Spaghetti with marinara sauce, a highly- seasoned tomato sauce made with onions, garlic and oregano. It is one of the most basic—and popular—pasta dishes. Learn how to make your spaghetti perfetto. Photo courtesy of National Pasta Association.
How To Cook Pasta
Learn How To Cook And Serve Perfect Al Dente Pasta
It seems so simple to those who can do it, yet many of us are pasta-challenged when it comes to cooking fresh or dry pasta. Here are our collection of pasta tips. Many of these pasta-cooking tips were contributed by sous chefs at restaurants featuring Rossi Pasta, a NIBBLE Top Pick Of The Week.
- Always start with clean, fresh, cool water. Pasta is absorptive. If your water tastes at all “off,” or contains any impurities, it will taint the finished flavor of the pasta. Filter your home water if possible, and resist the temptation to use water from the hot water tap. Water from hot water heaters can taste flat or oxidized, either of which will adversely affect the taste of home-cooked pasta.
- Use as much water as possible. Four quarts is a bare minimum per 12-ounce package of pasta, six to eight quarts is ideal. More water will keep strands of pasta from sticking together and will reduce the tendency of the pot to boil over. It’s science. Bring the water to a rapid boil.
Nests of fresh fettuccine. Photo by Fabio Bavusi | SXC.
- Use salt, but not oil. Most chefs recommend about a tablespoon of salt added per quart of boiling water just before laying in the pasta, to enhance the flavor of the grain. Adding oil was a promotion started by cooking oil companies to get homemakers to use more oil, under the guise that oil will keep the pasta from sticking. However, using a larger pot with more water is the solution. Oil has the unwanted effect of coating the pasta so the sauce doesn’t stick.
- Don’t break the pasta. There are a few exceptions, e.g. for soups and certain salad dishes. But never break long pasta in half for hot pasta dishes—you won’t have enough to twirl. If your pot isn’t tall enough, simply hold the top of the pasta with your hand or tongs for a few moments. The under-water portion of the pasta will soften naturally to allow the above-water portion to slide under the water line. Then, bring the water to a rapid boil again before lowering the heat.
- Stir frequently. You’ll avoid sticky pasta if you stir the pasta frequently after it has been added to water, and before it resumes a healthy boil. This, plus a large-enough pot and enough water, is the only precaution you need to take to ensure that the pasta does not stick either to the pot or to itself.
How To Avoid Overcooking Pasta
- Test strands. Use the recommended cooking time specified on the package as a general guideline only. Depending on the quantity of water, the particular batch of pasta and the strength of the heat source, cooking times will vary. Lower-quality pastas can go from underdone to overcooked in two minutes. So keep testing for doneness by tasting one or two strands at a time. If the pasta is stiff, offering any true resistance, it needs more time. If it seems relatively soft, but sticks slightly to the teeth, you’re almost there. Give it another 30 seconds. Then it’s ready.
- Drain immediately. As soon as the pasta is done, drain it at once. If your sink doesn’t drain quickly, lift the colander up out of the hot water. If you cook pasta often, consider a pasta pot with a colander insert that allows you to remove the pasta at once without tangling.
Get more information about this Norpro stainless steel colander.
- Remember, it keeps cooking. Like all cooked food, pasta continues to cook even after it’s been removed from heat and has been drained. If it’s hot, even warm, and especially if it’s under a hot sauce, it’s still cooking! To deal with this fact of thermodynamics, the best chefs typically either a) undercook their pasta slightly if it is to be immediately plated with a sauce, or b) rinse their pasta as described below. The intentional undercooking of pasta is especially important if you plan to leave just-cooked pasta in a large serving dish for a dinner party. Just ask any caterer.
- Rinse if you need to. If you’re concerned that you have overcooked the pasta, you can rinse, or “shock,” the pasta briefly in cold or room-temperature water. You will read everywhere else that one should never, ever rinse pasta because it removes the important surface starch that helps the sauce cling to the pasta. This is true, but given the alternative of mushy pasta, you can give up some cling. And—trade secret—most of America’s restaurants generally employ this technique, not because they overcook their pasta, but because it allows the chef to halt the cooking process at precisely the right moment. You’ll still want to slightly undercook rinsed pasta if you’re going to be re-heating it with other ingredients in a skillet or wok (see below) just before serving time. But you’ll have some breathing room should your recipe divert your attention elsewhere, and you’ll be assured of the perfect doneness when finally ready to plate your completed dish.
Cooking & Serving Tips
- Finish your pasta in the sauce instead of waiting for it to boil to al dente. This technique uses a pre-heated cooking skillet to better integrate the pasta and the sauce prior to serving. Have the sauce simmering in the skillet, then add the slightly undercooked and drained pasta and toss in the sauce for about a minute or so over high heat to finish the dish. Since the pasta is still absorbing moisture, it will pull in the flavors of the sauce.
Get more information about this Cuisinart 10-inch skillet.
- For a simpler integration technique, add a spoonful of the pasta’s cooking water to the sauce. The cooking water is filled with the natural starch from the pasta, and will help to bind and thicken the sauce naturally.
- Consider warming your plates in the microwave. It keeps the pasta warmer—and is also why the pasta should be slightly undercooked. Italians call family and guests to the table before the pasta is served, so everyone will be sure to get a piping hot plate.
- Try the undercooking concept on small “test batches” of pasta. Try all the techniques, including skillet finishing, adding cooking water to the sauce and shocking the pasta in cold water, until you’re comfortable with how they work. You may find a better way to make “perfect pasta.”
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