Charlie and I eat a lot of gluten-free pasta as a quick (semi-lazy) weeknight meal. But when he cooks it, the end result never tastes as good as when I do. This is not simply a matter of my day job versus his. Steak and pork chops? No problem. But something as simple as pasta foils him Monday after Monday.
I can see this frustrates him. And secretly, it frustrates me. Because even from the other room—where I try to sequester myself during my other half’s cooking ventures, so as to not become a backseat chef—I can see where Charlie goes wrong.
Seeing how other people cook is a secret weapon for those of us who develop recipes for a living. It’s why Ina Garten has an assistant with minimal cooking experience who tests her recipes right in front of her. It’s also one of the reasons why I like teaching so much. My students constantly remind me of the intuitive kitchen tasks that I take for granted. And as I’ve witnessed during my own casual at-home case study, cooking gluten-free pasta is not as easily as boiling water.
Store bought gluten-free pasta brands have come a long way from the disintegrating fusilli of yore. But no matter which box you’re using, if you cook the noodles wrong, the results can be just as soggy and sad.
Without a classroom to offer a “safe space” for feedback, I’m going tackle some of my significant other’s pasta faux pas right here, in hopes that I can save all of us from consuming the aftermath of similar missteps.
Read on for the common mistakes and how to fix them. And make sure to pop by the comments section if you have some tales and tips of your own!
1. They substitute ounce for ounce.
Gluten-free flours have a different density than regular all-purpose white flour. This is one of the reasons why gluten-free baking is not as simple as subbing cup-for-cup (and why Thomas Keller is a genius for figuring out a special blend where you can). The same is true for gluten-free pasta. If a recipe calls for 1 pound of regular pasta, the gluten-free equivalent is going to be far too much. And that means all the other quantities—sauces, add-ins–will be off as well.
For example, Bionaturae’s GF pasta weighs 12 ounces, while the same bag of regular is 16 ounces. This ratio varies depending on the brand and what gluten-free pasta is made from (usually rice, corn, quinoa, or a combination). The best rule of thumb I can offer is to go by servings. One package of pasta is usually 4 servings, regardless of whether it’s gluten-free. Most recipes are also scaled for 4 people. So long as it is, using the entire package of gluten-free pasta should be the correct amount to use in the dish.
2. They overfill the pot.
Gluten-free pasta tends to be starchier than regular, which sometimes creates a lot of foam on the top of the pot. This can easily boil over and create an annoying mess on your stovetop. Also, as we discussed above, GF pasta tends to grow more than regular. The solution to both problems: use a big pot and only fill it 2/3 of the way with water to give you more wiggle room.
3. They under-salt the water.
Your pasta water should taste like the ocean. This is a general rule of thumb for all pasta making: if you don’t salt the cooking water, it’s hard for the end result to ever taste properly seasoned. But gluten-free pasta can be particularly dull without salt. This is a violation I often experience at the hands of my significant other, who maintains that he always salts the water. Guys, you want to use at least two tablespoons for every pound of pasta. Otherwise, it’s not enough.
4. They don’t stir.
Because of the starch, gluten-free noodles tend to be clingier than Taylor Swift at the beginning of a new relationship. Add a glug of olive oil to the water and make sure to run a spoon through it to redistribute every 30 seconds during the first few minutes of cooking. Once the pasta has begun to plump you don’t have to worry about it as much.
5. They overcook the noodles.
This is the gravest mistake of all fettuccine fails. The cook time on the back of the package isn’t always accurate. To cover your bases, set a timer for 2 minutes shy of the time called for. Taste a few noodles at this time. You want to drain them at the point that they’re al dente—the pasta should have a slight bite but not be overly stiff. Remember though that the pasta will continue to steam slightly as it cools.
6. They let the pasta hang out in the colander.
Not only does letting the pasta sit in a colander put you at risk for continued cooking and eventual Mushtown, USA, but it’s also the second stage when your pasta is most likely to stick together. Transfer it immediately back to the pot (or, preferably, a mixing bowl), and add the sauce. At the very least, toss it with a tablespoon of olive oil if your sauce isn’t ready yet.
7. They don’t use enough sauce.
Starch is a natural thickener. If you notice that your GF pasta dishes always seem dry (and you haven’t committed the ounce-age offense above), it could be because you’re not using enough sauce. As the noodles cool, they’ll absorb some of the pasta sauce. But the starch will also cause the remaining sauce to thicken. To combat this, I with either a) reserve a little cooking liquid before draining, b) not shake out too much of the cooking water from the colander (dump, then immediately transfer to a bowl) or c) have extra sauce at the ready and potentially add more after the pasta has cooled–often, all of the above.
8. (BONUS) They eat it cold.
You might salt your water and cook your noodles perfectly, but believe it or not, your gluten-free pasta could still taste like cardboard…if you eat it cold. Brands have come a lot way in engineering flour combinations that cook just like the real thing. But these noodles reveal their true gluten-free nature after a trip to the fridge. For whatever reason, gluten-free pasta needs to be actually cooked to become edible again, even if you don’t end up enjoying it warm. If you’re making pasta salad, simply let the pasta come down to room temperature on its own. If you’re brown bagging some leftovers, make sure you give it a little nuke before packing them away if you won’t have the opportunity to do so at your destination.
Have you made any of these mistakes? Or had any other unpleasant results with GF pasta? Got any more tips to share? Let me know in the comments section!