The reasons for adding salt or oil to a pot of boiling pasta are actually different. It is believed that adding oil to the water will prevent the pasta from sticking or cooking together. While this may be true, cooking pasta in water and oil will result in oily pasta that won’t cling to your sauce, making it rather tasteless. To prevent pasta from sticking, just stir continuously for the first couple minutes of cooking. This is the time when the pasta’s starches are released causing it to stick.
Adding salt, on the other hand, enhances the flavor of the pasta. Add the salt either before or after the water begins to boil. Many Italians believe that pasta water should be salty like the sea, so be generous with the salt. Don’t worry about over salting; the pasta will only absorb so much and the rest gets thrown out with the water. Your sauce thanks you.
Here is another of the great debates among Italian Americans: to salt or not to salt eggplant before cooking. I am referring to a process of sprinkling coarse salt on sliced eggplant and letting it sit in a colander for up to an hour. There are a couple of reasons for doing this. First, it draws out the bitter flavor that is inherent in eggplant. This is really more applicable to bigger eggplant; the baby variety is much less bitter. Second, is to draw out a lot of the liquid so the eggplant isn’t soggy after cooking. Many will argue that this process is unnecessary, and that there is very little difference afterwards.
Here is a great Los Angeles Times article that attempts to settle the debate with an experiment with eggplants that have been both salted and unsalted in a number of popular preparations. The findings? Other than a smoother texture when frying, there really isn’t a large difference in flavor by salting. Now we know.
Tuscan bread is not for everyone. It is low on flavor and has an unusually dense texture. So, why not just add salt to the recipe and make it more appetizing? Tradition. Legend has it that a high tax on salt back in the Middle Ages led Tuscans to making bread without it. When the tax was finally lifted, the bread remained unchanged. There are some that deny this legend and believe that it’s the rich seasoning in Tuscan food that inspire bakers to leave the salt out.
Tuscan bread isn’t widely found in the U.S., but it is still the bread of choice in Tuscany and some surrounding areas, such as Umbria. It is not really meant to be eaten on its own. It is usually served alongside dishes with a rich tomato sauce or with a very flavorful oil. It is also used in some fantastic dishes specific to this area including panzanella salad and the peasant bread soup, pappa al pomodoro.