Well, now that you know all about the varieties of Italian cooking and how to tell real Italian cooking from the fake, you may want to take your knowledge to the next level: making authentic Italian food at home. The good news is, it is really very easy to do. Authentic Italian cooking, as I have said, is all about simplicity: simple recipes using a few ingredients, prepared using straight-forward techniques. Forget about the celebrity chefs and fancy restaurants: Italian cooking is, when you come right down to it, simple, home cooking.
At the same time, there are a few pointers to bear in mind when making authentic Italian food. My advice here falls under two categories corresponding to the two parts of any recipe: ingredients and technique.
Authentic Italian cooking—like all good cooking—is all about the ingredients. As I mentioned in Part II of this series, Italian recipes typically feature only a few select ingredients. For a primo or first course, you typically have a starchy ingredient like pasta or rice, which acts as a foil for a condimento or flavoring ingredient, be it tomato or another vegetable or what have you. For a typical secondo or second course, you will be working with a single type of meat or fish, prepared simply with a few seasoning ingredients. So, clearly, the quality of the ingredients you are working with will mean all the difference to the quality of the dish you and your family or guests will be eating.
I am writing here for the non-Italian trying to cook authentic Italian food outside Italy. The observations are about my experience in the US but, I would wager, many of these recommendations would apply equally well in many other countries, especially those where food production has become an ‘industry’.
Having already written fairly extensively about this subject in my post on The Italian Pantry, I won’t get too far into the weeds here. But let’s run though a few fundamental points:
Use the freshest, best-quality produce you can afford: I cannot stress this point enough. The hard truth is that truly authentic Italian food is not really possible to reproduce outside of Italy, simply because the products of the soil are so essential to Italian cuisine. Italy produces some of the best—if not the best—fruits and vegetables in the world: tomatoes that taste intensely of tomato, zucchini that are bursting with zucchini flavor, and so on. Few countries can compare and certainly the countries that practice ‘industrial’ agriculture suffer the most by comparison. One of the biggest let-downs I had when I moved back State-side was the generally mediocre and often dismal quality of produce in our supermarkets—even when paying top dollar in some of those fancy places. (I am talking here about produce available in urban areas in the Northeastern US; those living in California and other places where fruits and vegetables are actually grown, well, you’re probably having better luck…)
So far, so discouraging. But before you give up the fight before it starts, know that there are some ways to make the most of the resources we have available. Top choice would be shopping for local produce at farmer’s markets. And if you can buy organic, do so. It’s not so much about being ‘green’ (although that’s a very good thing in my book) but because local, organic produce almost always tastes better. Produce that is produced far away is typically picked while it is still unripe, so it will not be damaged while it is shipped across country. That means that the fruit or vegetable never has the chance to develop any flavor. Ripening off the vine is simply not the same thing. That’s the main reason why it can be so hard to find a tomato that actually tastes like a tomato.
Once you’ve found a source of good produce, examine your fruits and vegetables carefully before you buy to make sure they’re fresh. Usually, it’s fairly easy to tell without any special expertise. Fresh produce will smell of what it is, so odorless fruits and vegetables should be a warning. Then there are some obvious visual cues: artichokes, for example, should have tightly packed leaves and no discoloration. If the leaves are spreading out and spottled, the artichoke is getting a bit long in the tooth.
Look for smaller vegetables if you can. That may sound like odd advice, but smaller vegetables tend to have better flavor and texture. American seem to love big fruits and vegetables. One of the things that struck me when I went into an American supermarket for the first time in many years when I returned from abroad was how enormous (and shiny!) all the produce seemed to be, like something out of science fiction. But somehow the taste didn’t live up to the looks. Italians prefer the younger, sweeter vegetables they call primizie for their superior flavor and texture, especially in the spring. Many times, the kind of produce labeled ‘baby’ this or that is the States would be considered normal size in Italy.
Of course, if you are going to the trouble to find best quality local produce, then you will want to eat in season. Fruits and vegetables are not only cheaper when they are in season, they just taste better. And you will be truer to the spirit of authentic Italian cooking. One of the joys of the Italian table is to mark the passage of the seasons through food: asparagus in the spring, zucchini in the summer, pumpkin in the fall, endive and radicchio in the winter… there is something so right about respecting the natural order of things in this way. And if you think that you will be depriving yourself needlessly, think again. You may find that, like me, that the arrival of the first local strawberries of the spring becomes something to celebrate, something almost magical.
Finally, look for produce in its whole state. If you can find whole carrots with their tops still on, for example, that’s best. Those stems and ends help preserve the flavor (or so Italians say, and who am I to doubt them?) And it also ensures freshness, as stems and ends are the first parts of the vegetable to show their age; if they still look fresh, then you can be confidence about the freshness of your product.
And much of the same advice goes for meats, especially chicken. It can be damn difficult to find a chicken that actually tastes like a chicken these days, but organic ones are your best bet. If you still have a butcher near where you live, you are very lucky indeed. Support him—or her—and get to know them: you will be richly rewarded.
Finally, if you can find or just can’t afford best quality products—and let’s face it, eating well is not cheap, unfortunately—then there are some ‘tricks’ that you can employ to try to get the most flavor out of your ingredients, even when they are not at their best. (See below.)
Buy imported packaged foods if you can: If produce is best if it is grown locally, typically packaged foods like pasta, cheeses, canned tomatoes and olive oil imported from Italy are superior to their domestic counterparts. For example, pace the folks at America’s Test Kitchen, no domestic canned tomatoes can compare with imported San Marzanos. Of course, imported foods tend to be more expensive, but in this case it’s well worth it. Italians have been making these products for centuries and they know what they’re doing.
When looking for real Italian products, don’t be fooled by packaging. Many non-Italian products are cleverly packaged to fool you into thinking they’re actually Italian. As I’ve said before, if a product calls itself “Italian” or, worse, “Italian-style” then it probably isn’t. Look for the words “Imported from Italy” or “Product of Italy” on the label; they are your only guarantee of authenticity. And, even better, look for the initials “DOC” or “DOP” which are designations can only be used by products that come from the original area of production, like San Marzano tomatoes. And the best dry pasta still comes from Naples, from a small number of producers in the area around the town of Gragnano. Garofalo is one brand that is widely sold in the US.
Now, I do know that these days some excellent American versions of Italian products are being produced: olive oil from California, pancetta from Seattle and so on. There are even decent US versions of grana padano. Once you’ve tried and gotten familiar with the original products, go ahead and look for US versions which can be—but aren’t always—less expensive than their Italian counterparts. But it is crucial that you first get to know the real thing. Only then can you really judge the knock-offs.
Don’t use anything that is already flavored: One of the funny things about shopping these days is that the hardest things to find can sometimes be the simplest. Bottled water comes lemon-flavored, cherry-flavored… but it can be hard to find water that is just plain water-flavored. The same for canned tomatoes, for example. But that’s what you need: find canned tomatoes that are just tomatoes, salt and perhaps a bit of fresh basil. Nothing more. No oregano, or red peppers or whatever else. And, here again, “Italian-style” products are usually the kiss of death, loaded up with extraneous herbs and spices. If a dish calls for herbs, then you can always add them while you are cooking.
You can use some convenience foods: There are some convenience foods that fit well into traditional Italian cooking, as their flavor is not too terribly altered by canning or freezing. Besides the obvious canned tomatoes, canned beans are often used in Italian home cooking. You will read that dried beans are superior—and they are—but in a pinch the canned are perfectly acceptable. And I even find that certain frozen vegetables are quite acceptable if you can’t find good, fresh ingredients. Given how hard it can be to find good fresh artichokes, for example, frozen (not canned) artichoke hearts can be a life-saver. I talk about this issue at some length in the post on the Italian Pantry.
Once you have the best quality ingredients you can find and afford, it is time to put them to use. Italian food is simple to make, but it is important to develop your technique. It makes all the difference. Take, for example, the incredibly simple dish of ajo ojo, spaghetti dressed with garlic and oil. It can be sublime—or it can be a watery or gooey mess, depending on who’s cooking.
My basic advice here would be, rather immodestly, to keep reading this blog. ;=) The thing that I would like to think distinguishes this blog is the attention that I try to pay to describing the step-by-step experience of cooking a dish. But then again, technique is something you can never simply read about. It’s like riding a bicycle: as much as you can ‘study’ it, the only real way to learn is by doing, and doing it again and again. As in many things in life, practice really does make perfect. And, above all, learn by your mistakes. We all make them. I certain do, even after all these years of cooking. Every time a dish doesn’t turn out to your liking, think about why; you can usually figure out what went wrong along the way so you can correct yourself next time.
In the meanwhile, though, here are a few pointers to bear in mind:
Learn to season your food. There is probably no more important skill in cooking, and certainly not in Italian cooking, than knowing how to season food, in particular with salt. You should learn to season enough, but not too much. Just about every Italian recipe can be divided into savory (i.e., those that are seasoned with salt) and sweet (i.e., those that are made with sugar). Salt defines savory cooking, so knowing how to season with salt is about as fundamental a skill as you can have. And yet, in my experience, knowing how much to season is the most common missing skill in home cooks, in particular in America. Most home cooks here badly under-salt their food. I guess this comes from either concern about health issues or fear of over-salting, since it is difficult or impossible to correct an over-salted dish. I suppose a lot of cooks think, well, people can always add salt at the table if they want to. But they’re wrong about that. Of course they can add salt at the table, but salt added on top of food after it’s cooked (while it has its own place as a cooking technique) is just not the same as salt added while cooking. And salt does not simply add flavor, it changes the chemistry. In particular, it draws out moisture and heightens flavor. You cannot make a proper broth, for example, without salt to coax the flavors of the meats into the liquid.
At the same time, you should not go too far in the other direction, either. On this point, Thomas Keller has the best advice I have heard yet: use just enough salt to exalt the flavor of the ingredient you are seasoning. But if you can taste the salt itself, you haven’t seasoned the dish, you’ve salted it. You may want to do that at times—in Italian cooking, a number of dishes are meant to taste salty—but in general what you want is good seasoning.
A similar rule can be applied to other seasonings, like garlic, herbs and spices. Use them fresh, as I have said, never dried except for oregano if you can help it. And use them with discretion: enough to heighten flavors but never so much as you draw attention to them—unless, of course, that is the intention. There are some dishes (pesto alla genovese comes to mind) that are meant to be garlicky, but mostly you want just to provide a savory foundation for the main ingredient.
Learn to use a knife. On par with seasoning, the most basic of cooking skills is learning to make proper use of a knife. Almost every recipe calls for cutting one or more ingredients up. And while many a home-maker has made due without any special knife skills, you can really save time and bring your cooking to a different level if you learn to use a knife correctly—and safely. This is hard to describe in words, however. It is best to see it for yourself and then practice. (See Note below on the Rouxbe Online Cooking School.)
Proper cutting your ingredients affects both the texture and flavor of a dish. Flavoring ingredients, for example, should be cut finely so they ‘melt’ into the dish, while main ingredients should be left whole or cut into even-sized pieces so they all cook at the same rate, but large enough that they retain their basic shape and separate identity.
Follow the recipe carefully, but observe carefully, too. I had a good friend of my same age who started cooking after he got out of school, living on his own for the first time as a young lawyer in New York. Knowing that he knew nothing about cooking, I hand-wrote him a mini-cookbook with some simple recipes to get him started. One of them was for steak au poivre. The recipe called for searing the meat on each side over high heat for five minutes, if I remember correctly. Well, when I next talked to my friend, he told me that the steak had been a disaster. It had been burnt to a crisp and even set off his fire alarm. “Why didn’t you take the steak off the flame when you saw it was burning?”, I asked. “Well, he said, “the recipe said five minutes, so I left it on five minutes!”
The moral of the story: Sure, you should follow recipes carefully, especially the first few times you are making a dish. But above all, pay attention to what is actually happening in the pan—not on the page—and act accordingly. A recipe, no matter how detailed, can only be a general guide.
Learn to make a soffritto. There are some basic techniques that are fundamental to Italian cooking. One of the them is the soffritto. The subject deserves its own post, but to summarize: the soffritto is the first step in many, if not most, savory Italian dishes. Aromatic vegetables and other flavorings are sautéed in fat, typically olive oil and/or butter, until the vegetables have ‘melted’, lending their flavor to the cooking fat. The main ingredient is then added to cooking along with the soffritto and absorb its aromatic flavors. More than any other, this is the technique that gives Italian cooking its characteristic flavor and makes even simple dishes so tasty. A soffritto can be almost magical. It can make meats and vegetables, even of indifferent quality, come alive.
There are a few different types of soffritto. The most basic (typical of southern and central Italian cooking) includes only a clove of garlic (or two) slightly crushed and gently sautéed in olive oil until it just begins to color. The classic soffritto italiano, however, includes the ‘Holy Trinity’ of onion, carrot and celery, finely chopped together. Parsley and/or other herbs, as well as pancetta, can sometimes be added for extra layers of flavor. The most important thing about a soffritto, however, is to cook it gently and long enough to allow the aromatics to fully release their sweetness into the oils. A bit of salt helps, as does adding a spoonful of water from time to time. Be careful: a soffritto should never brown or, God forbid, burn.
If this sounds familiar, well, that’s not surprising. This basic technique is pretty typical of other cuisines as well. The French have their mirepoix, for example, and the Cajuns have their own ‘Holy Trinity’ of onion, celery and bell pepper. And so many Chinese stir-fried dishes start in almost the same way, with a flavor base of finely chopped garlic, green onion and ginger. As the Italians say, tutto il mondo è paese—it’s a small world. And I’d say, great minds think alike.
Learn to use wine. Many Italian dishes use wine, most commonly white wine. Typically, a splash of white wine is added to the main ingredient just after it has sautéed with the soffritto. The wine is evaporated completely over high heat before proceeding to the next step. In this way, the wine adds a slight acidity to the dish, balancing the sweetness of the soffritto, and loses almost all of its alcohol content. The dish itself should not taste in any way ‘wine-y’.
This is quite different from the French way of using wine in cooking, where ample amounts of wine are added to simmer slowly with the rest of the ingredients. There are a few exceptions, however, in Italian cooking, where the wine become a ‘star’, like the dish known as brasato al vino rosso, where a whole bottle of red wine is used to almost cover and simmer along with a pot roast. Well, the dish is from Piemonte, right on the border with France, so that should come as no surprise, I suppose.
Wine can sometimes be used to finish a dish as well, to deglaze the pan, another technique that is typical of French cooking. The most common examples in Italian cooking are scallopine dishes and saltimbocca (which is a kind of scallopine dish).
Be patient. Take the time you need, no more, no less. Here’s a lesson that I’ve learned through long and hard experience, but one that I find I need to keep learning: take your time. Italian food can be quick, but it is never rushed, never ‘fast’ food. Things need to cook for the right amount of time, neither more nor less. Often, that means that you can make a dish in only a few minutes—true of most pasta dishes in fact, which is why they’re my go-to weeknight dinners. But then there are those slow-simmering sauces and stews that require hours and even days. There is just no way to skim on that without sacrificing flavor. There is nothing quite so insipid, for example, than undercooked ragù alla bolognese, and yet let is cook for its allotted time (usually four to six hours) and it becomes a veritable ambrosia. Pasta, as we all know by now, needs to be cooked al dente. Overcooked pasta is a true abomination. But equally, chalky undercooked pasta is not very pleasant, either.
Taking your time allows you to pay attention. That is crucial to success, and not just Italian cooking, of course. Most of the time that I have flubbed a dish—and yes, dear reader, your humble blogger does flub up once in a while—almost always the reason is that I am either too tired or too rushed and didn’t pay attention to what I was doing.
Learn and Follow the Rules. Italians have a highly developed set of food customs that I have written about in some detail in my post on Italian Food Culture. These are not just arbitrary rules. There is a reason that Italians never have a cappuccino after dinner, or structure their meals as they do, or cook their pasta al dente. These customs are, quite literally, the accumulated wisdom of centuries of culinary tradition. And they reflect the essential aesthetic that underlies authentic Italian cookery. Learn them, and take them seriously. Break them if you must, but remember: you can only break a rule if you’ve learned it. Breaking a rule you never knew existed isn’t innovative or iconoclastic; it’s just plain ignorant.
A final word about the Rouxbe Cooking School. Finally, if I may. I want to take a moment for a plug. While I try my best on this blog to be as explicit as I possibly can about technique and the experience of cooking, there is nothing like seeing what you are doing. Traditionally, this meant going to cooking school or taking courses. Home cooks simply learned from their Moms or another mentor. These days, we are lucky. The internet has given us another option, online cooking videos. And there I know of no better learning resource than the Rouxbe Cooking School. They actually have a curriculum that will take you through all the basics, based on the kind of thing you would learn in a professional cooking school. If this sounds intimidating, trust me, it’s not. They curriculum is not specifically Italian, mind you, but they will ground you in the skills you need to make any kind of food. And they have some modules on specifically Italian techniques, like an excellent series on the basics of making risotto. You can try out a few of their videos for free and see what you think. I think this is an investment that will continue to pay dividends for as long as you cook.
So, dear readers, this brings us to the end of this three-part series on authentic Italian food. I hope you’ve enjoyed these few bits of advice, and, as inadequate as they may have been, perhaps have learned a thing or two. And now that you have the basics—go out there and cook!