Watching cooking competitions on television like Chopped is one thing, but actually being in a real kitchen stadium and seeing, smelling, and even tasting what the chefs are making? File that under amazing. I just attended the Barilla Pasta World Championship in Milan, Italy, and saw 18 chefs from around the world compete in the ultimate carb-cooking contest.
The championship is the Olympics in pasta cooking, complete with lots of patriotic flag waving and a gold trophy for the winner. This year's winning chef, Carolina Diaz from Chicago (the United States also won last year!), sweated and cooked her way to victory and also gave me an awesome tip that I plan to use when cooking pasta from now on.
A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Barilla Pasta World Championships
You're probably wondering how a pasta cooking competition works, and it's pretty much what you've seen before on TV. At the Barilla Pasta World Championships the chefs went head-to-head in three rounds. All of them participated in the first round, where each chef cooked his or her signature pasta dish. Half were eliminated after this round, and then the remaining chefs competed in an Iron Chef-style second round where they had to shop and cook from a pantry. The two with the highest scores went on to the finals to determine the champion.
Each dish was judged on originality, technique, visual appeal, and of course taste by a panel consisting of chefs, a nutritionist, and a photographer.
The Winning Pasta Dish
I was allowed to taste the first dish from the U.S.'s competitor, Carolina Diaz of Chicago's Terzo Piano restaurant. It was a beautiful and startling combination of flavors: big tube pasta in a pitch-black sauce of squid ink, sweet roasted red peppers, and cream, topped with little cubes of fresh tuna and shaved bottarga (salted, cured fish roe). The pasta was bold and had surprisingly bright flavors given its color, and I could see why the judges were blown away by it and eventually made her the winner (and she's the first woman to ever receive the title!).
Chef Diaz's Ingenious Pasta Tip
I sat down and chatted with Chef Diaz, who was humble, articulate, fiercely proud of her Mexican heritage, gracious to her competitors, and well-deserving of her new title. I asked her for some pasta cooking tips, and here's my favorite one: how to tell when pasta is cooked al dente.
The Importance of Al Dente
During judging, there was a lot of analysis on whether the pasta itself was cooked properly, and it was echoed in the fact that every pasta I tasted in both the competition and in my other meals here was cooked al dente. This means "to the tooth" and refers to texture. Al dente pasta is firm and slightly undercooked so that it can finish cooking in the sauce without turning too soft or mushy. But for those who aren't sure or have never tasted true al dente pasta, how do you know when you've reached that stage when cooking it?
How to Tell When Pasta Is Al Dente
Chef Diaz gave me a simple, visual tip. She said that a few minutes before the time on the package directions is up, fish a piece of pasta out of the cooking water. As soon as it's cool enough to handle, break it open with your fingers and take a look inside. What you're looking for is a white dot of uncooked pasta in the center that's the diameter of the tip of a sharpened pencil.
If the pasta has a dot that size, it's al dente and you can take it out of the water. A wider dot means it still needs more cooking time, and a smaller or no dot at all means it's past al dente, so check on it even earlier next time.
So easy, right? No more second-guessing yourself or always wondering if you truly know what al dente means. Now you can confidently cook your pasta at home just like the pasta world champion herself.