AL DENTE-OLOGY 101
An Exploration of the “Mouth Feel” of Pasta and Risotto
Al dente means different things to different people, especially American versus Italian people and also Italian-American people. The folks in Little Italy in New York City, and other American cities with strong Italian immigrant populations like Chicago and San Francisco, changed the landscape of al dente over 100 or more years ago. From spaghetti and meatball feeds to baked lasagna and baked ziti to even include the old, “the pasta is ready when it sticks to the wall!” saying. This saying is very American because only overcooked pasta will stick to the wall. Believe me, I’ve tried it.
True al dente pasta and risotto (or ‘riso’ meaning rice in Italian) to actual Italians and many of us with a passion for the cucina of the old country, is “firm”. To the most traditional of us it can even be a little crunchy, especially risotto. Al dente literally means, "at the tooth", or "to the tooth". I've heard it described as, "toothsome", and I imagine it's in a very particular way a version of "chewy".
But with pasta, a distinction needs to be made because there are basically two kinds of pasta:
- Dry, which you typically buy in a plastic or paper package, or a box.
- Fresh and straight out of the machine made with eggs in the dough including stuffed pasta for example ravioli, tortellini, tortelli, agnolotti, etc., which are, at least to me, cooked through, not crunchy or chewy, but soft, supple and luscious.
So, to understand al dente, what kind of pasta or risotto grain size is it? Is it meant for a hot or cold dish or maybe most importantly, when are you serving the pasta/risotto?
Many restaurants cook their pasta/risotto in advance…Dio mio non si può! Oh my God no you can't!...uh, yes I can and yes you can, why because you’re the chef! There’s a way to make it so whoever’s dining not even an Italian can tell the difference.
The Pasta Technique
Never put oil in the water, but always add salt! Cook the pasta in a lot of salted water about 2 minutes less than it says on the package, strain it fast and well, turn it onto a pan, lightly drizzle good olive oil over it and massage it with a spoon for a minute, then again occasionally until it comes to room temp, or put it into the fridge if using much later. Reheat in the sauce (our Bella Sun Luci Tomato-Artichoke Pasta Sauce is a good Italian grandma-style option), or in boiling water for a short time, until just hot.
The Risotto Technique
As for risotto, it must be undercooked perfectly. It has been explained to me and proven true that the definition of al dente risotto is, “you can feel each individual grain of rice in your mouth”. Too crunchy is too crunchy and overcooked it becomes mushy so there is a happy medium/fine line. You can also par cook (cook in advance) risotto and do the same thing as with the pasta, except cook it about 5 minutes, keep it wet-ish with stock (you won’t be straining it either) and don’t drizzle oil on after cooking. Only massage it a little and occasionally until room temp or cool.
Prior to knowing who Enrico Colavita, from Colavita Olive Oil, was in the world of fine foods. I had the pleasure of meeting him at a food show where I was able to serve him a sample of risotto. Which was perfect, just juicy, buttery, glossy, and that little bit crunchy, I handed him a portion, he took a few bites and after what seemed like forever he said, “this tastes like my grandmother made it”, which to this day remains the best compliment to the chef I ever got.