It’s become more and more common to see in contemporary Italian cookbooks what used to be mostly a restaurant technique: finishing pasta in a saute pan with its sauce and some of the pasta cooking water. The idea is to emulsify the dissolved starch in the water with the oil or butter in the sauce to create a creamier sauce which adheres well to the pasta.
It’s a useful technique, and I use it a lot. But I’ve always kept in mind Marcella Hazan’s thoughts on the subject. It’s an important topic, so I quote her at length from her wonderful book Marcella Cucina — perhaps her most splendid book — written at the height of her powers after almost three decades of teaching and more than a decade living full-time in Venice:
“Home cooks have long known that the water in which the pasta cooked contained some dissolved starch, and they used a spoonful of this water as a thickener, adding it to the sauce, to which they gave a very fast blast of heat and a swirl or two before tossing it with the pasta.
Restaurant cooks have gone further. They drain the pasta when it is quite underdone, add the pasta and some of its water to a skillet containing the sauce, and toss it over high heat for a minute or so…. Today, in restaurant after restaurant, it imparts the same tedious, faintly gelatinous texture to what otherwise have been fresh and lively sauces [my emphasis]. When used occasionally it is to impart a special consistency to a dish. When the practice becomes routine, it ends by being boring.”
Marcella’s advice, it has sometimes seemed to me, is often more revered than followed. This is a great example, as I’ve never see anyone refer to her thoughts on the issue. Of course, Marcella was a great cook and a great teacher, but she wasn’t infallible. Just because she thought something doesn’t make it so.
Still, I think she’s on to something here, and it’s an issue that deserves thought and attention among serious cooks. For me, the main advantage of the technique is that it keeps the dish piping hot until the moment it is transferred to its serving bowl. And as Marcella mentions, sometimes it imparts a special flavor or texture. Specifically she recommends it when making spaghetti with clams, because the pasta absorbs the super-flavorful clam juices as it finishes cooking.
So, it’s not that the technique is wrong. But as Marcella says, when it becomes routine it becomes boring. If every sauce has that same, starchy, creamy texture, we lose the delight that comes from variety. Most importantly, as she says, it loses the “fresh and lively” character that many of us find so appealing in Italian cooking.
Many journalists and cookbook authors have presented the technique as the “secret” to cooking pasta like an Italian. But don’t be fooled. Not every pasta sauce has to be creamy any more than every plate of potatoes needs to be crispy! Keep it as a tool in your arsenal, to be used judiciously and with good reason, but don’t employ it unthinkingly or by rote, just because restaurant chefs do it!