"I'll have a glass of the grappa, please," I said to the bartender at the Italian restaurant down the street from my house.
"You are the first person I have ever seen order that," she exclaimed in response. I asked her how long she'd been working there, figuring it might be her first week or two. "Almost two years now," she said.
You see, this isn't the kind of Italian restaurant where one would go to order grappa. It's the kind of Italian restaurant where the house wine comes in a box and the Parmesan comes pre-grated in a shaker on the table. It's the kind of Italian restaurant I imagine Billy Joel crooning about. I actually kinda like these sorts of restaurants, in a cheesy way (literally and figuratively). I like ripping off chunks of overly soft and saturated garlic bread, and the waiters who come around with the oversize pepper mill, as if it can rescue limp baby spinach (with dressing always served on the side). And then there are the meatballs as big as your face, and the extra-extra-fried calamari with its ramekin of tomato sauce for dipping.
The one thing I don't like about them? The way they serve pasta. It's almost inevitably a plate with a nest of reheated noodles that have been tossed in oil to prevent them from sticking to each other, with a big ladleful of sauce poured over the center. What exactly is the problem? Aren't you getting pasta and sauce on your plate anyway? Who cares if it's been tossed together beforehand, right?
How to Properly Sauce Pasta
The problem is that pasta heated in the skillet with sauce has a vastly different and superior flavor and texture compared with pasta that is simply sauced on the plate (and we've done the taste tests to prove it). Fact is, no matter how great a sauce you can make, if you don't sauce your pasta correctly, you're missing out on one of life's greatest pleasures. Conversely, even a so-so, store-bought, jarred marinara sauce can be improved upon by finishing it off right.
Here's how to properly sauce your pasta, step by step.
Step 1: Heat Your Sauce Separately
With few exceptions (such as when you're making a pesto-style sauce or a simple Roman-style cheese sauce, like carbonara or cacio e pepe), pasta should be tossed with sauce that is already hot and ready. You don't want your cooked pasta to heat up in a cold pan of sauce, slowly absorbing more water and becoming mushy.
I use either a wide saucier—the sloped sides of a saucier make it easier to use for tossing pasta than a straight-sided saucepan—or a large skillet for my sauce.
Step 2: Cook Your Pasta al Dente (Really)
In a separate pot, bring a couple of quarts of salted water to a boil. Remember: You do not want your pasta water as salty as the sea. One to two percent salinity is what you should aim for, which translates to around 1 or 2 tablespoons of kosher salt per quart or liter. You also don't need a huge amount of water—just enough to be able to keep the pasta moving. With small shapes, like penne or fusilli, I use a saucepan or a saucier. With long, skinny shapes, like spaghetti or bucatini, I use a 12-inch skillet.
There was a time in this country when the default for pasta was cooked-to-mush. These days, it seems like we have the opposite problem: Folks are so scared to overcook pasta that most of the time, it's undercooked. Pasta should* be cooked al dente—"to the tooth"—which means just until it's cooked through. If your pasta has a chalky or brittle core, it's undercooked. Let it go longer!
*Actually, so long as you don't mind being branded a heretic by people who probably have more important things to be worried about than how other people cook their pasta, it should be cooked however the heck you want it. Mushy, chalky, whatever floats your tortellini.
Your other option is to purposely undercook the pasta by a few minutes before adding it to the sauce to let it finish. Cooking pasta in the sauce instead of in boiling water will increase the amount of time it takes to cook through. It's a good technique to use if you want to delay serving your pasta for a few minutes. Make sure to keep the sauce thinned out with pasta water as the pasta finishes cooking if you use this method.
Finally, whatever you do, don't toss cooked pasta with oil—it makes it much more difficult to get sauce to cling to it down the line.
Step 3: Transfer Cooked Pasta to Sauce
There are a couple of ways to get your pasta from the pan to the sauce. The easiest is to grab a set of tongs for long, skinny pasta, or a metal spider to fish out short pasta shapes, and transfer them directly to the pan with the warm sauce. Alternatively, you can drain your pasta through a colander or fine-mesh strainer, making sure to save some of the pasta water.
Step 4: Add Pasta Water
Once the pasta is in the sauce, add pasta water. This is the most vital step in the process. Starchy pasta water doesn't just help thin the sauce to the right consistency; it also helps it cling to the pasta better and emulsify with the fat and cheese you're going to be adding. No matter what sauce you're making—whether it's a chunky marinara, a rich and hearty ragù Bolognese, or a simple carbonara—it should acquire a creamy texture that clings to the noodles.
I start by stirring in a couple of tablespoons of pasta water per serving of pasta and sauce. We'll add more down the road to adjust consistency.
Step 5: Add Fat
If you have a very low-fat sauce (like a tomato sauce, for instance), now is the time to add extra fat. A small amount of fat—extra-virgin olive oil or butter—is essential to good pasta sauce texture. Without fat, you have at best watery sauce (nobody has ever said, "Waiter, my pasta is not quite wet enough"), and at worst sauce that over-thickens with starch alone and takes on a pasty texture.
With extra fat, you can get an emulsion that leaves the sauce creamy, but still loose. Fat also brings flavor of its own, as well as helping fat-soluble flavor compounds in the sauce reach your tongue. I add a little glug of really good extra-virgin olive oil or a pat of butter (depending on my mood and the specific sauce).
Step 6: Cook Hard and Fast
Once everything is in the pan together—cooked pasta, hot sauce, pasta water, and extra fat—it's time to simmer it. Simmering not only reduces liquid (and thereby thickens the sauce), but also contributes to mechanical stirring, helping that starchy pasta water do its job of emulsifying the sauce with the fat and getting it to coat the pasta. The hotter your pan, the more vigorously the sauce will bubble, and the better the emulsion you'll form. I crank my burner up to maximum heat and cook, stirring and tossing the pasta constantly (to ensure that it doesn't stick to the bottom), adding more pasta water as necessary until it gets that perfectly saucy texture.
Finishing pasta, you'll notice, is a game of constant adjustments. Pasta water gets added throughout the process in order to adjust consistency. Don't be afraid of it!
Step 7: Stir in Cheese and Herbs off Heat
Once the pasta and sauce are where you want them, remove the pan from the heat and stir in any cheese or chopped herbs you may be using. With thicker, well-emulsified sauces, it's generally safe to add the cheese directly over the heat, but with a thinner sauce or one that doesn't have much besides the cheese, adding cheese while it's still on the burner can cause it to clump.
Step 8: Adjust Consistency
You thought you were done with that pasta water? Not quite yet! You're just about to serve the pasta, which means that now is your last chance to adjust texture. (And you'll probably need to: The cheese has thickened up the sauce a bit, the pasta has continued to absorb water from the sauce, and some of that water will have evaporated.) Once the cheese has been emulsified into the pan, it's safe to add more pasta water and reheat the sauce over a burner until everything is exactly as you want it.
Step 9: Garnish As Necessary
Transfer the cooked, sauced pasta to a warmed serving bowl or individual plates, then add the final garnishes, if you're using any. These can be anything from chopped fresh herbs to grated cheese to a big grind of black pepper. I like to drizzle on some fresh extra-virgin olive oil at this stage as well. Making sure that all of your serving plates are hot is key to great pasta texture: What looked perfect in the pan will seize up and turn overly thick if you dump it into a cold bowl.
Step 10: Serve Immediately
Pasta don't wait around for nobody. Once the pasta is in the sauce, there's a countdown timer that's automatically started and cannot be paused. Pasta will continue to cook and soften as it sits. The sauce will start to cool down and thicken.
The only solution is to serve it immediately and to eat it with gusto.** If you've done everything right, that shouldn't be a problem.
**That's Italian for "with enough speed to speckle one's tunic with splatters of sauce."