Pasta is kindred to Italy, while noodles to Asia. Both are made using the same general formula of water or egg mixed with flour or starch and both—as you likely well know—are delicious. Whether it’s a plate of authentic spaghetti and meatballs or Korean jap chae, there’s a veritable index of pasta and noodles to be made.
But for all the peaks, there are as many possible pits, so it’s useful to know some common mistakes and how to avoid them.
Adding Olive Oil to Your Pot of Water
Perhaps because olive oil is so integral to the Mediterranean diet, it’s easy to assume the more the better. But ever heard of the phrase, “like oil and water”? Well, that’s the crux of this pasta mistake. If you add olive oil to your boiling pot of water, the oil will remain on the surface and your pasta will absorb none of it. Goose egg. Zilch. So instead of wasting precious olive oil, use it to finish dishes like fennel seed pasta or spicy spaghetti with garlic.
Not Salting Your Water
Whether or not to salt your pasta water is a point of much contention. Though if we look at pasta for the vehicle of flavor that it is, the answer is clear: salt your water and don’t be shy, it should have a sea-like, briny taste.
By adding salt to your water, your pasta will absorb it as it cooks, resulting in an evenly seasoned flavor that can take your final dish from good to great. If “tasting like the sea” isn’t exactly the level of specificity you’re looking for, add anywhere from 2 to 4 tablespoons of salt per gallon of water, depending on the size of the salt crystal. As for the type of salt you choose, those with minimum additives are best. Steer clear of iodized salt since it will impart an unnaturally salty, even bitter taste.
Breaking Your Pasta or Noodles
Sure, breaking your pasta allows it to fit in your pot with a tad more ease but it also zaps your pasta of its characteristic power, which is largely found in its shape. So, what kind of world do you want to live in? One where pasta prevails or fails?
Instead of breaking your pasta, simply place it into your pot and wait for its ends to soften before nestling the remainder into the water. Long pastas like spaghetti, fettuccine, and linguine are perfect for lighter, smoother sauces so their shape is not a mistake. Besides tasting better, plating your pasta will be a lot more satisfying as well. An intact, long pasta allows you to form it into the same majestic swirls found on the plates of fine-dining restaurants.
Treating Wheat, Rice, and Glass Noodles the Same
The word noodle is associated with Asia and within the continent, many countries have their distinctive takes, resulting in a veritable noodle index. One of the gravest noodle mistakes you can make is to treat them equally. There’s wheat, rice, and glass or cellophane noodles, and each is cooked differently.
Wheat noodles, like udon, are typically springy in texture and hold up better to heat than their compatriots. Rice noodles are prone to becoming mushy so watch them carefully while they cook. They also come in varying shapes and degrees of thickness, so it doesn’t hurt to read up on how to cook different rice noodles. Glass noodles, aka cellophane noodles, can be made from a number of different starches, including tapioca, potato, and mung bean. They’re delicate, but their superpower is found in their saucability.
Rinsing Your Pasta (Wheat Only)
If you’re using wheat-based pasta, draining and rinsing after it's cooked is a tragedy for several reasons. First, you’re losing that precious pasta water, perfect for infusing back into your dish at the last moment to bind your pasta and sauce. Second, you’re inadvertently encouraging your pasta to stick together, creating a decidedly undesirable situation where you’re faced with a mass of pasta to ply apart. Instead, time your pasta so that it finishes cooking alongside your sauce. Then simply use a pair of tongs to lift your pasta out of its water and into your pot of sauce. This way, you’ll have well-cooked and well-coated pasta.
Using the Wrong Pot
Just as pasta can glom together on the plate, so too it will cluster together in the pot. So if you’re using a small pot, it’s best to either cook less pasta or purchase a larger one. How large? You’ll want to consider both how much water you’ll need to hold as well as how much room those pasta strands, tubes, shells, or otherwise have to cook. In regard to the former point, a good rule of thumb is that for every pound of pasta, 4 to 6 quarts of water should be used. For the latter, the pasta should have enough room to expand while dancing freely in the boiling water.
Not Considering Your Pasta Shape
Through the centuries, both Asian noodles and Italian pasta have taken on many shapes and in fact, it’s estimated there are over 200 shapes of pasta. Among these, shapes are even more categories for uses.
Generally speaking, the longer and thinner the pasta, the better it pairs with smooth, delicate sauces. Take spaghetti in white clam sauce, which has a near broth-like consistency. Stouter pastas, like rigatoni and fusilli, are better suited for thicker sauces. This is because their structure lends itself to both holding up against and holding on to the sauce. Lastly, the smallest pasta shapes, like orzo and ditalini, are best added to soups.