We're serious about pasta here at Serious Eats. So serious, we've decided to launch a Pasta Crimes Task Force, aimed at rooting out every major and minor crime committed against Italian-style pasta across the land.
Why is this necessary?* Because despite our best efforts, there's still an underworld of pasta wrongdoing that needs to be addressed. We're ready to take it on swiftly, decisively, and with the kind of exaggerated swagger only a terrible 1980s TV cop show could think is cool.
*Spoiler: It's not, this is a joke, but there are maybe some helpful tips here.
We do have to acknowledge that, overall, the pasta crime rate in the United States has gotten significantly better over the years. Piles of bloated spaghetti worms that spent an extra 10 minutes past al dente in the pasta pot were once the American norm, but they're a rarity now. And more and more people have learned that the sauce needs to intermix with the pasta and not just sit on top of it.
But we're not ready to let the remaining al dente delinquents off the hook just yet. My pasta paesano Sasha Marx and I are on patrol, and we're handing out fettuccine fines, spaghetti subpoenas, and sauce citations. So watch out! Because we're on the lookout for people breaking rules—and strands of spaghetti.
We want you, dear reader, to help. If you spot anyone committing any of the following offenses, send us an anonymous tip. With your help, we'll send all the noodle ne'er-do-wells straight to the penne-tentiary.
Adding Oil to Pasta Water
I once spied this tip in James Beard's Beard on Pasta. I'd quote it here, but I burned that book shortly after reading that part. I have unending respect for James Beard, but anyone who advises oiling your pasta water is not someone I want to take pasta advice from.
What's the big deal with oil? Mostly it's just pointless, a waste of oil that could be used to sauce the pasta which, you know, would then actually end up on your plate where you can taste it. "But it prevents the pasta from sticking!" Enough with the lies, Jacko! [This is where you've got to imagine my slamming my fist on the interrogation-room table, and in the reflection of my aviators—right above my Tom Selleck mustache—the suspect flinches.]
Don't want pasta to stick? Stir it. More on that below.
Breaking Long Pasta
"This pasta is the law, and you just broke it." That's what I'd say through gritted teeth if I ever caught some poor SOB with bunches of half-length spaghetti in each blood-red hand. This one is simple: Each pasta shape has its own soul. We don't mess with that. If anyone wants short pasta, they should buy short pasta. Breaking long pasta to fit it in pot is criminal negligence**. Capeesh?
** Except for candele!
Straining and Rinsing
This is one of those moves that confuses even the most seasoned pasta police, like when a perp brags about getting away with a crime...on Facebook. Look, the pasta is cooked. The pasta is ready. All that's left to do is put it in the sauce and finish it, free and clear. And yet a few misguided folks dump the pasta in a colander in the sink and run tap water all over it. The only rational explanation I can think of for it is they're trying to wash their guilty, pasta-ruining fingerprints off.
Here's why this is a big mistake: First off, all that good starchy pasta water, which we know is valuable stuff, goes down the drain. On top of that, it washes the lovely, sticky starch off the pasta, too! People who do that must really have a vendetta against pasta.
Saucing Plain Pasta
Oil and water don't go together. Pasta and sauce? They do, and it should happen in the kitchen. Nothing is gained by plopping wet pasta on serving plates and then spooning sauce on top, except maybe a small puddle of sauce-tinted pasta water that collects on the bottom of each plate. Not exactly appetizing.
Pasta is at its best when each piece and strand is glazed in sauce, the kind of marriage that would make two powerful crime families proud.
Choosing Fresh Over Dry
If I could close a pasta-crimes case every time someone dreamily told me that the pasta they had at X, Y, or Z restaurant was fresh, as if that somehow made it extra good, I'd be freakin' Columbo himself. Let's be clear: fresh pasta isn't better than dried just because it's fresh. It's just different. It goes with different sauces; it fulfills a different role. And if we're being honest, in all but the most expert hands, it's usually of worse quality than your basic dried pasta product.
Dried pasta deserves just as much respect and admiration as the good fresh stuff. That doesn't mean we shouldn't make and enjoy fresh pasta, because we should. It's fun and can be delicious. But it doesn't elevate our pasta cooking beyond what is possible with dry pasta.
If pasta looks like it's been floating in a bog for two weeks—pale, swollen, and falling to pieces at the gentlest touch—then we have a problem. To the best of our investigative knowledge, this is a pasta crime that is less common in the United States these days, but we know it still happens. And when it does, it's one of the worst offenses. This is the kind of wrongdoing that can make a veteran of the Pasta Crimes Task Force break down and cry.
If I had to blame someone, it'd be that dastardly pasta boss, Chef "B," who runs that canned pasta operation that shall not be named. He got countless unsuspecting victims hooked on soft and squishy pasta squiggles. If only we'd busted him for evading the semolina tax when we had the chance, at least we coulda gotten him for something.
This is one of the more controversial misdemeanors on the books. Even some of the folks on the pasta force think it should be legalized (I suspect my partner, Marx, is a sympathizer). Is there such a thing as too al dente pasta? I'm old school and I say yes—if I have to pick hard bits of noodle out of my molars, that starch should have spent more time in the drink. Others are more forgiving on this one. Their motto? Go on. Make My D-ent-ay.
I tell you what, this is one where we'll usually turn a blind eye, as long as no one pushes their luck.
Adding Pre-Grated Cheese
Pre-grated cheese is one of two things: old and flavorless, or old, flavorless, and full of sawdust. No, seriously, I'm not kidding. Like black pepper, hard cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano lose much of their flavor if they're grated too far in advance. Little is gained in exchange for the convenience of not having to grate one's own.
Even worse are those shelf-stable brands, which not only lack flavor but add filler like cellulose (yup, basically sawdust) to keep the powdered cheese from clumping. We don't want that on our noods, do we?
There are some great soups with pasta in them. Pasta e fagioli. Tortellini en brodo. Chicken noodle. But that's soup. If you're eating pasta with sauce, don't make the mistake of adding so much of the wet stuff that what you end up serving is a big old helping of an identity crisis. There should be just enough sauce to coat all the pasta—generously, even—but not much more than that. Pasta should be dressed, not drowned, in sauce. That's why the Italians call basic pasta with sauce pastasciutta: dry pasta. Because it's fundamentally different from pasta in brodo (brothy pasta) and pasta al forno (baked pasta).
Do you know one of these types? The kind of miscreant who drops their pasta in the pot and then walks away, as if they had no responsibilities in the world. This is the kind of indifference that makes me sick. They just don't care about anything, do they? Can't even be bothered to stir the pot once or twice, make sure the pasta's all right, do a little good deed like that.
Nah, makes no difference to them whether the pasta sticks together, fusing into clumps and logs that will never cook properly. Not their problem, right? Oh, I've heard their excuses before: "Someone should have put some oil on the pasta water!" No way, I won't have it. They have to own it. They shoulda stirred. They shoulda cared just a little.
Maybe one day these gluten gangsters will learn. We'll see.