How To Cook Pasta: 10 Tips And Tricks

Perfect, al dente pasta every time — plus, the one thing you should never do.

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How to cook pasta: Spaghetti with red sauce topped with torn basil.

Perfectly cooked fresh Sicilian pasta. Photo, Sian Richards.

Pasta is a go-to weeknight dinner because it’s so simple and it’s a true crowd-pleaser (who doesn’t love a heaping plate of noodles?). Best of, cooking perfect pasta is easy — here are 10 easy tips to get you there!

1. DON’T put oil in your water or on your pasta.

Adding oil to the water, or to cooked pasta to keep it from sticking will cause your sauce to slip off the noodles. You’ll also end up with greasy pasta, yuck. So, now that the don’t is out of the way, here are all the dos!

2. Fill your pot properly.

Use enough cold, fresh water that once the pasta begins to cook and expand, there will still be plenty of room for the noodles to move freely. You also want enough water to balance the heat once the pasta is added, allowing it to come back to a boil quickly. The rule of thumb is at least three litres of water to every 250g of pasta.

3. Salt your water like the sea.

Salting the water is your only opportunity to season the pasta itself. The water needs to “taste like the sea,” in order to flavour the pasta. Three litres of water requires a minimum of 1 tbsp salt.

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4. Bring water to a rapid boil before adding the pasta.

Starches absorb water instantly and you want the water temperature to be extremely hot to begin cooking the noodles properly. Noodles that are added too soon with be soggy and improperly cooked.

5. Drop and stir.

As soon as you drop your pasta in the water, stir it. This prevents the pasta from sticking together, or to the bottom or sides of the pot. Stir occasionally during the cooking process.

6. Check the package for timing.

There are lots of methods for testing if pasta is properly cooked, but your best starting point is to read the package. Every variety and brand of pasta designates a proper cooking time and it’s indicated on the package. Long thin noodles tend to be very fast cooking while small denser pasta tend to take much longer. Start testing your pasta about two minutes before the indicated time, just to be safe. You’re looking for ‘al dente’ which means tender but firm to the tooth. If your pasta will be cooking further in the a saucepan with sauce, you can remove it from the water slightly before the al dente stage.

7. Always save some cooking water.

Before you drain your pasta ladle a cup of cooking water into a bowl or measuring cup and reserve for your sauce. (We’ll come back to this.)

8. Drain don’t dry.

Drain your pasta enough to remove most of the water, but don’t let drained pasta sit and “dry off”. As it cools, the starches will firm up and the pasta will stick together.

9. Add pasta to sauce — not the other way around.

Always have your sauce prepared before you cook your noodles. The pasta cooking should be the last step in making your dish. Keep your sauce warm in a large, wide saucepan, big enough to add your noodles to. Add immediately after they’ve drained.

10. Add some pasta water.

Adding a touch of pasta water to your sauce when you add the noodles helps the sauce adhere better to the pasta. The water adds a bit of richness and flavour and the starchiness can help bring a split sauce back together.

The best piece of pasta-related advice I can give is this:

Remember that the actual cooking of the noodles should be the last step in your meal preparation. The sauce should be ready, the salad on the table, everything ready to go before you drop in the noodles. Once pasta is cooked you want to add it to the sauce immediately otherwise it will begin to stick and become gluey. You can’t fix that.

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Originally published August 21st, 2014. 

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