pasta are combined divide between warmed dishes and serve quickly. Short pastas can be dished out with a large spoon and long pastas either with a large spoon and fork or with a pair of pasta tongs.