Around the world, pasta is cooked in different ways. In some parts of the globe it is cooked until very soft. Other parts keep the water just under boiling by adding cold water to their cooking noodles until they are poached to perfection. But traditionally, Italian pasta is cooked al dente.
Al dente is not just an Italian preference, created over centuries to match sauces made from the readily available ingredients. Built into this tradition is a healthy need to chew the pasta longer than the well cooked counterparts. That means that well-cooked pasta must have a soft bite, a resistance that you can feel when you chew.
When pasta is al dente it needs to be chewed longer than overcooked pasta. Longer chewing prolongs the action of ptyalin, an enzyme contained in the saliva which helps the organism to digest food.
You know that we read in every pasta recipe – the instruction to “cook the pasta until al dente“. It means “to the tooth“. This is a reference to the slight resistance that pasta should still offer to the teeth when it is perfectly cooked.
But did you know that correctly cooked pasta positively effects the digestibility of the pasta?
So when my mother nagged me to chew my food more, to chew at least 100 times, she was right?
Furthermore, as pasta cooks, it absorbs water, which makes two things happen:
- first of all, the starch gelatinises and gathers in large agglomerates,
- and secondly, the protein polymerizes, forming complex structures that hold starch and prevent its dispersion in the cooking water.
Both of these phenomena increase as the pasta continues to cook.
As a result, the action of digestive enzymes on the starch and protein molecules is made more difficult, and digestion is prolonged.
All of which goes to show that what tastes good is often good for you.
Also, the longer the pasta cooks, the higher the glycemic index is.
So how is the right degree of “doneness” determined for our food, any food? Over many centuries, by trial and error, methods and times for cooking were determined according to the taste preferences, no doubt, but also according to the reactions on our bodies.
I had a conversation once with a young Indian boy growing up here in Australia, and who was adopting all of our Western Scientific/ Intellectual ways and discarding many of the richness of his heritage. He was scathing , like many others, about traditional approaches being non scientific. In my view, centuries of trials and tests, observation, recording of results, and refinement to approaches, is absolutely a scientific approach.
Pasta with soul – pasta cooked to its absolute perfection, who would have thought even that was so scientific?