With pasta in our weeknight rotation, we've come to learn quite a few things in order to achieve dinner perfection. So in order to make the comforting bowl as delicious as possible, there are a few smart rules to follow and savvy tips to employ. But more than anything, it's what you don't do that makes a huge difference. Here's our list of no-nos.
1. Use a small pot to boil the pasta.
Pasta needs room to breathe. Don't try to squish that pound of penne into a small saucepan of boiling water, which can lead to clumpy, sticky pasta because of a higher starch-to-water ratio — not to mention an overflowing pot. Instead, grab a large pot that you easily boil four to six quarts of water in.
Follow this tip: Fill a four- to six-quart pot with water to boil your pasta in.
2. Neglect to salt the water.
Salting the water is the only opportunity you have to season the pasta itself. Sure, you'll be tossing it in a flavorful sauce, but if the actual pasta isn't flavorful, you're only halfway there. Aim for about a tablespoon or two for every pound of pasta you cook — most of it actually won't get absorbed, but enough will to season it properly.
Follow this tip: Add one to two tablespoons of salt to the pot of boiling water before dropping in your pasta.
3. Forget to give the pasta a stir or two as it cooks.
It's tempting to drop the pasta into the pot and walk away from it. However, if you don't give it a stir a few times during the cooking process, the strands or whatever shape you're cooking will stick to each other, making for a clumpy mess when you drain it.
Follow this tip: Give the pasta a stir immediately after you add it to the boiling water and another couple of times while it cooks.
4. Cook it past al dente.
Mushy pasta just doesn't taste very good. Those cooking times on the box are there for a reason — use them! Boil your pasta to the lower end of the range it states and then start tasting until it's just al dente or even slightly before, as it will continue to cook a bit when tossed in the sauce.
Follow this tip: Use the cooking time listed on the pasta box. Once you've hit the lower end of the time range, start testing the pasta until it's just al dente and then drain immediately.
5. Dump out all of the pasta water.
One of the most important things to remember is that the pot of starchy water is liquid gold. Ask any restaurant chef what their secret to a perfectly combined bowl of pasta and sauce is, and they'll tell you it's the pasta water. Before you dump it down the drain, remove a cup or so and set it aside. As you're tossing the pasta with the sauce, use a splash or two of the pasta water. It will help loosen up the sauce, and its starchiness actually helps the sauce cling to the pasta.
Follow this tip: Scoop out a cup of the water in your pot before you drain the pasta. Then use a splash or two of the starchy water when tossing the pasta and sauce together to get that pasta evenly coated.