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Pasta Cooking Basics

Making pasta is one of cooking's easier tasks. It's something most people claim to be able to cook -- anyone who can boil water. Still, there are a few simple tricks to master. Let's get to 'em, and finish with answers to some FAQs.

spaghetti with tomato sauce

Photo by Meredith

Tools of the Trade

You will need:

1. A large (6- to 8-quart) pot
2. Four to six quarts of cold water
3. A healthy dose (1-2 tablespoons) of salt
4. A wooden or long-handled spoon
5. A colander for draining the pasta

First things first. Pasta needs "breathing" room to cook evenly and to keep from sticking together. Use a deep pot and at least 4 quarts of water per pound of pasta.

Bring the water to a full, rolling boil. Before dropping in the pasta, add salt to the boiling water. If you don't season the cooking water, the pasta may taste flat -- no matter how salty the sauce may be.

Adding Salt to Boiling Water

Photo by Meredith

The temperature will drop once you add the pasta, so make sure the water's at a full boil. And don't break pasta in half.

Gently stir short pasta immediately after adding it to water, but let spaghetti and long strands soften for a minute before stirring.

Pasta in rolling boiling water

Photo by Meredith

No need to add oil to the water; you'll just be pouring good olive oil down the drain. To prevent sticking, just use plenty of water and stir occasionally .

Don't combine two types or sizes of pasta in the same pot of water -- they will finish cooking at different times.

Cook your pasta until it's tender but slightly firm to the bite. The longer you cook pasta, the mushier it gets. Don't rely on the clock to evaluate doneness. Use those teeth! If you're using cooked pasta as an ingredient in a recipe -- like baked ziti or lasagna -- it can be even firmer; it will absorb liquid and cook more in the oven.

If you're tossing the pasta with a sauce, reserve a cup or two of the cooking water before you drain the pot. The starch in the cooking water can thin a thick sauce and help sauces stick to the noodles.

Drain the pasta in a colander. If you're making a cold pasta salad, rinse with cool water to stop the cooking. Otherwise, return the colander to the pot and cover to keep it warm.

Serve pasta immediately in warm bowls. Ladle a scant half cup of sauce in the bottom of each bowl, top with pasta, and add more sauce.

spaghetti in colander with sauce from jar

Photo by Meredith

Now for answers to some frequently asked questions about preparing pasta.

Can lasagna be put together one day, and cooked the next?

Lasagna is a perfect make-ahead meal. You can certainly make it one day, and bake it the next. Store the lasagna in an airtight container or wrap it tightly with plastic wrap. It also stands up to freezing quite well, so you can make it, freeze it, and bake it at your convenience.

I have a recipe for Alfredo sauce, and though I followed it exactly, the cheeses never melted in the sauce. It was all lumpy and clumpy. What happened?

Temperature is very important for an Alfredo sauce. The sauce should be hot, but not boiling. If the sauce is not hot enough, the cheese may not melt well. A boiling sauce will separate and curdle. To maintain an even temperature, the cheese should be grated very fine and gradually stirred into the sauce in batches, only adding more after the first addition is thoroughly melted and the sauce smooth.

What is Ziti?

Ziti is a slender tubular pasta. It works well with hearty sauces, and is well suited for baked pasta dishes. Any tubular pasta may be substituted for it such as macaroni or penne.

Can I cook pasta ahead of time then reheat it?

You can put your pasta on hold for a few minutes by simply putting the colander (that you drained the noodles in) on top of the pot, then covering with the lid. The residual heat/steam will keep the noodles warm for a few minutes. If you want to pre-cook the pasta, and then reheat later, you can do this by cooking it as usual, but leave it slightly undercooked. Drain and toss with a little oil. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator. Reheat by dropping the noodles into boiling water for a minute or two, until heated through. (Many stock pots come with a pasta strainer basket, and this is a good use for it.) Be sure not to over-cook the pasta.

What does "al dente" mean?

One of the biggest no-no's in pasta preparation is overcooking. Take a cue from the Italians, and boil your pasta until it's al dente, which means "to the tooth." In other words, it should be firm to the bite but still tender.

How do I make homemade pasta?

Making homemade noodles is actually pretty simple. Check out our easy, step-by-step guide to making homemade pasta. And if you want to turn your fresh pasta into ravioli, here's how to make homemade ravioli.

Check out our collection of pasta recipes.

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