How to Make Healthier Pasta

Healthier pastaKarissa, ghb007, Lisa Fotios, Engin Akyurt (via Canva.com)

What if I told you there’s a way to not feel sleepy after eating pasta? That you can make a pasta dish that actually gives you energy throughout the day instead of draining that energy from you? And that, in this post, I’m going to show you exactly how.

For one reason or another, many of the traditional techniques for cooking pasta got lost in translation as they were brought by the first generation of Italians who started moving to America as early as the 1880s.

Somewhere along the way, pasta changed from slightly undercooked to very overcooked, from few ingredients in small quantities to many ingredients in abundance, and from a main dish on a small plate eaten with a salad to a main dish on a big plate eaten with dessert.

Today, I’m going to show you how to go back to the roots of traditional—and genuinely healthier—pasta. If I got you curious, keep on reading.

Cook Your Pasta Noodles Al Dente

“Al dente” is a term that Italian chefs use to describe pasta that’s cooked through on the inside, but still firm to the bite and with a slight crunch on the outside.

The term al dente translates literally into “to the tooth,” which describes the fact that al dente pasta is somewhat undercooked. It’s a state typically achieved when the noodles are cooked for 2-3 minutes less than the recommended time in the instructions on the package.

Al dente pasta not only has a more appetizing texture, but is also healthier for you. Pasta that’s been cooked al dente has a lower glycemic index than pasta cooked soft or mushy. The glycemic index of a food is a number from 0 to 100 that represents the relative rise of blood sugar level 2 hours after eating it.

When a good is high in glycemic index, it means that your body digests the carbohydrates in it quickly, which subsequently causes a rise in your blood sugar level. Healthier food has a lower glycemic index—your body absorbs the carbohydrates contained in it slowly, using them as a source of energy without causing you to feel slouchy soon after you’ve eaten.

Pasta has a glycemic index of 48 ± 5, which is considered as generally low in comparison to other foods (see table below). Pasta cooked al dente is typically on the lower end of the spectrum and pasta cooked soft or mushy is on the higher end.

ClassificationGlycemic Index (GI)Foods
Low GI< 55Fruits and vegetables, muesli, quinoa, pasta, milk, yogurt, lentils, legumes
Medium GI56 – 69Brown rice, wild rice, Basmati rice, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, sugar
High GI70 >White bread, white rice, cereals, granola bars, crisps, doughnuts, ice cream

To learn how to cook pasta al dente, check out my post, This Is How to Tell That Pasta Is Done. In it, I’ll show you how to apply this technique to make the perfect pasta noodles every single time you cook. I’ll also give you a handy list of al dente cooking times for different varieties.

Skip the Heavy Cream (Use Pasta Water, Oil, and Cheese)

Make healthier pasta dishes by leaving out the heavy cream from your recipes.

Heavy cream is a dairy product made from the higher fat skimmed from the top of the milk before homogenization. It tastes great and adds an unrivaled creaminess to your pasta dishes, but it also comes with plenty of fat and excess calories.

According to Healthline, ½ cup of heavy cream contains as much as 43 grams of (mostly saturated) fat. In case you haven’t been reading the news lately, saturated fat is one of the unhealthy fats.

The health guidelines issued by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) state that the average man aged 19-64 should consume no more than 30 grams of saturated fat per day, and the average woman of the same age group no more than 20 grams.

Instead of adding lots of heavy cream to your pasta dish, use some of the white, salty, and starchy pasta water to add creaminess to it.

Italian chef and restauranteur Gennaro Contaldo shows you how to make Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe, a humble pasta dish made of pasta, cheese, and pepper, with a creamy and luscious sauce made of the emulsified fat from the cheese and the pasta water.

You use the same technique when making Pasta alla Carbonara, a slightly more caloric dish thanks to the browned guanciale (cured pork jowl) or pancetta (cured pork belly) cubes.

This simple dish is as tasty as it gets. No cream, no milk, just grated hard Italian cheese and a cooking spoonful of pasta water.

Make Simpler Pasta Dishes With Fewer Ingredients

Pasta as we know it today was eaten by poor Italian families in multi-generation farmhouses at the beginning of the 20th century.

It came from a style of cooking called la cucina povera, or “peasant’s cooking,” where home cooks had access to very little of very few ingredients. So they learned how to get all the aroma, taste, and nutrition they could out of all they had.

By the 1920s, 4 million Italians had immigrated to the United States. Whereas they had a hard time finding work, earning a living, and sometimes getting access to food in their home country, they could now find a job, get a paycheck, and shop at well-stocked Italian markets and grocery stores.

The abundance and affordability of food in their new home changed Italians’ way of cooking, adding more dairy and more meat to otherwise simple and humble pasta dishes. This the reason why Italian and Italian-American cooking may seem similar at first glance, but in reality are two very different cuisines when you zoom in and see the differences.

This is also why, if you’re used to eating pizza from Domino’s Pizza Hut, you’ll probably think that something’s wrong with your traditional Italian pasta dish the first time you eat one. There just isn’t any mozzarella, ground meat, or bacon on it! It’s just pasta noodles, tomato sauce, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and one or two basil leaves.

To make healthier pasta, go back to the roots of this dish. Use no more than 5-6 high-quality ingredients. Cook the noodles briefly, sauté the garlic in olive oil, let the San Marzano tomato sauce stand out, grate a little Parmigiano-Reggiano and/or some Pecorino Romano cheese on top of your plated pasta dish (but not too much, so that you have some left for tomorrow).

Humbler pasta is healthier pasta. I’m no expert, but I can tell you that cooking smaller dishes, with fewer ingredients and in less quantity than usual has almost always helped me shed a few pounds whenever I consistently do it for 2-3 weeks.

Eat a Salad After Your Pasta

Image courtesy of Mykola Lunov (via Canva.com)

“Salad after pasta?! Is that a typo, Jim?” After all, salad in the U.S. is eaten before, not after the main course. And pasta normally is considered a main course. No, folks, this isn’t a typo. Trust me on this. There’s a couple of very good reasons why you should consider (1) eating salad and (2) eating the salad last, as they do in Italy.

Eating a salad after your pasta dish does two things for you. First, it reminds you to not eat too much pasta, so that you leave some space for the salad. Second, it aids digestion. “Since salads are rich in fiber, they will aid in the digestion of the food eaten before,” European-trained chef Karl Guggenmos tells The Huffington Post.

The best salad to serve after a pasta dish is the so-called mixed salad. Mix salad greens with cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and red onion, dress with extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and some sea salt, then serve.

Conclusion

Now, you know how to make healthier pasta. Cook your noodles al dente, skip the heavy cream (substitute with pasta water, olive oil, and cheese), and pair a plate of pasta with a mixed salad—that you eat after the pasta dish to aid digestion.

Which of these techniques is your favorite? And do you know any other ways to make healthier pasta that I forgot to include? Share your thoughts and your tips in the comments below.

What to Read Next

Gear up with the 10 must-have tools for making pasta. I share my best picks for American- and European-made pasta-making tools that will get the job done for you and last you a lifetime.

Sometimes, the smallest tweaks to a recipe can make the biggest difference. Check out my 8 ways to make pasta taste better.

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