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Cheat Sheet

Italian Cooking For Dummies

If you want to try your hand at Italian cooking you need to follow some basic cooking rules that govern Italian cuisine and learn the structure of a traditional Italian meal. If you run into a problem converting measurements, a handy chart can help. Know the most common fresh herbs and pasta shapes used in Italian cooking and you're on your way to creating authentic Italian dishes.

Basic Rules of Italian Cooking

How do you capture the essence of Italian cooking if you didn't grow up in Italy? If you want to think like an Italian chef, practice these simple Italian cooking tips and you won't go wrong:

  • Start with fresh, high-quality ingredients. Everything is so much easier when the ingredients taste good.

  • Simpler is always better. Enough said.

  • Cook with the calendar. Locally grown, in-season produce usually tastes best. Shop at stores or farm markets that support local farmers.

  • Get to know your vegetables. You can't cook real Italian food without spending some time in the produce aisle. With a few exceptions, Italians rely on fresh, not frozen, vegetables.

  • Make friends with your local cheese guy. Find out the names of the important Italian cheeses and how to buy them.

  • Master how not to follow a recipe. Most Italian cooks prepare dishes from memory, changing quantities and procedures ever so slightly each time.

  • Taste as you cook. No one but you knows how salty or spicy you like your food. Season throughout the cooking process and adjust the seasonings right before serving.

  • Work at building flavor. Many Italian recipes begin by sautéing onions and other vegetables in olive oil. Don't rush this step. It builds flavor.

  • Be frugal. Italians believe in the old maxim, "waste not, want not."

  • Enjoy yourself. If the meal allows you to enjoy the company and conversation of others, consider your cooking a success.

Serving a Traditional Italian Meal in Order

A traditional Italian meal is leisurely process — a time to share news of the day and enjoy the delicious results of the cook's labor — and has several distinct courses. If you're preparing an authentic Italian meal, follow this list in order:

  • Antipasto: Something to nibble on — such as a bowl of marinated olives and some fresh fennel for dipping in extra-virgin olive oil, or a wedge of fine Parmigiano-Reggiano and some bread — perhaps served with drinks.

  • Primo: A first course or appetizer. Usually pasta, rice, soup, or polenta. Keep portions small (eight servings for a pound of pasta) because the main course comes next.

  • Secondo: The main course, usually chicken, meat, or seafood. Usually fairly simple, especially if a rich pasta or rice dish has already been served.

  • Contorno: The main course is usually accompanied by a platter of vegetables. This side dish is usually quite simple and highlights the simple goodness of the vegetable.

  • Dolce: On most days, the dolce is a bowl of fruit. Some hard Italian cookies, called biscotti, for dunking, and dessert wine are another option. More elaborate cakes, tortes, and custards are for special occasions.

  • Caffe: End a meal with espresso all around.

Common Cooking Temperature and Metric Conversions for Italian Cooking

When you're preparing Italian meals, make sure you have the right temperature so your foods are prepared correctly. Use this handy chart for converting cooking temperatures to Fahrenheit and/or Celsius.

Fahrenheit Celsius
250° 120°
275° 135°
300° 150°
325° 160°
350° 175°
375° 190°
400° 205°
425° 220°
450° 230°
475° 245°
500° 260°

If you run into a problem with measurements while preparing your favorite Italian dish, use this quick guide to find the metric equivalents for common cooking amounts:

This Measurement . . . . . . Equals This Measurement
1 tablespoon 15 milliliters
1 cup 250 milliliters
1 quart 1 liter
1 ounce 28 grams
1 pound 454 grams

Popular Herbs for Italian Cooking

Fresh herbs are used almost exclusively in Italian cooking. Why? They taste better than dried herbs. Fresh herbs have all their aromatic oils. The intensity of herbs vary, so when substituting, try to pick something with a similar punch, or be prepared to adjust the amount of herb. This chart lists the most important herbs used in Italian cooking:

Herb Italian Name Description
Basil Basilico Italy's best known herb, basil has a strong anise flavor. A must in pesto, basil is a natural with tomatoes. (Basil's sweetness works nicely with the acidity in the tomatoes.) Tarragon, which isn't widely used in Italy, has a similar anise flavor, and you can use it as a substitute. You can also use parsley in most recipes calling for basil.
Bay leaf Alloro Once sold only dried, this herb is increasingly available fresh as well. Dried leaves are often dropped into a pot of simmering beans or soup to impart their gentle aroma. You can use fresh leaves, which tend to be longer and thinner, in the same fashion.
Marjoram Maggiorana This herb is similar to oregano but milder in flavor. Popular in the Riviera, marjoram is good with meats and seafood.
Mint Menta You can find hundreds of kinds of mint. Some are mild and sweet; others spicy and hot. Mint is used more in southern Italy and has an intensity and freshness similar to basil, which is perhaps the best substitute.
Oregano Origano This herb has a potent aroma and flavor that predominates in much southern Italian cooking and is used commonly with tomatoes.
Parsley Prezzemolo This herb is the unheralded star of Italian cooking. Basil may get all the attention, but parsley is more widely used. Flat-leaf varieties have a stronger flavor than curly-leaf varieties. You can cook parsley with garlic and onions in olive oil to form the flavor base for many dishes.
Rosemary Rosmarino With rosemary's strong resinous (or pine) aroma and flavor, you must use it sparingly. The tough needles need time to soften, and you shouldn't add it to dishes that you don't cook. Rosemary is a natural with potatoes, chicken, lamb, and beef.
Sage Salvia Sage is especially popular in Tuscany and other parts of central and northern Italy. Sage is pungent with a musty mint taste and has an affinity for butter sauces, as well as pork and chicken.
Thyme Timo Diminutive thyme leaves pack a surprising punch. Many varieties have a lemony flavor. Thyme isn't as widely used in Italy as other herbs.

Common Pasta Shapes

Pastas come in an amazing variety of shapes. Certain Italian dishes call for specific pasta shapes because they compliment the sauce. This list gives a brief description of the most common pasta shapes:

  • Agnolotti: Filled fresh pasta shaped like half moons.

  • Bucatini: Long, fat strands that look like spaghetti but are hollow.

  • Capelli d'angelo: Long and extremely thin. Name translates as "angel's hair."

  • Cappellini: Slightly thicker than angel hair pasta but still very thin, long strands.

  • Conchiglie: Shell-shaped pasta that comes in a variety of sizes. Oversized shells, called conchiglioni, are often stuffed and baked.

  • Ditali: Tiny tubes often used in soup. Name translates as "thimbles."

  • Farfalle: Bow-tie-shaped pasta. Name translates as "butterflies."

  • Fettuccine: Long, flat strands of egg noodles.

  • Fusilli: Corkscrew shape that comes in varying lengths.

  • Lasagne: Long, wide sheets of pasta that are layered with sauce and cheese and baked.

  • Linguine: Long, thin ribbons. Similar to spaghetti except strands have flat sides as well as rounded ones.

  • Orecchiette: Small bowl-shaped pasta. Name translates as "little ears."

  • Orzo: Shaped like extra-long grains of rice. Often used in soup.

  • Pappardelle: Long, flat noodle that is two to three times as wide as fettuccine. Often cut into shorter pieces for easier eating.

  • Pastina: Any of the tiny pasta added to soup, including ditalini (little thimbles), perline (little pearls), and stelline (little stars).

  • Penne: Medium-length tubes with ends cut on an angle. Can be ridged. Name translates as "quills."

  • Ravioli: Stuffed pasta shaped like square pillows. Edges are often ruffled.

  • Rigatoni: Fat, squat tubes with grooved exterior.

  • Rotelle: Small wheels.

  • Ruote: Wheels.

  • Spaghetti: Long, thin strands. Name comes from the word "spago," meaning string or cord.

  • Tagliatelle: Long, flat strands that are slightly wider than fettuccine.

  • Taglierini: Similar to tagliatelle but cut narrower.

  • Tortellini: Stuffed pasta shaped like fat rings. Often used in soups.

  • Trenette: Long-strand pasta shape that is similar to linguine.

  • Vermicelli: Long, very thin strands that are thinner than spaghetti. Name translates as "little worms."

  • Ziti: Narrow tubes of medium length. Similar to penne except ends are not cut on an angle.

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