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  • Writer's pictureNikki Bidun

5 Tips to Level Up Your Boxed Pasta Game



These simple tricks will help turn any pasta dish up a notch.

 

1. Salt your water well

The first thing we have to talk about here is seasoning your water. Boxed pasta has little to no salt in it, which means that we need to supply it during the boiling. You might be saying to yourself "My sauce is will give my pasta flavor," but seasoning your pasta early on in the process will help enrich your flavors and level up something like buttered noodles. The process of diffusion will happen when your pasta is cooking and not only will it rehydrate, it will add salt to it as well. More on that later


2. Using Pasta Water

What exactly is pasta water? Pasta water is the starchy liquid in the pot of water your pasta was boiling in. It is ALWAYS worth saving at least a cup of this for whatever variety of pasta dish you are making. It is best to collect it at the end of cooking, so you have the highest starch content.


Why is starch important? Starch gives your noodles structure and bite. The increase in the size of cooked pasta compared to dried is attributed to starch. The water volume gained when cooking pasta is part of it, but the volume of starchy ingredients increases because its particles encapsulate water in its structures as it grows. This is why only a small bundle of noodles in enough for one portion.

Also, when starch is cooked, it sticks together because of the polymers it leaks. This means that when you add starchy water to sauce, it will make it thicker and glossier. On the same reasoning, rice is often rinsed before cooking because the additional starch makes it chewy and clumpy- not ideal for making fluffy rice.


3. Don't Overcook Your Noodles


This is especially important when you are making a hearty sauce or ragout. When you overcook pasta, it loses its architecture and has difficulty keeping form. Cooking starch provides structure, but overcooking it will eventually break down the polymer network that makes your pasta sticky and cling to the sauce. It will be limp and unable to grasp the sauce you are using.




Dried pasta is "cooked" through diffusion: the dissemination of particles from higher concentration to lower concentration. The high concentration of water particles in the pot will permeate the dried pasta that has extremely low concentration—it will basically absorb water until it is flexible. At a certain point, the pasta reaches its maximum intake of water, and keeping on the heat will begin to deteriorate it.


If you are concerned about undercooking it, remember that (even though it seems counterintuitive) taking your pasta out of the water or off the heat does not mean it will stop cooking. If you are cooking it in a sauce, it will gain heat from that, and even on a plate, it will take time for the pasta's internal temperature to decrease. It is best to take out your pasta earlier and preserve its texture.


4. DON'T RINSE YOUR COOKED PASTA

This is a trick used to cool down pasta very quickly, but it will compromise the flavor and texture of your noodles. Rinsing your pasta will rinse off the valuable starch clinging to your cooked pasta (see point 2) and alter your final dish.




5. Get Whimsical with Your Shapes


Sometimes all you need is a bowl of spaghetti, but changing up the variety of pasta you use is a great way to enhance your dish. There are some classic combos like elbows with Mac n Cheese and Fettuccine al Fredo but oftentimes finding the right pasta shape is about matching it with your sauce. For example, in my Classic Pasta à la Vodka , the grooves in rigatoni will help the sauce cling to the pasta. When making thicker sauces like ragout or cheese sauces, having things with crevices or shells will pocket some of the good bits, making for perfect bites. If using something like pesto or thinner sauce, noodles are a great option here.

There are thousands of pasta shapes and there are ones perfect for every sauce

 

Start incorporating these tips in your boxed-pasta-making practices and see the difference! Sources: (Brenner, Michael P., et al. Science and Cooking: Physics Meets Food, from Homemade to Haute Cuisine. W. W. Norton & Company, 2020. )




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