The Critical Role of Olive Oil in Pasta Sauce

Posted by in Nugget from Alastair

Eat spaghetti or penne for the first time in Italy and you’ll be struck by the difference in the pasta’s texture compared to the soggy, overcooked shapes that haunted the dinner plates of your childhood (sorry Mum…). But stay long enough to look past the surprising bite of the pasta itself and you’ll notice there’s something else going on that’s going to make recreating this bowl of heaven pretty difficult when you get home.

The sensation is the creamy, buttery, sensual pleasure that seems consistent present from the egg-based Carbonara, through the most elaborate of shellfish creations to the apparently simple tomato sauce, and that seems to accentuate the flavors of each dish just as it harmonizes the experience into something familiar and deeply satisfying.

Olive Oil

What is so remarkable about the authentic version of these recipes is that you will not find mention of a drop of cream or a knob of butter – components that in reality impart either heaviness or overpower the sauce and ultimately ruin the dish and the waistline. Instead, water from the pasta is vigorously mixed with the oil in the sauce to form a emulsion that is neither watery or oily but simply delicious.

The technique is simple :

1. Cook your pasta sauce down until it is quite dry. We want the resulting dish to be loose and creamy, not runny.

2. When your pasta is just ever so slightly crunchy (with maybe a minute left to cook), turn up the heat under the sauce.

3. If you used a decent quantity of oil in the preparation of the sauce then go straight on to the next step, but if you were light-handed as you were frying your onions or garlic then you’ll need to add a couple of glugs of extra-virgin or your emulsion will not form. Don’t worry, if it’s raw then it’s remarkably healthy stuff.


5. Move the pasta to the pan with a pair of tongs (for spaghetti) or a slotted spoon (for shorter types). The trick here is to ensure that you bring a dribble of water with each load.

6. Now, stir like buggery. You need to blend the 2 phases and that takes some aggression. I tend to rotate the pasta in the center quickly for a few seconds before widening my radius to drag in the remnants from the edge of the pan. You’re creating that creaminess, coating the pasta, and finishing off the cooking. Rather than soak up only water, your pasta will be infused with the flavors from the pan. If you want to look cooler and less maniacal, you can shake the pan like a pro rather than stir, flicking the contents off the back of the pan.

7. If your sauce dries out you can always add another splash from the pasta pan. The results should be loose, not stodgy. Be careful though – more than 30 seconds and you’ll overcook the pasta and ruin everything.

So there you are – give it a go. Most Italians would rather have a plate of pasta than the most succulent of steaks or the most tempting of fish creations. The choice is infinite and now you know the secret!