Pasta Cooking Basics

Learn how to make this dinnertime staple.

Pasta Pancetta

Photo by naples34102

Pasta is one dish most people claim to be able to cook. It’s true, pasta is relatively simple to prepare–anyone can boil water. Still, there are a few simple tricks you should know.

Tools of the Trade

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

Boil Water
To cook evenly and prevent it from sticking together, pasta needs “breathing” room. Use a deep saucepan and at least 4 quarts of water per pound of pasta. Salt is added to the cooking water, not to lower the boiling point, but rather to season the pasta. If you don’t season the cooking water, the pasta may taste flat–no matter how salty the sauce you dress it in.

  • Bring the water to a full, rolling boil. The temperature will drop once you add the pasta, so make sure it’s boiling before dropping in the pasta.
  • Gently stir short pasta immediately after adding to water; let spaghetti and long strands soften for a minute before stirring. Don’t break pasta in half.
  • It’s not necessary to add oil to the water; you’ll just be pouring good olive oil down the drain. Just use plenty of water and stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
  • Don’t combine two types or sizes of pasta in the same pot of water, as they will finish cooking at different times.
Home-Style Macaroni and Cheese

Photo by Christina

Al Dente
Pasta should be cooked until it’s tender but slightly firm to the bite. If it’s going to be used in a recipe–like baked ziti, macaroni and cheese, or lasagna–it can be even firmer, since it will absorb liquid and cook more in the oven. The longer you cook pasta, the mushier it gets. Don’t rely on the clock to evaluate doneness. Use those teeth!

  • If you’re tossing the pasta with a sauce, reserve a cup or two of the cooking water before you drain the pot. The water can be added to thin out a thick sauce, like pesto, and the starch in the water helps sauces stick to each shape or strand.
  • Cook according to package instructions (usually 10 to 12 minutes).
  • 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.
  • Pasta should be served 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 Aglio e Olio

Photo by Deb C