To me, pasta at home does not taste as good as in a restaurant.
But as Elise Ballbrook grew up, she found the opposite.
Her Italian family would make a huge pot of red sauce several times a week, letting it simmer for at least five hours.
These days, the reality cooking show contestant, cooking coach, and lawyer doesn’t have much time.
So how do you make a great pasta sauce, even on a weeknight? Here’s what to do in cooking restaurant-quality pasta.
Do: Let the sauce simmer
If you’re using fresh, ripe tomatoes, Ms. Bullbrook says 30 minutes should be enough for ripening, especially if you’re cooking for two in a large skillet.
“The more surface area the pan has, the more efficient the sauce will separate,” she says.
To avoid cooking all of your sauce, she says you should make sure to discard bottled patta and canned tomatoes with water, and add them to your sauce.
“You should always start with enough water in your pot. If you think it’s too liquid, remember that this will cook.”
Do: Finish cooking the pasta in the sauce
While you can dry out the pasta once it’s done and mixed with the sauce, the chefs I spoke to said that cooking it in the same sauce would yield a tastier result.
You don’t want to “put a scoop of bolognese on top of your bare pasta,” Ms. Bullbrook says.
Instead, “if you want to have flavor that permeates the actual pasta itself, take it out a little early and finish cooking it in whatever sauce you’re going to serve with it, so that it absorbs that flavor,” Ben de Rosa says.
You should also make sure you save some of your pasta water, to add to the sauce, says Mr De Rosa, chef and co-owner of an Italian restaurant in the regional NSW town of Griffiths.
“The cooking water at this point will be flavorful and starchy, which helps emulsify the sauce and really make it stick to the pasta itself,” he says.
Avoid: Adding oil to pasta
If you add oil to the pasta in the colander, and then add it back to the sauce, Mr. De Rosa says it will become a slippery surface, preventing the sauce from sticking to it.
Chef and restaurateur Mitch Orr says you shouldn’t add oil to pasta, as it should be put into the sauce right away—not in a colander that clumps together.
“When I make pasta in a restaurant, the goal is to have the sauce in the pan ready at the same time as the pasta, so you can stir it together,” he says.
“There’s no point in cooking your pasta until the sauce is five or six minutes away from being ready.”
However, if you’re cooking plain pasta beforehand, Mr. De Rosa says adding oil when it’s in the colander can help prevent it from sticking together — “but I wouldn’t condone any kind of pre-cooking myself.”
Don’t: feel like you need to use expensive wine
Many pasta sauce recipes require adding wine to the pan and then cooking it.
Ms. Bullbrook says adding wine adds acidity, depth, and sweetness to your dish — but it doesn’t have to be from a luxury brand.
“If you use something disgusting, like wine that tastes like a shoe, your food won’t taste as good,” she says.
“But in terms of the cost of wine, that shouldn’t really determine whether or not you have a quality dish.”
Do: Use whole tomatoes
If you’re making a red sauce, Ms. Bullbrook says you can’t beat fresh, ripe tomatoes.
If you can’t go fresh, she says using a good brand of canned tomatoes is the best way to go.
She says you should try to buy whole tomatoes instead of cubes, to get more of the actual fruit and less water.
She also recommends looking at the ingredients on the back of the can, and avoiding those with preservatives — you want the only ingredients to be tomatoes and salt.
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