Boiling fettuccine noodles may seem simple enough ‒ bring a pot of water to a boil, plop in the noodles, and stir until they’re done ‒ right? Well, not really. You have to take into account the type of fettuccine you’re boiling ‒ fresh or dry. And the amount of water you use is important, as is how well done you like your pasta. So many considerations go into what seems to be a simple task. But the Italians, pros at making, cooking and eating pasta, treat the preparation with reverence. Cooking fettuccine pasta the right way puts you in league with some of the best Italian chefs ‒ and the Italian mamas who taught them!
Fresh or Dried Fettuccine?
Fresh is best, and if you’ve ever made fresh pasta, you’ll immediately taste the difference. But the “fresh” pasta you buy in the supermarket isn’t really fresh; it’s just not dried. American fresh commercial pasta is made with eggs, and it contains a lot of water. In fact, it’s 60% water, according to Arrigo Cipriani of the famed Harry’s Bar in Venice, Italy. Egg pasta also spoils easily and needs preservatives to give it the shelf life it needs.
Dried fettuccine is also made of durum flour, eggs and water, but the water has been dried out of it. You can serve six with 1 1/2 pounds of fresh fettuccine, while it takes only a pound of dried to serve the same amount of people. And the flour must be semolina, derived from durum, to satisfy the Italian pasta police. Dried pasta has years of shelf life.
Fresh pasta cooks in a short period of time. It needs a large pot of boiling water, filled at least 3/4 full. A good measure to keep in mind is 1 1/2 gallons of water for 1 pound of fettuccine. Get the water to a rolling boil and then add the pasta. Stir immediately to keep the pasta starch moving and avoid making the pasta sticky.
There are logical reasons for the quantity of water used: If you use less water and add the pasta, it’ll reduce the temperature of the water quicker, leaving it below the boiling point for a period of time. The pasta just sits there until the water boils again. Less water also means the starch from the pasta releases into the small amount of water, making it a gummy goo.
After the pasta is in the pot and well stirred, add sea salt ‒ not oil__! For a pound of pasta, 1 1/2 teaspoons should work. The pasta absorbs the salt, adding to its flavor once cooked. As the fettuccine softens, it begins to resemble the “small ribbons” from which it gets its name. Adding oil only makes the pasta greasy, and the sauce slips off the ribbons when it’s served.
Knowing When Fettuccine Is Done
Some people like their pasta mushy; others like to feel their teeth go through the pasta. “Al dente,” meaning “to the tooth,” is how connoisseurs of Italian food prefer the texture of their pasta. Fresh pasta cooks in minutes and comes to the surface of the water when it’s done. Dried pasta needs to be taste tested.
Taste yours as it cooks, and when it’s to your preference, reserve a ladle full of the pasta water and then pour the fettuccine into a colander. Immediately add it to the pan of sauce you have waiting on the side.
Add the ladle of water to the pan if you’re making an egg-based sauce such as alfredo or carbonara. It’ll keep the eggs from curdling when the pasta is added. And be sure your plates are pre-warmed. Fettuccine, like all pasta, needs to be served very hot.