Baked pasta dish

little that's … Baked pasta …

You absolutely do not have to boil

Dry pasta before using it in a baked pasta dish.

It's generally easier if you don't boil

It, and the result is arguably better.

Basically all the recipes tell you to parboil your pasta before you bake it in the oven, and I'm honestly not sure why. To convert any existing recipe into this new method that I'm trying to espouse here, first you just assemble it as instructed, but give it a little extra pinch of salt, and top it off with just enough water to cover everything. Then bake as normal, maybe a few extra minutes if it seems like it needs it, and that's all. That's dinner. The perfect, easy family meal. A little extra salt, just cover everything with water, bake as usual. That is the conclusion from the experiments that I have been doing.

I'm going to show you some of those experiments now, along with some other things that I've learned along the way. First, we need a model recipe and my girl, Chris, has a great one. A lot of olive oil into my pan. Maybe one day she'll know that I exist. Chris says to cut up a couple of eggplants into big cubes and then fry them for a long time until they go soft and mahogany brown. It takes like 20 minutes and you gotta stir almost constantly or they stick and burn, but at the end you have this substance that tastes amazingly like meat in a pasta sauce. Season with salt, pepper and chili flakes. Set aside, and for my first test, I will boil some thick penne as instructed.

Half a pound exactly, so that I can keep my experiment consistent. Boil until a little less than al dente, then drain. Half of my eggplant goes into one dish and half into the other. Then I need three cups of tomato sauce in each one. I'll just use a jar sauce today. That's a pretty good jar sauce, hashtag not an ad. A cup of ricotta cheese into each one. Some balls of fresh mozzarella for heterogeneity, five in each.

Tear in some fresh basil, season with chili flakes, pepper, and a pinch of salt. Then for my experiment, I'm going to stir one of these up to homogenize it and divide that in half by weight. Into the remaining half batch, I will stir the boiled and drained pasta, and that's done. That's recipe with zero alterations. It's ready for the oven. Into each of these quarter batches. I will deposit a quarter pound of raw, dry pasta, and this one I will stir up and call done. That's recipe, except I didn't boil the pasta first, that's all.

Into this quarter batch, I will add just enough water to make sure that everything is submerged and stir. The last thing. I'll add is just a little bit of extra salt.

Remember that when you boil pasta the

Traditional way, you do it in salted water and the pasta ends up absorbing some of that salt for flavor.

We have not parboiled this pasta, so we're going to need to compensate by putting in a little extra salt. In fact, it's the same amount of salt total in the dish, approximately. One way to test is to taste that watered down sauce. It should taste a little too salty on its own because the pasta is going to steal some salt from it in the baking process, Chris says to bake an hour, and so we'll bake for an hour.

I'll show you what they look like after a half hour. Whether you cover these is chiefly a question of how dark and crispy do you like the top? I like it crispy. Raw pasta with extra water looks terrible at this stage, but have faith, give it time.

Mozz on top, bake, and that looks awfully good, doesn't it? The pasta itself is perfectly cooked, by the way. 

Raw pasta with extra water looks like it needs maybe a few more minutes, so I'll give it a few more minutes. I like for the top to be really brown and there you go. So yeah, not boiling the pasta does not necessarily save you on time. It just saves you on effort and on dishes. Oh, and by dishes, Brits of course, I mean washing up.

Boiled pasta, raw pasta with no extra water.

Raw pasta with extra water.

Raw pasta with no extra water doesn't quite taste as bad as it looks, but the sauce is too thick and the top layer is in inevitably hard.

Get rid of that. Here's the real comparison. The texture of the penne is remarkably similar. Boiled pasta is no less or more al dente than the raw pasta with extra water. Sauce consistency is the same. I asked Lauren to try them to see if she could tell which was which. She could not, though she could spot a difference. Notice how the raw pasta with extra water is a little darker in color.

The noodle itself is also a little stronger in flavor. When pasta cooks entirely inside a flavored liquid, more of that flavor and color penetrates into the structure of the noodle and you actually taste it as you bite through it. I'm honestly not sure that I prefer that. Might just be that this is what I'm used to, but maybe I prefer the heterogeneity provided by these slightly bland boiled pasta that's offset by the strong sauce that's all around it. But it's a subtle difference. You probably wouldn't notice without me calling your attention to it. And I feel much more strongly about not having to wash my pasta pot. If you're clever about it, you can do a baked pasta dish as a one pot meal.

I'm not even going to dirty a cutting board here. I'll just crudely slice a shallot directly into my baking dish. It's going to cook for an hour in the oven. It's going to be fine. I've got some leftover bagged greens. Throw some of those in. A baked pasta dish is great for cleaning out the fridge. I've got some canned crushed tomatoes.

You really don't have to cook the sauce in advance. It's going to bake in the oven. I've got some bresaola, which is cured beef, but any thin sliced cured meat would work, or skip it. I've got some fresh mozzarella, deposit in big chunks for heterogeneity. Pepper, chili flakes, maybe some shaky cheese, garlic powder, and a little more salt than I would normally use because remember, my raw pasta is going to steal some salt. I'll simply stuff in as much dry pasta as I can fit. Top off with water or perhaps another liquid, like white wine. I'd better cut that with at least some water, just enough to cover everything.

Bake for about an hour and toward the end, I could put some more mozzarella on top to get a nice melty effect.

When the dish seems solid, it's done.

The flavor of that actually has a nice freshness that I think. I prefer to dish made with pre-cooked sauce and veggies. Really nice and stupid easy. Now, I know that some of you are comforted by rules and strict measurements, and you might not be really comfortable just eyeballing the amount of water that needs to go in. Well, let's find out exactly how much water dry pasta needs to get soft. I'm boiling exactly half a pound of dry pasta in exactly one kilo of water.

Sorry for mixing my measurement systems, but hey, that's America. The pasta is now al dente. I'll thoroughly drain it before dumping it into a bowl to weigh it. And 227 grams of dry pasta now weighs about 500 grams. I've done this test many times before and it's pretty consistent. Really, any kind of dry pasta will absorb at least its own weight in water. But let's weigh the water that we have left over. Remember, I started with a thousand grams of water, 275 grams of that is now inside the pasta and we've got 450 grams left.

What happened to the other 275 grams of water? It evaporated in the cooking process, and that would happen in a baked pasta dish as well, especially if you don't cover it with a lid. So, if you want a formula, just put your dry pasta into the dish and then add roughly twice its own weight in water to account for both absorption and evaporation. But me, I'm just going to eyeball it. Here's one more, one pan dish, or at least it can be one pan if you have a flameproof casserole. A big knob of butter goes in along with two cups of milk and then six ounces of American cheese. Yes, this is my Italian American grandmother's mac and cheese recipe that I cooked on the channel here years ago with my dad. Just stir to gently melt that cheese in. American cheese is bound with emulsifying salts and there's enough of it in there to emulsify this whole sauce without needing a butter and flour roux and a roux makes mac and cheese taste gritty.

You could do this same recipe with real cheese instead and just drop in like a teaspoon of sodium citrate, which you can buy off the internet, totally smooth and emulsified. Season with pepper. I like some garlic powder and a pinch of salt. Skip that salt if you use sodium citrate because that's half sodium. Grandma parboiled the pasta, I don't bother anymore. Half a pound in there and I'm not adding any extra milk or water. I always thought the sauce was a little too much anyway, but you could add an extra cup of milk or hold back some of the pasta. This, you definitely need to cover for the first phase of baking, otherwise the cheese on top will burn.

I bake for half an hour covered and then another 20 or 30 minutes uncovered until I like the color and there you go. Couldn't be easier, couldn't be more delicious. Sorry, grandma. So, why do all of the baked pasta recipes tell you to parboil your pasta before you put it in the oven? My best guess is that it's a habit that was leftover from the days when all pasta was fresh. As I talked about in my old video about lasagna, when you make baked pasta with raw fresh egg noodles, it comes out gummy in spots and leathery in others. It's just gross. You have to boil it first. And mind you, I'm talking about real fresh egg pasta there not these raw, fresh lasagna sheets that you get in the refrigerator section that are soft and you can throw them right in.

These have been pre-cooked in some way prior to packaging. That's why you can throw them straight into the dish. I mean, I'm not claiming to know what their manufacturing process is. Maybe they don't literally boil it. But the starch is very clearly gelatinized in some way prior to packaging. That's why you can throw it straight into the dish. And from now on, I will be throwing my dry pasta straight into the dish too, because I just can't come up with a good enough reason to do anything else...