Don’t be lazy with your pasta-making skills. It’s one of the best comfort foods and deserves to be made with all the love and care you can give. To make sure your pasta’s a crowd-pleaser, learn some tips and tricks so you’re never left questioning what al dente means. Buon appetito.
Seasoned eater of foods, Adam Pash, gives his quick guideline of how he cooks pasta right now.
- Boil water
- Put in a little salt for more flavour (I did not know about this)
- Stir and check every now and then until it’s al dente
My method is about the same — probably a little simpler — so this is a decent place to start. It’s how most of us do it already, and it’s more or less “correct”, but there are also a lot of little considerations to keep in mind along the way that makes a big difference.
Selecting the type of pasta
Chef Chris Whitpan prefers fresh pasta, but if you have to use dried for practicality’s sake, he thinks Barilla is the winner. Chef Shaya Klechevsky agrees. If you’re into alternative pastas like Chef Millie Barnes, you can try rice pasta, soba noodles and yam noodles. His current favourites are De Cecco or Ener-G Foods Rice Pasta. But as with soft drink and beer, there is no wrong choice as long as you’re enjoying what you’re putting in your mouth.
Sensory Scientist Michael Nestrud, PhD, says that for the basic recipes, you should avoid the Asian types of noodles, because it’s more complicated and relies on a different type of preparation. It depends on what you prefer, in terms of taste, for other types of pasta.
Omega-3 whole grain pasta is going to have a much tougher texture than plain egg noodles, and a bit stronger flavor. Plain egg noodles are more tender. Shape also plays an important role. For an extreme example, think about those super thin noodles called “Angel Hair” – these would be lost completely and useless with a thick and chunky tomato sauce. Large penne would be silly in a soup – they won’t even fit on a spoon. Remember, the noodles are the star and the sauce is the accompaniment, not the other way around. The National Pasta Association has an extensive guide to shapes and uses.
But whatever you do, do not mix together the leftovers of one box of pasta with the start of a new box of a different brand of pasta. Different brands and shapes of pasta have different cooking times, and one or the other won’t be cooked optimally. I’ve done this before, and it tasted like pasta mixed in with mushy pencils.
Selecting the right equipment
- A pot that will hold the right amount of water, but also has room left over on top. Chef Whitpan prefers a tall to a wide one, but notes that you should make sure the bottom isn’t too thin, because pasta can stick and burn. Chef Barnes recommends a four-litre pot to cook half a kilo of pasta.
- A colander that drains quickly is more important than one that looks nice. Set it up before you cook so you can drain immediately after the pasta is done. Get one that spans the sink so you don’t spill pasta water everywhere.
- A pasta utensil that you can cook and serve with. Chef Whitpan also notes to use a plastic or silicone one if you have a nonstick pot.
- A kitchen timer, or if you have a phone made in the latter part of the last decade, that will do.
The Culinary Institute of America teaches four litres of water per half kilo of pasta. One chef says four litres of water also needs four tablespoons of salt, but another says two is enough. Why salt? It raises the boiling temperature of the water and also infuses taste into the pasta itself. So for a dinner for two, you’d want about 200g of dry pasta, two litres of water with two tablespoons of salt. Boil on high.
If you don’t have any measuring utensils, Chef Klechevsky’s tip is that you always have enough water to cover however much pasta you’re making by about 1.5 inches.
The most important take-away from this step is that you need to boil the water before you add in the pasta. Klechevsky recalls a young relative dumping pasta into a pot of cold water, which resulted in a “mushy mass of what used to be pasta.” It’s tempting to skip a step by boiling and adding pasta simultaneously — say, if the Mavericks/Thunder game is on and you don’t want to miss Dirk throwing up crazy off-balanced shots — but don’t.
Keep the pot covered until it boils, then uncover. Don’t cover the pot again.
Adding pasta and cooking it
Take a look at the packet your pasta came in. All the chefs agree that the cooking time listed there is actually quite accurate, so set your timer for that.
There are three choices for done-ness: al dente, firm and soft. You'll want al dente, which means "to the tooth" in Italian. That means it's thoroughly cooked, but still offers resistance when chewing, and thus isn't too hard or too soft. Think Goldilocks.
Don't add in your pasta too early. Chef Whitpan explains:
You need to have a rolling boil prior to adding your pasta. This does not mean a few bubbles on the outside. A rolling boil means movement across the whole surface of the water.
Now you need to stir.
The stirring of the pot as soon as you add the pasta is one of the critical moments. This moment is when the pasta can clump together as the first layers start to soften and release starch. Keep the pasta in a light motion by hand, as well as with the boiling water, and you are setting yourself up for success.
Begin timing as soon as all the pasta is submerged and you have stirred. If you use Barilla, like I recommend, they conveniently put cook times right on the box, and they are spot on.
He adds that you should stir gently for a swirl or two every 3-4 minutes in a figure-eight motion to keep the bits apart.
Chef Barnes agrees with the initial stir, but says you only need to stir once with wheat pasta to break it apart. With rice pasta, you need to stir often.
Once your timer goes off, the pasta should be done, but since different equipment cooks differently, check for yourself by tasting it. Texture trumps time. It should be slightly firm in the middle when you bite.
If it is snappy or chewy, it is not done. If it is tender and soft, it is cooked. (This takes practice—pay attention at your favourite Italian restaurant on the texture of their pasta next time you go out). Whole grain pasta will never be completely tender, but it does make a marked improvement as time passes. Learn yourself how pasta cooking progresses by tasting pieces every couple of minutes throughout the process - you'll be a pasta expert in no time.
Now that it's done, remove and strain the pasta immediately.
It only takes one minute to go from al dente to firm and another to start turning to mush. Get the pasta into your colander right away, and allow it to drain, moving it with your utensil.
At this point you should add it right to your sauce and toss it. This is the best way to enjoy pasta since the starch that is coating the outside of the pasta will help the sauce stick to it nicely. If this is not an option, lightly toss the pasta with olive oil, about 1 ounce per pound of pasta. (That's half of a quarter cup.)
Nestrud explains that the olive oil keeps the pasta from sticking together.
One other thing to keep in mind is "carry-over", which is the effect that when food is still hot, it continues to cook itself until it cools down. Chef Klechevsky explains:
To accommodate for this process, there are one of two things you can do. Ideally, you shock the pasta in iced water. In order to do this, you would fill a large bowl with ice and water and have that ready for when the pasta is ready to be drained. Once the pasta reaches al dente - which you could check by pulling out a few pieces of pasta from the water and biting into it - immediately drain it into a sieve or strainer and then dunk the pasta with the sieve or strainer into the larger bowl of iced water, making sure the pasta is completely immersed in the ice water. Let the pasta sit in the iced water for about 3-5 minutes, or until the pasta has cooled and will no longer continue to cook.
Those of us (myself included) who don't have kitchens large enough to accommodate the large bowl of iced water, I've taken a different approach - I let the carry-over cooking work for me. Whatever amount of time is indicated on the pasta box for how long that pasta should cook for to reach al dente, I subtract 2 minutes and set the timer or I'll just test the pasta for doneness right before al dente. At which point, I drain the pasta into a sieve or strainer but then put it back into the pot and cover it, thereby allowing the carry-over cooking to continue bringing the pasta to the exact level of doneness - al dente - without over cooking and getting mushy.
Because it's so easy and because almost everyone makes it, a lot of pasta myths have developed over the years. Chef Whitpan lists a few.
- When pasta is done it sticks to the wall No, it just makes a mark you have to clean up. Usually if it will do this, it is actually over cooked.
- I have to oil the water to keep it from sticking. No self-respecting chef will tell you to do this. It's a waste of oil, and we all know oil and water don't mix. How is the oil supposed to get between strands of pasta if it is floating?
- If I salt the water my pasta will turn out salty. Too much salt is indeed a bad thing, but in the cooking process, this is about the only time you can infuse flavor INTO the pasta, the rest is just coated on the outside. Salt is crucial actually.
- If I break the pasta it will cook faster. Nope, the diameter and thickness of the pasta itself is what determines its cook time. (Ed. note: It will, however, help you fully submerge longer noodles if you don't have a deep pot.)
- Always rinse your pasta. Well, if you don't like any sauce sticking to your pasta, sure, go right ahead. All the starches that cling to the outside of the strands are what allows the sauces to adhere to pasta, and can even help thicken some, so don't waste it.
If you're feeling adventurous and have some extra time while you're waiting for your pasta to boil, you can also make your own sauce. Chef Klechevsky has this tip:
"When I make my sauce, I like to sauté some diced onion and garlic in a pan with a little bit of olive oil until it has sweated and then adding some tomato paste to the pan. I let that cook in the pan for a bit, stirring with a wooden spoon.
"I then would add a little bit of white wine (since tomatoes have a lot of alcohol soluble flavors which are enhanced in the presence of alcohol) and then some of the reserved pasta water. I then allow the sauce to simmer to the consistency that I'm looking for, at which point, I add the sauce directly into the pot with the drained pasta and stir thoroughly and then serve immediately."
Nestrud says it's not only easy, it's cheaper than buying it at the store.
"You need two cloves garlic (or about 1 tsp. canned chopped garlic), a 12oz or so can of chopped, diced, or pureed tomatoes (whatever you fancy, or whatever is cheapest) a half a yellow onion (chop one like a pro) chopped, 1 Tbsp. of olive oil and a sauce pot. Heat the oil until it becomes very fluid. Add the garlic and onion. Cook (they should be sizzling) on medium heat (if they start to colour, turn the heat down a bit) for about 3 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds or so, until the onions are translucent. Add your canned tomatoes. Bring to a simmer and cook for another 5 minutes.
"If you want to be fancy, add in a Parmesan cheese rind during while the sauce is simmering. Or chopped herbs. Or Red Pepper. Or salt and pepper. Or sliced and cooked Italian Sausage. Whatever you like. But the basic onion/garlic/canned tomato is better than any of the basic sauces on the market. You can even make your commercial sauce you may already have on hand taste fresher/better by using it instead of canned tomatoes in this little recipe."
Cooking pasta starting with cold water
This sounds like unnecessary work with no real upside, but if you're interested in starting with cold water to save some time, here's what Nestrud says:
"[Food scientist]Harold McGee did a specific test (published here) on whether or not you should start with hot or cold water. His method recommends putting pasta in cold water, covering it with just enough water to submerge, stirring occasionally to keep things from sticking together and cooking until done (adding water as necessary to keep the pasta covered). He does note that there may be minor flavor implications of this and it is more labour intensive.
"I am always inattentive with pasta, and using his method, if you forget to stir or the water drops down too low, you'll end up with a lot of undercooked stuck together pasta. The problem with this is that when you break it apart there will be uncooked crunchy areas at the interface between two previously connected pieces of pasta. Also, if you go this route, keep another pot (or a tea kettle, great for keeping extra boiling water on hand) to add boiling water as necessary to keep your pasta submerged."
So unless you are in a situation with an extremely limited amount of water, you probably don't need to do this.
Cooking a large batch to eat throughout the week
Like stew, Nestrud says you can make a large amount of pasta and eat it for days and days, without microwaving it and sacrificing the original texture.
"This is how most restaurants (and Wegman's pasta bar) do it. Cook your pasta according to one of the methods up to the point where you determine it is done. Strain it. Run cold water over the pasta to cool it completely Give it a good shake to make sure it is dry, add it to a bowl, and add olive oil. Stir well to coat completely—it is very important to add enough olive oil so that it doesn't stick. If you don't, you'll end up with a pasta brick in the refrigerator. Once it is tossed with olive oil, cover and put in the refrigerator.
"The next day, bring some more water to a boil, add your portion of pasta, and cook long enough (a minute or two) to heat it throughout. Alternative to this, I've had luck tossing it in a hot saute pan with a little more olive oil, then adding sauce directly to the pan, heating both at once and making for less pots to clean up."
Acknowledgements and what I've learned
Big marinara-stained high-fives to our four experts chefs for showing me that even though I've been making edible pasta, there are a lot of steps I could be optimising. Also, making my own sauce seems a lot easier than previously imagined.
Chef Shaya Klechevsky is a personal chef and the owner of At Your Palate.
Michael A. Nestrud, PhD, is a Sensory Scientist and a Culinary Psychologist, and works on menu development for Meals-Ready-To-Eat (MREs) for the US Army.
Chef Millie Barnes is a nutritional coach and has been working for 30 years for personal and private chef services. Millie has also done seminars on Health and Happiness and been on Television, as well as authored two books: "Optimum Nutrition" and "Optimum Nutrition-In the Kitchen with Millie Barnes". She's also been a chef at many places. in the Florida area.
Chef Chris Whitpan has been a chef and manager of restaurants for the last 20 years, and runs his own site, The Kitchen Hacker.
Do it right is a section where we explore common activities that we all think we're doing correctly, but might not be. And if you know someone who insists that they're doing something right, feel free to pass this along to show them what the experts say.
This story has been updated since its original publication