Monday, March 17, 2014

How to cook 100% whole wheat pasta

Foreign interpretation of Italian food involves copious amounts of sauce so that no one can really taste the pasta.  My years enjoying yummy pasta in Italy taught me that in authentic Italian cooking, just the opposite is true.  Pasta is the star of the show!  My focus in any pasta dish is to bring out the flavor of the pasta, itself.

If you're new to making pasta, or just want to quickly up your game, here's four tips:

  • use a bigger pot and more water than you think you need
  • use more salt than you think you should
  • don't overcook your pasta
  • don't run cold water over your drained pasta 

My recipe for preparing 100% whole wheat pasta: 

  • I use a 10 quart pot filled with 5 quarts of water
  • 2 T (35 grams) of coarse sea salt
  • 3/4 pound of 100% whole wheat dried pasta

An interesting note on salt: 

In order to give pasta flavor of its own, plenty of salt needs to be added to the boiling water.  The home cooks I learned from in Italy used about 2 T of sea salt in 5 quarts of water.  If you think that sounds like a lot of salt, check out this article by Epicurious - the professional chefs interviewed recommend even more salt than I learned to use.

One thing the Epicurious article is very correct about is that the volume of sea salt varies wildly depending on varying coarseness of granules.  If you're a stickler for precision, measuring by weight instead of volume is a safer way to go.

Boiling whole wheat pasta:

100% whole wheat pasta is so delicious and nutritious.  I can't imagine choosing regular white pasta when such awesome whole wheat dried pasta is readily available.  My trick for making awesome whole wheat pasta is to keep the lid ajar on the pot while the pasta boils.

Keeping the lid on the pot while you boil pasta is NOT the traditional method!  Using 100% whole wheat pasta isn't traditional, either, so I'm comfortable with my technique adaptation.

The reason I recommend filling the pot only half full with water is so that there is plenty of room for the pasta to foam a bit without boiling over.  I also keep the lid ajar so that plenty of steam can still escape while the pasta is boiling.  Whole wheat pasta is less starchy than white flour pasta, so it creates less froth.  But to contain the lower, but still present, froth, while still getting a tender and delicious whole wheat pasta, do allow plenty of extra room in the pot and monitor carefully while boiling.

How long to cook pasta:

Ever wonder how to interpret the cooking time listed on the pasta box?  This time assumes that you have brought the pasta water to a roiling boil, added salt, added the pasta...and then...wait for it...assumes that you've brought the water with salt and pasta back to a roiling boil.  At that time you can begin the countdown based on the number on the box.

Italians eat their pasta al dente, which is just a cool-sounding way of saying pasta shouldn't be mushy.  Don't overcook your pasta!  It makes me sad just thinking about it.  I judge the doneness of the pasta by watching for the color of the pasta to become uniform.  If the tips are a different color than then center, the penne rigate aren't done, yet.  And even after making pasta thousands of times, I always pop out a couple fusilli, run them under cold water, and taste them.  I would never dream of draining a pot of pasta without checking for doneness.  And I often check three or four times to keep on top of it and make sure I don't end up with the dreaded mush.

How to drain pasta:

Maybe this one seems pretty obvious- dump contents of pot into colander.  But if you're a pasta rinser- stop, halt, hold the tap.  Please!  Rinsing boiled pasta in the colander is a huge no-no in Italian kitchens.   If you have used sufficient water to boil your pasta, and you have not boiled it into a sticky paste, there is no reason to run cold water over your pasta.  Simply add it immediately to the sauce you have prepared and serve hot.

The only exception to this rule is when making cold pasta salad.  If you intend to eat the pasta cold, then rinse it with cool water, allow it to dry.  I sometimes toss it with a few drops of olive oil to keep it from clumping together.

End of manifesto

I'm so passionate about pasta, especially 100% whole wheat pasta.  What an easy and accessible way to add more whole grains to your family's diet.

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