Monday, June 3, 2013

Perfect Pasta Postulated

    Cooking pasta is one of those things that is quite easy to do, but also quite easy to screw up.  Nothing ruins a good Italian meal like over cooked, gummy, and stuck together pasta.  Here are some dos and don'ts for cooking up magnificent macaroni, fabulous fettuccine, or splendorous spaghetti.

DO have plenty of water when you are cooking pasta.  Having plenty of the wet stuff gives pasta room to move around when it is cooking.  You see, movement is a key factor in pasta cookery.  Without it pasta has a tendency to stick to itself.  The rule of thumb I have heard is one gallon of water per pound of pasta.  Generally I just get a pot big enough to hold two to three times the volume of pasta and fill it 3/4 of the way up.

DO allow the water to come to a rolling boil before you toss in your pasta.  You want that water nice and hot because the moment you add your pasta, it will bring the temperature of water down.  If your water is nice and hot it will recover nice and quickly.  The reasons you don't want water to be anything less is that pasta takes longer to cook in cooler water and more importantly, pasta will again want to stick to itself.  When water is boiling, the movement of the water helps move the pasta.

DO use a lid.  It helps the water boil faster and it will help the water recover after dropping in your pasta.

DON'T just toss in your pasta and walk away.  You need to give it at least an initial stir to help the individual noodles get space and separate from each other.  This is especially true with your long, string-like pastas.  Otherwise you may end up with big clumps of pasta.  Hopefully you can see how important movement is in cooking pasta.  In fact, you may want to stir your pasta every once in a while just to make sure there is movement between the noodles and that they are not sticking.

DO try to add all of your pasta at one time.  What I mean by that is if you have to do batches, then you have to do the process all over again for each batch unless you have something like a basket that you can dip and take out of the hot water.  Whatever you do, DON'T add half your pasta, wait for it to cook a little while then add some more.  This will assure you have unevenly cooked pasta. 

DO salt your water.  Adding salt to your water is really the only way to impart flavor directly to your pasta.  One of the things I learned in culinary school is to season everything and do it in layers.  Without adding salt to your pasta, it will taste bland.  I know it will probably be tossed in sauce and have other stuff added to it, but trust me, salted pasta is so much better.  As far as how much salt, well, I always  try to get my water to the salinity of sea water, but that is my personal choice.  You kind of have to play around with it so that you know how much salt to add to the water to get the pasta to where you like it. Now, when you add the salt you can either add it at the very beginning or wait until the water comes to a boil. If you add it at the beginning you can taste your water, but it will take the water longer to boil.  If you wait until the water is boiling then you don't have to wait as long but you have to taste you water as it were a hot soup.

DON'T add oil to your water.  It serves no purpose.  You are essentially just wasting oil.  It will pretty much just hang out at the top and never even come close to mixing with the pasta, even with all the vigorous boiling.  DO, however, oil your pasta after you are done cooking it.

DO be patient.  I can't tell you how long the pasta will take because every pasta is different.   Just keep an eye on it and keep tasting it.  If the pasta is still hard, it is not done yet.  You want pasta to be what they call al dente.  This means the pasta is firm, not hard, but can be easily chewed.  Once you have reached this point, your pasta is ready.

DO be careful when draining your pasta. You will pouring hot water down the drain that will still release copious amounts of steam. Use a colander big enough to hold your all your pasta but without hole big enough that will allow your noodles to escape. It is at this point that you want to oil your pasta.  Any oil will work, but a nice olive oil will add flavor to your pasta.  You want just enough oil to coat your pasta.

Now you have two choices.  You can immediately serve the hot pasta, or you can cool it down.  The fastest way to cool down hot pasta, I have found, is to use a combination of ice and water.  Just pour some ice over your pasta then pour water over it all until the ice melts away. As a side note, when cooling your pasta this way it may wash away some of the oil, so you may want to reapply a bit more.  When you are ready to reheat your pasta, you can do it in a sauce or with hot, not boiling, water.  Just give your pasta a dunk to freshen them up and serve.  For the sauce method just toss your pasta with really hot, temperature not spice, sauce and serve.

Hopefully these tips help the next time you want some pasta perfection.


  1. Alton Brown has recently (on Reddit, I think) come out for starting pasta cold in minimal water. Supposedly maximizes starch for sauce adherence. I've only tried this technique once, and it worked well. I'll be experimenting more with this in the future.

    1. I have also heard that done, although I don't remember where. I guess I have never been brave enough to try it. The method I describe is tried and true. It was the way I was taught. Having said that, it does not mean the other method is without merit. I just could not write about it with any authority.

  2. Thanks for the advice on cooking pasta. Great tips and confirms my habits while cooking pasta too. Wait until it is boiling to add dry pasta, salt it. btw when we add salt to the water, it makes the water boil at a high temperature than 220.....soooooooo add the salt after it is boiling. Thanks Manny.