The Balance of Pasta and Sauces
July 24, 2010
Pasta can be one of the most misunderstood products in today’s culinary world. Too often, restaurants take pasta and smother it in sauce, and pack it with all sorts of ingredients so you can not even taste the dough. The most forgotten ingredient in a pasta dish today is the pasta. Sounds weird, right? Well think about it. Go to one of your big name, popular restaurants and order a bowl of pasta. It is always swimming in sauce and full of flavor, but not the true flavor of the dish. The pasta should be the star of the dish, and all of the other ingredients should be accents. Chefs often say that you should use a certain type of pasta to compliment the type of sauce. But in reality, you should use a certain type of sauce to compliment the type of pasta.
It is easy to get lost in the sauce. One might spend all day cooking a sauce and be very proud of it. The key is to respect that beautiful sauce as much as the phenomenal pasta you are pairing it with, so the sauce is no more than a pasta accent. Growing up, I would come home to my mother making a neck bone and meatball sauce. She would put it on in the morning and it would cook for six to eight hours. The sauce would be amazing! The whole house was filled with the heavenly aromas of garlic, tomatoes and meat. When dinner would come around, she would only use enough of this incredible sauce to coat the pasta. It was never swimming in it. There would always be more sauce on the side to dip bread into or to put on top of the neck bones, but the highlight of the dish was the rigatone or fussili that was served with it. The thick, durable pasta was able to stand out over the sauce, allowing the sauce to serve its true place in the dish as the accenting flavor.
The first step in understanding pasta is to understand the difference between fresh and dried pasta. Both types are beautiful products, but each has its purpose in the Italian kitchen. Fresh pasta has a richer flavor and more body, better for complimenting with simple ingredients rather than a sauce. Dried pasta, on the other hand, is more durable and tends to be a little bolder, allowing the opportunity to introduce more complex flavors as a compliment. As much as I love the beauty and feeling of accomplishment when using fresh, hand made pasta, sometimes dried pasta is the way to go. Tasting the two side by side can open one’s eyes to a world of difference and understanding about pasta that people normally are not aware of. For instance, most dried pastas are made of nothing more than durum wheat, the hardest of all wheat, high in gluten and protein, and water, where as fresh pastas are made of eggs, flour and water. They are two completely different products and should be handled as such. The most important thing is that we do not get lost in the convenience of dried pasta and forget about the true beauty of hand made, fresh pasta.
How do we accomplish that? Get to know your pasta flavors. While most fresh pasta is made from the same ingredients, the thicker or thinner the pasta, the more diverse the flavor. The same applies to all dried pasta. The difference of one number on the pasta machine, or the shape of the pasta, can be the determining factor in whether a heavy tomato sauce is called for, or maybe just a few herbs in olive oil. The next time you are cooking pasta, try this:
Get a pot of boiling water seasoned to your liking. Cook your pasta and eat it with nothing more than a little pasta water. Try this with a few different styles of pasta and you will be able to see which are bolder and can stand up to stronger sauces and which tend to be milder and need lighter accents, like nothing more than a little olive oil and garlic.
The results are surprising. Each cut, shape and thickness of pasta should be treated as a totally different product. The texture, mouth-feel, density, heaviness and flavor is completely different, hence the creation of so many different shapes and styles. You will be able to determine how chunkier sauces might pair up better with orrechiette, where as light, simple accents will be more suitable for cappellini.