11 Cooking Hacks From Real Chefs to Elevate Your Pasta Dishes

Ridofranz/iStock via Getty Images Plus
Ridofranz/iStock via Getty Images Plus

It’s one of the easiest and most popular dishes to make at home. Just boil noodles, heat a jar of sauce, and voila! What many don’t realize, however, is that with some attention to detail and just a few extra steps, you can take your spaghetti with marinara sauce from serviceable to restaurant-quality. Here are a few tips from the pros.

1. Make your own sauce.

This may not sound like a “hack,” but it’s way easier to do than most people think. All you need are four ingredients, according to celebrity chef Fabio Viviani: garlic, olive oil, basil, and a large can of whole plum tomatoes—he and others recommend the San Marzano variety of tomatoes, which derive from the volcanic soil around Naples. (If you’re so inclined, use a salad spinner to rid the tomatoes of their seeds before you get cooking.) Heat six smashed garlic cloves with some olive oil, add in the tomatoes, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, adding the basil at the very end.

2. Use a potato masher.

To break down those sauce tomatoes, you could smash them by hand, or use the same wooden spoon you use to stir. (You could also puree them, but most chefs say that’s a no-no.) Or, you could do like Scott Conant of Scarpetta does and use a potato masher, which allows for an even consistency while still keeping the sauce thick and flavorful.

3. Use the right amount of water.

Using too little water can cause noodles to clump while they’re cooking, according to Giuliano Hazan, son of legendary Italian chef Marcella Hazan. He recommends using six quarts of water for each pound of pasta. When in doubt, use more than you think you’ll need—but not so much that the pot overflows while boiling.

4. Don’t add olive oil.

Many believe that adding olive oil to the pasta water will keep the noodles from sticking together. Not true, says renowned chef and cookbook author Lidia Bastianich, who points out that well-cooked pasta should be naturally stick-free. Adding olive oil can also keep the sauce from adhering to the pasta, according to Alton Brown, which keeps ingredients separate that should meld together.

5. Salt liberally—and at the right time.

Just a pinch won’t do it, according to Del Posto chef Mark Ladner. To truly bring out the flavor of the pasta, add one tablespoon of salt per quart of water. As far as timing goes, wait until the water is boiling, but before you’ve put in the pasta. This allows the salt to infuse the water without affecting the boiling time—because, contrary to what you might have heard, adding salt right when you put the pot on the burner actually increases the time it takes for water to start boiling.

6. Turn off the heat and cover the pot.

Rather than boiling the water until the pasta is ready, do what famed chef and cookbook author Mary Ann Esposito recommends: Let the water return to a boil, then shut off the heat, cover the pot and wait for seven minutes. “Works beautifully for cuts like spaghetti, ziti, rigatoni and other short cuts of pasta,” Esposito writes. “Saves energy too.”

7. Cook the sauce in a skillet.

Forget using a small pot, or even a saucepan, to heat your sauce. As Bastianich tells it, a skillet is the way to go, mainly because it cooks evenly, allowing the sauce to thicken quickly. With its flared sides and lighter weight, a skillet also lets you toss the pasta and the sauce together.

8. Add a pinch of sugar to your sauce.

A touch of sweetness can help balance out the flavor of your sauce. Brooklyn chef Jen DePalma says she always adds a pinch of sugar to her sauce, which tones down the acidity and keeps it from tasting too bitter.

9. Cook the pasta with the sauce.

This might be the most crucial hack of all. As numerous chefs point out, pasta and sauce should be cooked together so that the sauce coats the noodles. Celebrity chef Michael Chiarello recommends taking the pasta out of the water four minutes before the cook time listed on the package, transferring it to the sauce skillet and cooking the two until the pasta is al dente. You should only bring your sauce to a boil after adding the pasta, then simmer the two until finished.

10. Use the pasta water.

Don’t pour out that water after you’ve transferred the pasta. As Jason Pfeiffer, chef-de-cuisine at Maialino tells Epicurious, a splash of starchy pasta water on the noodles and sauce will help bind the two together. (You can also use it to make a cocktail, if you’re so inclined.)

11. Don’t forget to add the finishing touches.

Chef Ken Arnone recommends adding fresh sliced basil to your sauce five minutes before it’s done cooking. If you’re going more indulgent, do as Scott Conant does and add a tablespoon of butter. After plating, you could go the traditional route with Parmesan cheese. Or, you could follow chef Elena Karp’s recommendation and add shaved pecorino cheese along with a hint of parsley.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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Fried Beer Exists—and We Have Texas to Thank (or Blame) for It

You can have your beer and eat it, too.
You can have your beer and eat it, too.
Kristy, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

For anyone who thinks beer can qualify as a meal, we have some non-scientific evidence to support your claim: it’s shaped like ravioli, it tastes like a soft pretzel, and it’s filled with warm, yeasty deliciousness.

It’s deep-fried beer.

The story behind this culinary triumph began more than 10 years ago at a bar in Texas, where Mark Zable and his wife were scanning another uninspired menu with the same few finger foods. Zable made an offhand comment about how the bar should offer fried beer, and the couple realized it wasn’t such a bad idea—especially for the state fair.

Zable, a corporate recruiter by day, was no stranger to fair fare. As he told NPR, his father had opened a Belgian waffle stand at Texas’s state fair in the 1960s, and Zable himself assumed control after about 30 years. He experimented with new items to enter into the Big Tex Choice Awards food competition—sweet jalapeño corn dog shrimp and chocolate-covered strawberry waffle balls were two of his innovations—but nothing had won him a prize … yet.

Though the concept of fried beer was wacky enough to show real promise, execution proved difficult. Dropping liquid into a deep-fryer is a good way to get splattered with boiling oil, and Zable spent more than two years trying to devise an edible vessel that could both contain the beer and protect the chef. Finally, his 4-year-old son inspired a new angle, and Zable landed on a flawless design. Though Zable’s been tight-lipped on the details of that recipe, the Toronto Star reports that it’s essentially soft pretzel dough pressed into a ravioli-like pocket, filled with Guinness, and plopped into the deep-fryer for 15 to 20 seconds.

“It tastes great,” Zable told NPR. “Tastes just like eating a pretzel with a beer.”

Actual deep-fried beer from the 2010 State Fair of Texas.David Berkowitz, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

At last, Zable’s ambitious creation was ready for its debut at Texas’s 2010 state fair. He faced some tough competition at the Big Tex Choice Awards—including fried frozen margaritas, fried lemonade, and fried club salad—but even the other edible beverages were no match for Zable’s savory fusion of beer and bread. He took home the award for “Most Creative,” while “Texas Fried Fritos Pie” clinched “Best Taste.” Together, they’re a match made in state fair heaven.

[h/t NPR]