My top 10 pasta tips for amateur cooks

If you Google ‘pasta tips’ you’ll find no less than 842,000 results! Some of these tips are aimed at accomplished kitchen dwellers, some at kids, and some appear to be designed with anyone and everyone in mind.

Confused? Don’t be…


To clarify matters, I’ve produced these top 10 pasta tips for amateur cooks. Written with enthusiastic pasta lovers in mind, these hints have been drilled into me by ‘da family’ (my pasta-savvy Italian in-laws) and should help you produce delicious dishes time and time again, whatever your level of experience.

1. Shape up

Long pastas work best with seafood pasta recipes – such as those involving muscles, prawns, clams etc. This is because these dishes tend to be quite oily, and this oil helps the long pasta move (so you can swirl it onto your fork!).

Meat and ricotta pasta sauces are better suited to small pasta shapes. With their large, uneven surface areas, pastas like rigatoni, conchiglie (shell shapes), penne and fusilli can physically hold more dribbly sauce – meaning fewer mishaps between dish and mouth!

The traditional exception to these pasta tips is, of course, spaghetti bolognese. Wear a napkin!

2. In the mix

Don’t use different pasta shapes in the same dish, because according to my Neapolitan wife Laura this is nothing less than a sin. Unless that is you’re buying a packet of special pre-mixed shapes from Naples, in the south of Italy, to make pasta fagioli! (Better get buying that plane ticket then…).

3. The perfect portion

100g or 3.5oz of pasta is the standard Italian serving for a one-person pasta meal. (If pasta is only the first course however – called ‘primo piatto’ – this amount will be less, say 50-80 grams.)

These weights may seem on the low side, but remember that pasta is full of carbohydrates and has a what you might call a ‘fullness delay’ of 10-20 minutes… meaning it takes your body this long after you stop eating to realise how full you are.

(This is one of the reasons medical experts recommend eating slowly… so that this fullness feeling is in tune with your eating speed. As a result, slower eating leads to eating less, which can obviously help with weight control. USA Today ran an interesting story on this.)

4. Water talk

When boiling pasta, use lots of water and don’t forget the salt.

Fill your large pan with 1 quart/950ml of water for each 100g serving of pasta. Bring this to the boil, throw in the pasta, and when boiling again add the salt (one tablespoon, or a little less, for every 100g of pasta).

5. Wooden top

Stop your pan of pasta from boiling over by placing a wooden spoon across the top. Bizarrely, this works… genius!

6. Overcooking = evil

Do not overcook pasta!

Packet pasta should be served ‘al dente’ (literally ‘firm to the tooth’). To test if your packet pasta is ready, take a piece out of the pan and break it. If it’s white inside, it’s not ready.

Fresh pasta meanwhile is already soft. My rule of thumb is to boil it until it rises to the surface (usually 2-3 minutes), then just one minute more.

7. Sweet not sour

Does your bubbling tomato sauce taste sour? Pop in half a teaspoon of sugar. Its sweetness will counteract the natural acidity of the toms.

8. Treat basil nice

It’s arguably the most-used herb in Italian cooking, so this pasta tip applies to numerous recipes: don’t chop basil with a knife.

Horizontal ‘tearing’ (with your fingers) is better, as it doesn’t turn the leaves to complete mush like downward slicing does.

9. Nothing on the side

Whilst Italians do eat pasta with bread (try not to think about all the carbs!), they never eat it alongside other foods such as salad. In Italy, pasta is ‘il pasto’ – the meal (or ‘la portata’ – the course).

10. Good to grate?

Do not grate cheese, parmesan or any other type of cheese, onto fish or seafood pasta meals.

This is simply not done in Italy, so if you ask for parmesan with a fish dish in an Italian restaurant you’ll get very strange looks (just like you would if ordering a cappuccino, which is a breakfast drink, after 11am!).

And finally, for the wine…

When it comes to the wine to drink with your pasta (and food in general really), the basic rule is this: white wine for seafood and fish, red for meat dishes.