As home cooks, we rely on our instincts, our knowledge, and our curiosities — but we also have to rely on our tools. Which is why we’re asking the experts about the essential tools we need to make our favorite foods attainable in our own kitchens.
Today: Italian cooking expert and restaurant mogul Mario Batali, whose latest book is America Farm to Table: Simple, Delicious Recipes Celebrating Local Farmers, shares the six tools he turns to for making a perfect bowl of pasta.
When you taste perfectly cooked and dressed pasta, you instantly understand why Italy is such a great place to eat. Italian cooking and eating is well-conceived and well-executed, but it doesn’t have to be confined to Italy. With the proper tools, the pastas of Bologna are not hard to replicate in almost any kitchen.
Italians like their pasta al dente — that is, toothsome — and just barely sauced. The secret to great pasta is the balance between the pasta and the condiment. Try holding back on the sauce, and let the deliciousness of the noodle sing.
Here are the six tools you need to make pasta the Italian way:
1. Large pasta pot
The most common mistake I see home cooks make is not using enough water or using a pot that’s too small. Don’t crowd the pasta — give it room to move and dance as it cooks! For a pound of pasta, I boil about 6 quarts of water.
The pasta cooking water should be well-salted — it should taste like the sea. Adding salt to the water adds flavor to the pasta. I use two teaspoons of salt per quart of water. While the pasta is cooking it absorbs the salt, which adds flavor to the end dish.
More: Give your salt a nice little home in this California-made salt cellar.
3. Tongs and a spider
Many home cooks use a colander to drain pasta. That’s perfectly fine, but I prefer tongs and a spider. They’re quick and efficient and versatile — use them to take the pasta straight from the pot to the sauté pan, to toss the pasta in the sauté pan, and then, of course, to plate. This technique also leaves all of the pasta water in place so that you can use it in the final mixing of the pasta with the condiment.
4. Sauté pan
For most recipes, it’s important to finish the pasta cooking process in a sauté pan. It binds the pasta to the condiment. I use a 12- to 14-inch sauté pan for a pound of pasta.
I always add a ladle-full (about 3 ounces) of pasta cooking water straight to the sauté pan. The starchy pasta water will help the noodle adhere to the sauce, will loosen a thick sauce, and will create a generally beautiful consistency. All pasta should be dressed like a salad — that is to say, not over-dressed. By using pasta water, you are able to work with the ratios to keep the pasta lightly-dressed.
6. Olive oil
There are very few dishes in the Italian kitchen that don’t benefit from a light drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil at the end — pasta is no exception. After you take the perfectly sauced pasta off the heat, add 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil per pound and toss one more time before plating.
Photo of Mario by Kelly Campbell; book cover photo by Lara Cerri; all other photos by James Ransom