5 Ways to Ruin Pasta
© Melissa Hom
Missy Robbins.Next week, some of the world's greatest chefs will converge on New York City's Eataly for Identità New York, a massive celebration of Italian cooking. The event will pair six of Italy's best chefs with six of New York's biggest names (among them, Mario Batali, Jonathan Benno and Michael White) to talk about trends and teach cooking classes. For A Voce's Missy Robbins (an F&W Best New Chef 2010), this means a reunion with Emanuele Scarello, who was briefly a mentor to Robbins when she apprenticed at his Michelin-starred restaurant, Agli Amici, in Friuli.
Robbins was just beginning to learn about Italian food when she worked with Scarello and his family. "Mama [Scarello's mother] made pasta every morning," she says. "Every day, I would try to beat her down there, and she would already be halfway done at 8 a.m." More than a decade later, Robbins is a pasta master with her own Michelin star. Here, she shares five mistakes for home cooks to avoid.
1. Overcooking it. This might seem basic, but it's the surest way to ruin pasta. For dried pasta, you want some firmness at the center, but you can also tell by color if you're heading for trouble. "If you get to that really white color, it's totally overcooked." Your pasta should exit the water slightly undercooked, so it can finish cooking in sauce.
2. Not salting the water properly. "This is a really big one," says Robbins. To get it right, here's the procedure: Boil the water, add the salt, let the water come back up to a boil and then taste it. "It should be a little less salty than seawater." This is actually much easier at home—where you'll typically only be making one pot of pasta—than in a restaurant kitchen, where the water boils down and needs adjustment throughout the night.
3. Choosing the wrong sauce. Think about where you want the flavor in your dish to come from. "If you want to highlight the filling of a ravioli," says Robbins, "you might not want to use a super-strong sauce." On the other hand, orecchiette, with its tiny, sauce-catching pockets, is perfect for an intense ragù.
4. Not sweating the details. When making fresh pasta, little differences can have a big effect on the finished product. Robbins advocates using extra-fine, double-zero flour ("really, really important"), being careful not to overwork the dough, and letting it rest. As for eggs, Robbins uses only the yolks, which creates incredibly tender pasta.
5. Pouring the cooking water down the drain. "You really want that starchy water," says Robbins. "Even if you drain the pasta in the sink, you should save the water." A bit of pasta water will aid just about any sauce, improving its consistency and lending a little salty flavor.