Pasta lowdown

Expert guide to cooking pasta

olive's food director Janine Ratcliffe shares her tips and tricks for cooking the perfect pasta

Want to make homemade pasta? Check out our expert guide to cooking pasta, and what to look for when deciding on all the different pasta types. From orecchiette and pappardelle to orzo and rigatoni, here we share our tips and tricks for the perfect pasta. Whether you’re making a quick and easy pasta recipe for a midweek meal, or preparing a posh pasta dish for a dinner party, we have the best pasta tips for you…

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How to find good quality pasta

Look for dried pasta made with durum wheat (or pasta di semola di grano duro, in Italian). This hard wheat is high in gluten, which gives pasta its unique elastic texture and allows it to cook to al dente without becoming gummy or sticky. Budget ranges are often made with cheaper flours and the texture is not as good.

Dried pasta

In premium brands, bronze dies are often used to shape the pasta; this gives a slight roughness to the finished result that allows sauces to cling more effectively. Most supermarket premium ranges are very high quality and widely available good brands include Barilla, De Cecco and Garofalo.


Is fresh pasta or dried pasta better?

Don’t assume that supermarket fresh pasta is superior to dried. Those bags of ‘fresh’ pasta you find in the chiller cabinets of supermarkets will have been treated to prolong their shelf life (sometimes up to six weeks) and cooking it is trickier (it often becomes mushy very quickly).I would always choose a good-quality dried pasta over a bag of fresh. If you are buying a filled pasta, such as a ravioli or tortellini, from a supermarket then look in the frozen aisle for those with the best texture.

Dried pasta

Perfect pasta cooking

You want enough water for the pasta to boil freely without sticking together. Get the water to a good rolling boil and add a tablespoon of salt. You want to be able to taste the salt but it shouldn’t be overly salty – your finished sauce is what you really want to flavour the pasta. The salt in the water is there just as a base seasoning.

Bucatini pasta

Pay attention at the beginning of cooking. Give short pasta a good stir once you add it and again once it comes to the boil. With long pasta, such as spaghetti or linguine, keep agitating it until it has softened enough to be immersed in the water then stir a few times until you can see the strands have separated. Adding oil to the water won’t stop pasta sticking together, it will just make drained pasta more slippery and harder to coat with sauce.


How long to cook pasta for

Use the timings on the pasta packet as a rough guide only. A couple of minutes before the recommended cooking time is up, start checking the pasta to see if it’s done. The only way you can really tell whether pasta is cooked is to fish a piece out and taste it (forget throwing spaghetti at a wall!).

Pasta lowdown

If you are double-cooking pasta for a lasagne or pasta bake, remember to undercook the pasta so it can finish cooking in the sauce. Drain a couple of minutes before it’s done, then rinse in cold water so it doesn’t continue to cook in the residual heat.


The best pasta sauce

Unless your sauce is a thin broth that the pasta is designed to sit in, the sauce should just dress the pasta rather than swim in it. Keep a cup of cooking water when you drain the pasta and add a couple of tablespoons when you toss the pasta and sauce together. You can also use a large slotted spoon or a pair of tongs to lift the pasta from the cooking pot directly into the sauce (this will bring some water with it).

Pasta shapes

The starch in the water will help emulsify sauces, especially oily and creamy ones like pesto and carbonara that can go a bit wodgy without extra liquid. Tossing the pasta and sauce over the heat for the last minute of cooking will make the sauce meld with the pasta more effectively.


Click here to get olive’s summer vegan pasta recipe using casarecce with raw tomato sauce

Casarecce with raw tomato sauce

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