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Pastasciutta Part 2: La Cottura

Click here for Part 1.

La Cottura in Italian refers to "how you cook the pasta." Jeremy (my very own highly-paid Italian language expert) explained to me that there is no direct translation, when I asked him if there were another way to define this word without using an entire English phrase.

But there is no direct or "slavish" translation for this second important element in making a great plate of pasta. Much more simple, at the same time much easier to err, than it would seem.

The simplicity (and difficulty) in all of this is twofold.

1. Salting the water
2. Duration of boiling

For the first, many a cookbook would have you egregiously underseason your water. I use the word "season" because how you flavor the water translates to flavor enhancement of the pasta itself. In Italy, we can eat a fantastic primo piatto, but recreating that glory once home can leave even the best home cook scratching her head, wondering why she can't get that same intangible...umph.

One thing that I have seen over and over in my years in Italy is a generous flow of salt into the boiling pot. Taste your water; it should be just a bit less salty than the sea. This may seem like an exaggeration but I promise it will take the pasta itself from being a neutral vessel for the exaltation of your best sauce to a supporting role that takes the whole show over the top.

Second, please don't overcook your pasta. I said PLEASE DO NOT NOT NOT OVERCOOK THE PASTA! Did you hear me? Chewing on slightly undercooked pasta is preferable to the awful sensation of a rigatone that gives up too easily under the pressure of your teeth.

Besides the flavor of your sauce, you should really be enjoying a well seasoned spaghetto with the pleasant tactile sensation of pasta that is perfectly al dente. You want to feel, taste, and smell its presence underlining the fabulosity of your perfect ragu'.

To achieve this effortlessly, read the cooking time on your box of high quality dried pasta (remember lesson 1?) and drain it about 2 minutes short. There will be carry-over cooking as well as a bit more time in the pan with the condiment. (Please tell me that you stir your pasta in the pan with the sauce! Also important--must meld.)

Tell your guests to sit down and dig in when the plate hits the table because, honey, zee pasta waits-a for a-nobody!

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Blogger Unknown said...

Preach on sita', preach on!!

4/18/2009 3:10 PM

Blogger Unknown said...


4/18/2009 3:11 PM

Blogger Do Bianchi said...

Preaching to the choir, eh? ;-)

Great post Tracie B!

4/18/2009 5:24 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know that my own daughter taught me to cook pasta correctly! Thanks.

The pasta in the pic looks yummmmmmmy!

4/18/2009 6:51 PM

Blogger Sicilian said...

You hear a lot of cooking rituals growing up, but I had never known about the flavor and the salt in pasta water. I was always told that the reason you salt the water was because it made the water boil faster.
:) Ahhhhhhhh the truth be known. . .

4/18/2009 7:26 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

(Please tell me that you stir your pasta in the pan with the sauce! Also important--must meld.)

I don't agree, it depends on what you're making. Some times yes and some times no.

4/18/2009 10:09 PM

Anonymous Pat said...

Anonymous was me. hit wrong button.

4/18/2009 10:10 PM

Blogger Tracie P. said...

ike--you know i will!

2B--thanks :) can't wait for your guest blog!

mom--thanks mom...come see us soon and i'll make some more

sicilian--you should salt the water AFTER it boils! i think it actually raises the boiling point

pat--hey there, i think it is the way to do it MOST of the time. more often than not! there are a few exceptions, but in most cases it really adds to the "finish" of the pasta. what are the dishes you think don't benefit? i'm curious...

4/19/2009 7:38 AM

Blogger Claudia said...

I love the advice! I routinely drain everything at least two minutes than directions indicate. Gummy pasta - heavens to Betsy! (Okay, I don't salt enough)

4/20/2009 6:09 PM

Blogger Tracie P. said...

claudia--thanks for the comment! betsy says, "10-4."

4/21/2009 7:56 AM

Anonymous Pat said...

key example-ragu, the undisputed queen of all pasta dishes.

4/21/2009 10:02 PM

Blogger Anne in Oxfordshire said...

Called into say HI, and what a great post this is.

Since my holidays in Italy, I have shopped in the UK for the best pasta..oh and agree with you totally about the roughness of it, and have been preaching to my family, not to use the normal pasta from the supermarkets, all nasty and shiny. Reading down in the comments, someone said not to, or not always put the pasta into the sauce pot...I always do this, actually was told to by and Italian chef.

4/22/2009 4:39 AM

Blogger Anne in Oxfordshire said...

Sorry forgot to add....yes please please don't overcook the pasta..unbearable..yikes!!!

4/22/2009 4:41 AM

Anonymous J.Doe said...

I don't put salt in my pasta water even though when I went to Italy everyone told me that I had to. As a person with high blood pressure I couldn't do it. I still think it tastes OK. I don't overcook it. I hate mushy pasta which is what restaurants stateside serve although I can't fathom why.

4/22/2009 6:21 AM

Blogger Tracie P. said...

pat--i can't imagine putting a ladleful of ragu on top of plain white pasta. don't you at least stir a little in with all of the pasta, then top it with an actual portion?


jdoe--pasta without salt tastes WAY better than high blood pressure, i agree

4/22/2009 8:08 AM

Anonymous pat said...

Wait, you drain the pasta and then cook it in the pot of ragu?...no, I would never do that. This is a very hard public discussion to have via typing. It something that needs discussion, like on Oprah.

5/01/2009 1:38 PM

Anonymous Pat said...

I would stir it in a bowl, ya absolutley, a "vacile", ya sure, put a little on top and then serve, but I would not stir it in the pot I cooked the ragu in.

5/01/2009 1:40 PM

Anonymous lena said...

The salting of the water completely changed my pasta dishes - great advice that I share with everyone (and credit to you, of course!) I do forget to mix the pasta in with the sauce, however & I will need an extended tutorial on how to pick the best pastas... So glad you moved to italy and then came home to enlighten us all!!! Love it.

5/02/2009 8:56 PM


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