Pasta is often a go-to meal when we don't have a lot of time or creativity. And although cooking pasta is easy, if it isn't cooked properly it can end up tough and chewy or soft and mushy—or even worse, all clumped together. Luckily, there are a few simple guidelines to follow that will lead to perfectly cooked pasta every time, from filling the pot with water to tossing with the sauce.
Use the Right Pot
You may have noticed that chefs on TV use tall pots when cooking pasta. That is because you need to give the noodles enough room to cook separately. If you use a pot that is shallow and wide, the pieces of pasta will tend to stick to each other. For one pound of pasta, you need a pot that can hold 6 to 8 quarts of water.
And, of course, the amount of water in the pot is just as important. You want to fill the pot a little more than 3/4 full with cold water so the pasta can "swim" freely.
You might think a bit of salt in the water is an optional step, but it is actually an important one. The salt will flavor the pasta from the inside out, bringing more depth to the final dish and not relying on the sauce to do all of the work. Once the water comes to a boil, add the salt; a good guide is to use 2 tablespoons for every gallon of water.
Although you may see some of those TV chefs adding oil to the pasta water, it is really not a good idea. It just makes the pasta slippery and the sauce won't stick to it.
Measure the Right Amount
Pasta, no matter what shape, can be tricky to measure out; we often do it by sight, or cook the whole box. A cup of cooked pasta is an ideal portion per person; count on 1 pound of dried pasta to feed four as a main course and six as a first course.
Stir and Bring Back to a Boil
After you add the pasta to the boiling water, it is imperative that you give it a really good stir to separate all of the pasta pieces. You can use a pasta mixing tool, which will grab the strands or other shapes and help pull them apart, or a set of tongs—gently grab and pull the pasta to make sure it is not sticking together.
Once the pasta is added, the water will slow down from a full boil to a slow simmer. The water should come to a second full boil before you start the timer. (You might want to cover the pot halfway, but make sure to remove the top once the water is bubbling.) Pasta that's cooked in a simmer will end up mushy and have a tendency to clump together.
Test for Doneness
Many recipes call for cooking the pasta until "al dente," which, in Italian, means "to the tooth;" this means the pasta is firm when bitten with a slightly dense center and softer outside. If you don't care for your pasta al dente, then you should cook it a little longer. Many packages indicate a time frame (by a minute or two), so you should taste test a piece toward the end of cooking time to see if it is to your liking. You don't want the noodle to be mushy, but also not hard inside. If you can see a white center, it needs to cook longer.
Reserve Some Cooking Water
If you are making a homemade sauce, it is always wise to put aside a bit of the pasta cooking water before you drain the noodles. The cooking water not only helps thicken the sauce and assists in the sauce clinging to the pasta, but it will also loosen the mixture, allowing it to distribute more evenly. Pasta cooking water is also the ideal remedy for a sauce that is too thick. About a 1/2 cup usually will do, but scoop out a bit more just in case.
Drain in a Colander
Once the pasta has finished cooking, you want to remove it immediately from the hot water; if it sits, it will continue to cook. Dump the pasta into a colander set in the sink and give it a little shake. Unless the recipe calls for it, do not rinse the pasta; there is a layer of starch left on the pasta which adds flavor, helps the sauce to adhere, and thickens the sauce.
To prevent the pasta from tearing, more delicate types of pasta—such as lasagna noodles and ravioli—should be removed from the water using a large, flat strainer or metal wok strainer.
Finish Cooking the Pasta in the Sauce
To help the sauce adhere better to the pasta, put the sauce in a broad skillet or saute pan and heat it while the pasta cooks. Drain the pasta 1 to 2 minutes early (allowing some pasta water to stay on the noodles) and stir it into the sauce in the skillet. Gently toss the pasta and sauce over high heat for 1 to 2 minutes, until the pasta is done. This technique is called pasta strascicata, and will work especially well with creamy meat or vegetable sauces, such as sugo alla bolognese and marinara sauce. Do not use this technique with sauces that are uncooked, like pesto, or oil-based like aglio e olio.
Fresh vs. Dried Pasta
You can purchase pasta two ways: fresh and dried. The dried pasta is what we buy in the box; fresh pasta can be packaged in bags or plastic containers. Fresh pasta cooks in the time it takes for the water to reach the second boil, so make sure you don’t overcook it. Dried pasta takes longer, depending on thickness and shape.
Pasta Cooking Step-By-Step
Now that you have the general tips to follow when making pasta, you are ready to prepare a perfect pasta dish.
- Fill a pot with 1 quart (4 cups) of water per serving of pasta. Cover the pot and set it to boil over high heat.
- When the water comes to a boil, remove the cover and add 1 tablespoon of coarse sea salt (a little less if it's fine-grained) per quart of water. It should taste like sea water.
- When the water comes back to a rolling boil, add the pasta and give it a good stir with a pasta spoon or wooden spoon to separate the pieces. Wait for the water to return to the second boil.
- Check the pasta package for pasta cooking time. If no time is given, follow these rules-of-thumb, but be careful to check the pasta often for doneness as it cooks:
- Fresh pasta, especially egg pasta (fettucine, tagliatelle, lasagna): 3 to 5 minutes.
- Thin, dried durum wheat (eggless) pasta (spaghettini, shells, rotini): 6 to 9 minutes.
- Dried spaghetti is generally 8 to 9 minutes, depending on the brand and thickness.
- Thick dried durum wheat (eggless) pasta (penne, ziti, tortigioni, trofie): 12 to 15 minutes.
- Stir the pasta occasionally as it cooks to keep the pieces from sticking to each other or to the pot.
- A minute before the estimated pasta cooking time is up, remove a piece of the pasta to check for doneness. You want either an al dente, or chewy "to the tooth" texture or slightly softer—not soft, limp pasta. Bite the pasta to check. If you see a thin white line or white dot(s) in the middle of the pasta, it's not done yet.
- Return the test piece to the pot and let cook another minute and test again; as soon as the broken piece is a uniform, translucent yellow, drain the pasta.
- Toss the pasta in your sauce and serve. If you are not using the pasta right away, toss with a little extra virgin olive oil and add the sauce before serving.