How to Cook Pasta (Perfectly)
Learn How to Cook Pasta “al dente”, every time. Cooking pasta is a simple task that often leads to frustration. These tips will hopefully lead to happy pasta dishes and eliminate future pasta disasters.
“So what is al dente anyway?”
Al dente is the optimal desired texture when cooking pasta and grains. It refers to a firm, but not hard consistency. The actual translation of the Italian phrase al dente, is “to the tooth” meaning there is an ever-so-slight resistance when you bite into it, but not a crunchy hardcore.
Cooking pasta seems like an easy chore, but often leads to mushy, slimy or sticky pasta if you’re not careful. It’s best not to throw the pasta in the water and forget about it, as so many of us do.
Me included, on occasion.
Today’s “How to Cook Pasta” tutorial will break down the causes of some classic pasta mishaps. For further ins-and-outs of pasta cooking, visit my friends at DeLallo.
They are the ninja masters of pasta.
How to Cook Pasta
The first step to perfect pasta cooking is to boil a lot of water. When you use a pot that is too small and doesn’t hold enough water, the pasta boils in the starch it releases, at concentrated levels. This makes your pasta slimy.
Slimy pasta is a bad thing.
When you pull out a pot for pasta cooking, GO BIG and fill’er up! 5-6 quarts of water is appropriate for one pound of pasta.
Thoroughly salt the water. Salting your pasta after you cook it doesn’t enhance the flavor. It just makes it taste, well… SALTY.
When pasta is cooked in salt water, it absorbs the salt and helps to bring forth it’s natural flavors.
Add enough salt to the water to make it taste like the ocean. In a large 5+ quart pot, that should be between 2-4 tablespoons. It seems like a lot of salt, but the pasta will absorb just enough.
Next, bring the water to a rolling boil over high heat. You can place the lid on the pot to get it to boil faster.
Side Note: For years I added a little oil to the water, so that it wouldn’t boil over. A clever trick, right? The problem with this, is it lubes down the strands of pasta so that nothing sticks to them, or absorbs in them. So when it’s time to sauce the pasta, you have a problem.
Restaurant quality pasta is finished in the sauce so that the pasta can absorb the flavors of the sauce. Therefore, it’s best to skip the oil.
Once the water is raging in the pot, add the pasta.
DO NOT add the pasta before you’ve got a serious boil going on. Letting your pasta sit in hot water, that’s not hot enough to actually cook it, makes it mushy.
Stir the pasta so it won’t stick together.
Then place the lid back on top for just a minute or two. Doing this will help bring the water back up to that essential boil as fast as possible.
Once you’ve got a rolling boil again, remove the lid.
Stir a second time and cook the pasta as directed on the package.
I like to check my pasta about two minutes before the package cooking time, just to be safe.
Now it’s time for the Bite Test.
(Remember when people use to throw pasta against the wall to check if it was cooked enough? Weren’t we crazy in the 90’s?)
Remove a strand of pasta from the pot and bite. How does it feel to the tooth?
Firm but not hard???
Look at the end of the pasta you just bit. If you see a light-colored circle, the pasta is not quite ready.
See how this strand has a white circle? Not quite ready.
If you see just a white dot the size of a pin-prick, the pasta is almost al dente.
The white dot signifies it’s time to strain the pasta.
Taking the pasta out of the boiling water, just before it reaches al dente, allows you to cook the pasta in the sauce for a few minutes longer. That way it can absorb all those wonderful saucy flavors without overcooking.
Strain the pasta in a colander, or quickly scoop it out with a pasta serving spoon.
DO NOT rinse the pasta. Ever.
You’ll wash away the starch that helps the sauce stick to the pasta. Place the pasta straight into the warm sauce you have ready-and-waiting and toss. Cook 1-2 minutes before turning off the heat.
When straining the pasta, make sure to reserve some of that salty-starchy pasta water. I usually save a cup or so.
Pasta water is a magic ingredient in many pasta dishes. Once you stir the pasta into the sauce, if it’s a little thick or lacking flavor, add a bit of pasta water. You’ll be surprised at the difference it will make.