The formula for pasta seems oh-so-obvious: water + pasta = dinner—right? But sometimes it’s the supposedly simple things that prove to be the trickiest.
It turns out the window for pasta perfection—not too mushy yet not too chewy—is dangerously slim. And then there are all the other factors to consider. Should you add salt to the water? Or oil? What about a cold-water rinse at the end?
If your head is spinning (ours certainly is!), take a deep breath and let go of the pasta panic. We’ve assembled the best (and easiest) tips for excellent pasta every time.
1. Use a large pot.
Pick a roomy pot that gives the pasta plenty of space to move. As in, don’t reach for the dinky covered pot you use to boil a pair of eggs—it’ll crowd the pasta into a tight ball. Instead, this is a good time to call that eight-or 12-quart stockpot into action.
2. Load up the pot with lots of water.
When you’re hungry and want to get to spaghetti time stat, you might be tempted to use less water so it comes to a boil quicker. Don’t. Just like pasta needs a roomy pot, it also needs plenty of H2O so it can be totally submerged. (Any strand sticking out above water won’t get cooked.) You want five or six quarts for a standard package of pasta.
3. Salt the water.
Then salt, salt, and salt again! Don’t just give a single tap of the shaker—you want to use at least a tablespoon. You know when you get a mouthful of seawater at the beach and it’s disgustingly salty? You want that level of salty. This gives the pasta a flavor boost. Trust us, everything starchy tastes better with a generous hit of salt.
4. Bring the water to a full, rolling boil.
Again, don’t let hanger make you dump in the pasta when the water is at a mere simmer. That could result in a few raw, uncooked pieces—truly heartbreaking for any carb lover.
5. Keep stirring.
Don’t stray from the pot to see what people are tweeting or settle in for another episode of House of Cards—you’re on pasta stirring duty! Stand guard and stir the pot at least two or three times during cooking. (Or keep at it the whole time and get a mini biceps workout.) The benefit: Occasionally stirring the pot will keep your pasta from clumping.
6. Test the pasta two minutes before it’s “ready.”
Check the pasta packaging for the cook times, but don’t assume that time is gospel. About two minutes till go time, start checking the pasta’s doneness. Using a slotted spoon (or your utensil of choice), fish out a single strand of pasta, let it cool, then bite into it. In general, you want pasta that’s springy and chewy (but not like a stick of hardened gum). Everyone has different opinions on pasta, though. Italian chef Mario Batali prefers his pasta cooked just past the point of raw, a.k.a. “toothsome.” No matter your preference, it’s better to err on the side of al dente, as overcooked pasta will break down and become carby mush.
7. Save a scoop of pasta water.
Once the pasta is cooked to your liking, take two seconds to do this little step that most home cooks skip: Before you drain the water, save a single cup. This starchy water can work wonders in sauces, binding the sauce and pasta together, and breaking down thicker sauces so they’re less likely to clump at the bottom of your bowl.
8. Drain, stir with sauce, and enjoy.
Place a colander in the kitchen sink and drain your pasta. Put the drained pasta back into the pot with sauce (or into the saucepan if the sauce is still cooking), add your pasta water, toss, and serve.
Cooking times can vary according to pasta shape, amount, and type (whole-wheat, gluten-free, etc.).
Unlike dried pasta, fresh pasta takes only two or three minutes to cook, max.
Stuffed pasta, like ravioli, will rise to the surface and float when ready.
Don’t add any oil to the pasta water. Some cooks are under the false assumption that a glug of olive oil will keep the strands from clumping. But that’s nothing a good stir won’t solve, plus oil could leave your pasta too slick for saucing.
Don’t do a cold-water rinse on your pasta when it’s done cooking. That washes away all the happy starches that bind it to the sauce. (And the delicious salty flavor!)