Spaghetti loves company, so don't leave your pasta while it is cooking, for timing is all.
• Cook pasta in an abundant quantity of water, which means more than you'd ever imagined. One and a half gallons of water is about right for 1 pound (500g) pasta.
• Add a good quantity of salt to the water, for without salt, the pasta will taste bland. I recommend 2 shy tablespoons coarse sea salt to 1 1/2 gallons water. (If using commercial salt, which I never recommend, use half the amount.)
• Make sure the water is boiling vigorously before adding the pasta. Add the pasta slowly so it moves around in the water rather than forming a large clump at the bottom. Stir the pasta once it is added to the water so it cooks evenly.
• Time the pasta carefully -- whether fresh or dry, it will take much less time than you think. Fresh pasta is cooked almost as soon as it is in the water -- 1 1/2 minutes, maximum. Dry pasta, depending on the brand, takes 7 to 8 minutes for al dente, which is the only way to eat good-quality dry pasta. If you are adding pasta to a sauce and heating it together, undercook the pasta by about 1 minute. It will continue to cook in the sauce, absorbing flavor as it cooks.
• When draining pasta, use a pasta cooker with a colander that fits right inside the water (get a big one -- the smaller ones are only large enough to cook pasta for two people). Otherwise, use a large strainer with a handle or slotted ladle to remove the pasta from the water so you can avoid hefting a heavy pot. That way, you can also save the pasta water, which is an invaluable ingredient in many pasta dishes.
• Fresh or dry pasta -- which is best? The answer is, it depends. Fresh pasta melts in the mouth, and is wonderful with certain sauces. It is hard to generalize, but in my book you will find everything from a rustic yet sophisticated bean ragu to a light and sprightly lemon and pine nut sauce for pasta -- both are oodles better with fresh than dried pasta. On the other hand, a vigorous eggplant and mint sauce, or the Peduzzi's cherry tomato and pepper sauce, is better over dried pasta, which stands up to and complements the sauce.
• For dry pasta, which brands are best? The best dry pastas are the most expensive, from Italy. I prefer either Latini or rustichella, both "boutique" dried pastas in lovely packaging. They are made with fine, hard wheat that is dampened before being processed to remove the bran, then ground and sifted many times over before being combined with water and run in small quantities through bronze dyes for shaping. The pasta emerges with a rough, porous surface, which captures the sauce and provides a satisfying, toothsome texture. The pasta is then slowly, evenly dried in huge ovens, where it moves as it dries. If your budget doesn't allow, however, for such artisanal perfection, DeCecco brand is perfectly acceptable, as is Barilla.
• How much to cook? If you are serving pasta as a main course, 1 pound (500g) will easily feed four hungry people. As a first course, you can double the number of people.
• How much sauce to use? In Italy, the pasta is the thing. Sauce is vital, of course, but pasta is considered a delicious food, not simply a vehicle for other flavors, so sauce quantities are less rather than more -- enough to season but not overshadow.
• If a pasta sauce is dry, what to do? Add pasta-cooking water, judiciously of course, to moisten a sauce.
• When to use flavored pastas? I never do, but as an example of how to use them, do as they do in Abruzzo, where pasta flavored with pepper, spinach or tomatoes is traditional, and the sauces are dressed with simple but spicy sauces.
Try Susan's recipe for Pasta with Broccoli now.
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