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7 Cooking Do's and Don'ts I Learned During Study Abroad in Italy

Spoon University logo Spoon University 9/11/2018 Lauren Pahmeier

Ever since I understood the concept of college as a kid, I always dreamed of studying abroad. The thought of living among the historical architecture, the very stylish European fashion scene and the unbelievable food was always on the back of my mind. But when actually researching study abroad options, I never thought I’d be able to study (instead of just being surrounded by) what I was most interested in: Italian food. When I came across a program called Tradition & Cuisine in Tuscany, with a course called the History of Italian Food, I was blown away by the thought of learning Italian cooking tips from chefs during cooking demonstrations, tours and tastings. I would get school credit for studying my hobbies–which is all you can ask for in college.

Seven weeks later, I’m back in the United States and reflecting on the tips that I learned. While many Italian chefs base their recipes and amounts of ingredients off of what “feels right”–which isn’t super helpful when I generally like to follow recipes–I took as many notes as I could. Since I didn’t get many exact recipes to share, here are seven random Italian cooking tips–or rather do’s and don'ts–that I learned while abroad in Siena, Italy. 

1. DO use ice as an ingredient in your homemade pesto. 

a close up of a green plant in a glass bowl: Italian cooking tips herb basil © Jocelyn Hsu Italian cooking tips herb basil

When you blend or process your basil for homemade pesto, the leaves themselves get bruised–which is what makes the green of the pesto darker than the actual leaf. When you add ice to the processor, it doesn’t let your basil leaves get as bruised, resulting in a bright green pesto. Impress your friends and family with the most brilliant pesto they’ve ever seen with this trick. 

2. DON'T cook pasta anything other than al dente. 

Italian cooking tips spaghetti pasta © Jennifer Cao Italian cooking tips spaghetti pasta

According to my professor, pasta that is softer than al dente is not worth eating, but instead used as poster glue. Although it might be self explanatory to some of you, I know some people who determine if their pasta is cooked specifically by throwing it at the wall, and if it sticks, it’s done. Having chewy, al dente pasta is the best, most authentic way to have it. 

3. DO use a decanter for wine that's older than 7 years old. 

a glass of wine: Italian cooking tips wine alcohol © Alex Frank Italian cooking tips wine alcohol

Before I studied abroad, I didn’t like red wines. Don’t ask me what I was thinking, choosing to stay in the heart of red wine country, but I did come back appreciating the taste (although now I probably prefer more expensive Italian red wines).

My professor said that after 7 years of age–generally speaking–you need to decant your wine before you drink it. It’s possible for sediments in the red wine to settle, and you don’t want to drink that during your first taste, right? Also, letting the wine become more exposed to oxygen before you drink might bring out new flavors, depending on the bottle. 

4. DON'T reheat pesto, ever. 

a close up of a hand holding a half eaten sandwich: Italian cooking tips sandwich bread © Anabelle Torres Italian cooking tips sandwich bread

You know how I said that often times basil leaves get bruised when pesto is blended? Well, same goes for pesto if you reheat or cook it. You can warm it up, but full-on cooking makes the pesto turn darker in color as well. Instead, use it on sandwiches  or any of these other unconventional options the second time around to avoid having to change the temperature.

5. DO use older potatoes for gnocchi dough. 

food on the cutting board: Italian cooking tips © Lauren Pahmeier Italian cooking tips

If you’re adventurous enough to make your own gnocchi from scratch, make sure to use older potatoes versus super fresh ones. These potatoes will have less moisture to get trapped in the dough, which is good because then you don’t have to add as much flour to soak up that moisture. You are trying to create little potato clouds for your gnocchi anyway, and you want your clouds as light as can be. 

6. DON'T use farfalle (bowtie) pasta. 

a plate of food: Italian cooking tips pasta spinach © Jake Popescu Italian cooking tips pasta spinach

While I generally think of farfalle as the pretty bowtie-shaped noodles, apparently some passionate Italians don’t. My History of Italian Food professor hated that farfalle pasta was even invented. He said that since it is so oddly shaped with so many nooks and crannies, it is almost always unevenly cooked. He did give a little leeway though–you can use them more acceptably for cold pasta salads

7. DO determine what kind of pasta you make based off of the noodle type. 

a white plate topped with meat and vegetables: Italian cooking tips © Lauren Pahmeier Italian cooking tips

Sauces and noodle shapes complement each other; and certain shapes of pasta will hold or absorb certain sauces better than others. For example, penne are better for thicker sauces with vegetables or meat because the sauce gets caught in the tubes and holds up better; and angel hair and spaghetti pasta shapes are better for lighter sauces so that the thin pasta doesn’t have uneven bites with chunky sauces.

a white plate topped with pasta and vegetables: Italian cooking tips © Lauren Pahmeier Italian cooking tips

These are just a few easy Italian cooking tips that you can implement into your regular cooking routine, even if you aren’t an expert in the kitchen. Start with the little things! 

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