If you’ve ever watched an Italian themed cooking show, you’ve probably heard the words “al dente” in regards to cooking pasta. The etymology of al dente comes from the Italian phrase “to the tooth,” which refers to the firmness of the pasta and the necessity to chew through the cooked pasta. Basically, al dente refers to a point where pasta is not hard, but yet isn’t completely cooked through.
Traditionally, the first step of perfect pasta would be to prepare the noodles fresh from flour, eggs, and salt. Combined, kneaded, divided, flattened, cut, and then dried, noodles are far from labor intensive. Unless you are a true connoisseur, pasta that is readily available in grocery stores is perfectly suitable for consumption without the hassle.
But al dente, if you haven’t guessed, is extremely subjective. What’s perfectly cooked for you might not be perfectly cooked for anyone else. The best way to test the pasta is to take a bite; a timer will never be as accurate as a quick chomp.
Then there is the sauce. From what I know from Italian-Americans I have met, the sauce has to be handed down from generation to generation as a closely guarded secret. The perfect sauce is made from gently squeezed tomatoes, garlic carefully minced, and olive oil pressed from the happiest little olives in Italy and set to gently simmer for no less than twelve hours.
Italian romanticism of food isn’t unusual. Though a bit of sautéed onions and garlic with some crushed tomatoes and a myriad of dried herbs cooked for 15 minutes or so can imitate ancient family recipes quite nicely.
But for the perfect pasta dish, it’s the combination between noodles and sauce. Always put your pasta in the pan where your sauce is cooking, adding a little bit of the starchy water from the pot in which you cooked your noodles. Cooking the pasta in the sauce allows for the sauce to coat and cook into the pasta rather than just sitting on top of the noodles. If the sauce seems to dry, add some more pasta water, if it’s too soupy, let it cook down a little.
As always, the perfect pasta is perfectly personal. The cooking process allows you the chance to taste and change the dish so you can change the food to what you like; pasta is no difference. Be involved and don’t rely on timers, in matters of love and pasta, only the heart and taste buds will know!