Sunday Suppers: How to Finish Pasta

And what, pray tell, inspires The Beloved to clean his plate quickly?  I'll show you.

And what, pray tell, inspires The Beloved to clean his plate quickly? I'll show you.

And by that, I don’t mean “how to clean your plate.”  I mean how to finish off the cooking process so the pasta and the sauce meld into one unified dish, as opposed to being a naked plate of pasta with some sauce spooned on top.  I get Very Sad when I see pasta Disrespected in such a manner.  I think I’ve probably mentioned this technique before, but this time I took pictures for you.  You’re welcome.

The whole dish began when Steve, landlord and Realtor extraordinnaire told me that the “bush” by the corner of the deck was bay.  Well, heck, had I known that, I would’ve been making tomato sauce almost every day.  Alas.  So, I had a lot of catching up to do.

Anyway, please enjoy the following Pictorial Essay.  But first, the players in my sauce.  Feel free to improvise to your heart’s content.  Remember, this is a template, not Culinary Law:

Well, I’ll Be Damned; That’s Bay! Pasta Sauce

  • 2 fresh bay leaves (dried is fine)
  • 1 1/2 medium onions, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic. minced
  • olive oil
  • red pepper flake, to taste
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • Italian seasoning (fresh or dried and smushed in your palm), to taste
  • 1 TBSP tomato paste
  • 1/3 bottle red wine (I used some less-than-stellar Sangiovese)
  • 1 pound hot Italian sausage (I had some organic, local stuff that we’d gotten at the Farmer’s Market.  You’ll see)
  • 2 large cans plum tomatoes
  • 2 tsp sugar (mine needed it; yours might not)
  • red wine vinegar to brighten flavors, to taste

To Finish:

  • About 1/2 cup pasta cooking water
  • about 3 TBSP heavy cream (you can also use butter or olive oil–or any tasty fat, really)
  • some freshly grated (or green can if that’s all you have) hard Italian cheese, such as Pecorino or Parmesan

So, what do you always do first when making some sort of Italian-inspired pasta sauce?  That’s right–you make your soffrito.  Sweat/sauté your aromatics.  In this case, I threw the onion, garlic, oil, salt, pepper, pepper flake and bay in the heated pan.

You could add peppers to this and/or celery.  It's more about the technique and the type of veggies you use than it is the specific list of ingredients.

You could add peppers to this and/or celery. It's more about the technique and the type of veggies you use than it is the specific list of ingredients.

After things start getting nicely softened and start to color, spoon in your tomato paste and stir it around a bit.  All this is done over medium-ish heat, by the way.  (Before you laugh at the next picture, remember that I am not a planner.  It was all I could do to stop after each step and take a picture.  Did you really expect me to remember to thaw the sausage, too)?

So, what I did was let it soften/melt/start cooking on both sides.  Then, I slit the casing and pulled all of the meat out.  Then, I washed my hands really, really well.

So, what I did was let it soften/melt/start cooking on both sides. Then, I slit the casing and pulled all of the meat out. Then, I washed my hands really, really well.

Next up, once the meat (if you decide to use meat) is all browned and lovely, skim off as much of the fat as you think prudent and then add the wine.

At this point, the meat was over in an unattractive shaggy heap on a plate.  Don't worry, I put it back in later.  If you don't start with a frozen schnecken of sausage, you won't have this problem.

At this point, the meat was over in an unattractive shaggy heap on a plate. Don't worry, I put it back in later. If you don't start with a frozen schnecken of sausage, you won't have this problem.

Next up, toss in the tomatoes.  If using fresh, less than amazing tomatoes, you might want to roast them for about 30 minutes first, to concentrate the flavor.  I like my sauce chunky, so I just mash up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon.  If you like a smoother sauce, hit it with a stick blender, or don’t start with whole tomatoes.

See, the meat's right back where it belongs.  Looking pretty good, I think.

See, the meat's right back where it belongs. Looking pretty good, I think.

Simmer for as long as it takes to get to the consistency you want.  Do this over low heat so you don’t end up burning the sauce.  Oh, here’s where I also added the sugar and vinegar.  I also corrected the rest of the seasonings.

And there you have it.

And there you have it.

Here’s the point where many of you will just cook some noodles and then ladle the sauce on top.  I would’ve done the same had it not been my Good Fortune to see Frank Pellegrino from Rao’s in NYC on a cooking show about ten years ago or so.  He showed me (and everyone else watching, I guess) how to finish a sauce.  I listened and Followed Directions.  Dude was right, so pay attention to the next steps.

The idea is to create a starch-bound emulsion right in the pan.  It sounds like Crazy Magic, but it’s really quite easy.  For your emulsion, you need fat–in the form of olive oil, heavy cream, butter, duck fat, bacon grease or any other tasty fat.  You don’t need much–maybe just a tablespoon or so for an entire Vat of pasta and sauce, so don’t freak out.  Next, you need the water part of the emulsion.  You’ll get this from the water that is already in your sauce, plus some extra pasta water that you’ve dipped out of the pasta pot before draining.  The starch you need is in the cooking water, plus, you’ll get even more from the pasta in the pot.  You make the emulsion by stirring.  Easy.

Just dip in a measuring cup and grab about 1/2 cup of the water.

Just dip in a measuring cup and grab about 1/2 cup of the water.

See?  Here's my pasta water, cloudy with starch.

See? Here's my pasta water, cloudy with starch.

After draining the pasta, add the pasta water, several ladles of sauce and your fat.  I'm using cream and a little olive oil.

After draining the pasta, add the pasta water, several ladles of sauce and your fat. I'm using cream and a little olive oil.

See, it's ony a tablespoon or so of cream.  Right now, the pot contains pasta, reserved cooking water, cream, a little olive oil and sauce.

See, it's ony a tablespoon or so of cream. Right now, the pot contains pasta, reserved cooking water, cream, a little olive oil and sauce.

I don’t have a picture of the next part because I only have two hands.  Over high heat, stir everything together really well.  Things will be boiling and sputtering, but keep stirring–I use tongs–until the sauce has reduced to its original consistency (before you thinned it out with the pasta water).  The color will lighten somewhat, and your now-emulsified sauce will coat all the noodles.  This should only take a minute or two on high heat.  Make sure you start with al dente pasta, or it will be mushy when you’ve finished this part.  And that’s no fun.

At the end, stir in some grated cheese.  Then, it’s your choice to serve with more cheese sprinkled on top or not.

I added an extra ladle of sauce on top.  Notice how the sauce that was finished in the pot with the pasta is lighter in color and is coats the noodles.  No naked noodles here, folks.

I added an extra ladle of sauce on top. Notice how the sauce that was finished in the pot with the pasta is lighter in color and coats the noodles. No naked noodles here, folks.

And this one, I added some grated cheese on top.  I finished both plates with freshly ground black pepper and a wee drizzle of olive oil.  Hey, it's good for my heart, right?

And this one, I added some grated cheese on top. I finished both plates with freshly ground black pepper and a wee drizzle of olive oil. Hey, it's good for my heart, right?

See how thick the sauce is?  That’s because of the emulsion–just like how mayonnaise is thicker than either oil or egg yolk.  You know how sometimes water leaks out of your pasta and then you’ve got really runny, watery sauce under all the noodles?  Yeah, well those days are over.

Notes:

  1. This works with whole wheat and regular semolina pasta.  It works really well with pasta made from brown rice, since there’s a lot of starch in rice.
  2. I used green can cheese ’cause that’s all I had.  Give me a break, we’re moving soon.
  3. You can add mushrooms to this and almost any kind of vegetable–your ingredient list doesn’t have to look like mine.
  4. Here’s your template:

–sweat/sauté aromatics with flavorings/spices/dried herbs
–add tomato paste (or not)
–brown meat (and/or mushrooms) with the soffrito (if you’re using meat); skim fat
–add wine/stock to deglaze pan
–add tomatoes (and other veggies) and simmer to reduce/thicken
–add fresh herbs and correct all seasonings.
–finish over high heat by adding fat and pasta water to pasta and sauce
–gild the lily with some grated cheese

And there you have it.

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Comments

  1. says

    Funny how I did almost all of these things for dinner last night without looking at a recipe or anything. I just remembered the usual steps. I then decided to make a baked pasta, took the pasta off of the stove to drain, and put everything in a 8X8 square pan.

    Thanks to your posts, I think about recipes, cooking, and baking a lot differently than before. I love figuring out the procedure of a recipe just by looking at the ingredients! Thanks!

    • says

      Memoria, this is one of the most gratifying comments I’ve ever received. That you can take what I write about and put it into practice and be a more confident cook–that is what it’s all about! Hooray!

    • says

      5 Star Foodie–Thanks! But it could just as easily have ground beef, or lamb, or mushrooms or mixed veggies too. I can almost guarantee that the next time I make pasta sauce, I’ll switch up some of the ingredients. :)

  2. says

    I am happy to report that I both Listened and Learned the first time I read here about the pasta finishing technique. I have Put It Into Practice and was most Delighted with the results.

    I’m even learning to use Capital Letters too, as you can see, lol :)

    • says

      Good question–actually, it’s German for “snail,” although the term is applied to certain rolled up cinnamon-roll-like treats in some countries. My frozen sausage was definitely looking like a schnecken shell!

  3. says

    I love your post, the humor and lessons…especially ‘template, not Culinary Law’, I am borrowing that one!

    You know I grew up making pasta just like you do, but I had to go and marry two men who both feel, or I should say prefer pasta in the dish first; then sauce on top. No mixing together. Why? because that is how their mothers did it, uh uh I say. ‘template, Chef E Law’, :)

  4. says

    Jenni, in the ingredients you list 3 tablespoons of cream, but in the directions you say maybe just 1. I noticed when I came back to look this up to do it tonight. Worked great by the way. And since I’m not one to measure cream in sauce it didn’t matter much to me. I’m just sayin’.

    • says

      Yeah, Drew–I just kind of make up those amounts, mainly because I don’t measure, either (except in baking). Sorry–the whole point is to use some fat. I guess it should’ve said “as much as you’re comfortable with!” Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed it. :)

  5. says

    This is really the only way to do it. I have even used this method with a passable jar sauce after doctoring it up a little and it works great.

  6. Reenie says

    I just wanted to drop by from How To Cook Like Your Grandmother to say thanks! I always wondered why my pasta was always so… Bleh when I added the sauce. (Running over the pasta and just not blending in) And now I know!

    So, thank you very very much!

  7. says

    Thank you so much for this advice! I’ve always tossed my pasta with cooking water and sauce on the stovetop before stirring, but this brings it to a whole new level!

  8. James says

    Thank you so much for this article. I had no idea about this entire emulsion technique. I can’t wait to try it out!!!

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