Try this: Ask the closest person to you what texture pasta should be. Jeopardy-style, if you like. With Holzhauer-esque speed, they will answer: What is al dente? And they’ll be correct. Mostly.
Thanks to the teachings of Italian cuisine’s patron saint Marcella Hazan seeping into every food magazine and TV show over the past several decades, it’s hard to find a home cook who won’t feel that their pasta’s been ruined if it doesn’t bite back, a faint line of raw white starch snaking through every noodle.1 (Quick pep talk to anxious pasta overcookers: Nobody will mind if it’s a little soft—don’t worry about it!)
So it’s no wonder that this certified Genius Recipe for Italian Pasta Salad—which asks you to deliberately cook your pasta to borderline mush—shocked me and will shock you, too. Unless, that is, you’d picked up the September 2018 issue of Cook’s Illustrated and read Associate Editor Anne Petito’s2 fascinating explanation for exactly why, when making pasta for salad, you should cruise a good three minutes past al dente to whatever the Italian words are for biteless and flabby.3
As Petito explains, it’s all because of a process called retrogradation that does a lot of good (and sometimes not-so-good) things for some of your favorite foods. Retrogradation helps the crumb in home-baked bread set (and then … stale). It makes day-old rice dry, discrete, and perfect for frying (and inedibly crunchy while cold). We see its work in crispy potatoes and airy waffles and tender Japanese milk bread, and—in other fun facts—paper.
Here’s how retrogradation works, in a nutshell: The starch molecules that swell with water and gelatinize as pasta cooks become rigid and force water out as it cools, forming crunchy crystals—making perfectly cooked al dente pasta turn stiff and chewy in the fridge. Only by overshooting al dente will the pasta retrograde back to a buttery just-right texture we didn’t know cold pasta could have.
“I made retrogradation work to my advantage by boiling the fusilli about three minutes past al dente and then running it under lots of cold water,” Petito wrote in Cook’s Illustrated.
“As the pasta cooled it went from almost mushy to just right.”
And because this is my favorite type of Genius Recipe, I get more than just a single convention-defying trick and a few shmancy new buzzwords. There are even more clever moves I can take with me to other cooking adventures. To wit:
• Blend pickle-y fridge-door staples like pepperoncini and capers into a dressing that’s thick enough to cling to every twirly corkscrew without having to emulsify anything or turn to bottled dressing.
• Instead of vinegar, slosh in some of that pepperoncini brine, which comes with its own heat, salt, and peppery flair.
• Hit the antipasto section for powerful mix-ins with more personality than raw bits of red pepper and broccoli florets: kalamata olives, fresh mozzarella, hard salami, and sun-dried tomatoes.
• Make the base ahead, let it retrograde its heart out, then stir in the fresh, fragile ingredients like arugula and basil for crunch and color.
Then spread the word, so people near and far know that now—finally—there’s more than one just-right texture for pasta.
• 1 pound fusilli
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
• 3 garlic cloves, minced
• 3 anchovy fillets, rinsed, patted dry, and minced
• 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
• 1 cup pepperoncini, stemmed, plus 2 tablespoons brine
• 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
• 2 ounces (2 cups) baby arugula
• 1 cup chopped fresh basil
• 1/2 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, sliced thin
•1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives, quartered
• 8 ounces salami, cut into ⅜-inch dice
• 8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into ⅜-inch dice and patted dry
(1) Hazan writes in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking that pasta “should always offer some resistance to the bite. When it does not, pasta becomes leaden, it loses buoyancy and its ability to deliver briskly the flavors of its sauce.”
(2) Fun fact: Annie was one of our first recipe testers here at Food52! And she has a delightful Instagram handle: @appetito611
(3) Senza morso and flaccida, respectively.
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