Can there be anything more simple than cooking up a pot of pasta? The only thing you have to do is boil water, right? Well, yes, that's certainly the basic outline. But there are a few other tricks and helpful hints that will help make your cooking run a little smoother and your pasta taste a little better.
This post is specifically about cooking classic dried durum wheat pasta. While they have many things in common, the instructions for cooking whole grain, rice, quinoa and other alternative kinds of pastas are slightly different. We'll cover those in another post.
Choosing the right pasta is the very first step and most important choice you will make in your pasta adventures. There is a very wide range of available dried pastas out there, from super cheap supermarket brands to fancy imported pastas that will push the boundaries of your budget. Generally speaking, you don't have to spend a lot of money to get good pasta, but try out some different kinds until you find a brand with the right combination of taste, texture, availability, and price to suit your tastes and needs.
Consider the Sauce
Here's the most important thing to know about cooking pasta: have the sauce ready to go before you throw your pasta into the water. You want your pot of water coming to a boil just as your pan of sauce ready to go — just keep the sauce warm on a burner right next to the pot. (Or, in the case of uncooked sauces, in a bowl next to the stove.)
The Best Pot for Cooking Pasta
Choose a pot that's large enough so that the water can boil rapidly without spilling over and so that the pasta has plenty of room. It's also helpful to have a designated pasta pot so that you can just eyeball how much water to put in it and avoid measuring it manually every time. Some people prefer a high-sided pot for spaghetti and other long, thin pasta shapes so that as much of the pasta as possible is submerged in the water and can immediately begin to cook and soften, allowing the pasta to submerge as quickly as possible.
How Much Water To Use?
The classic way to prepare pasta is to cook it in lots of very salty boiling water. The usual portions are 4 to 6 quarts of water and 1 to 2 tablespoons of salt for every pound of pasta. There is some debate as to wether you need all that water, and indeed I tend to use a little less — about 4 quarts of water and 1 tablespoon of salt per pound of pasta. I suggest cooking pasta with the standard proportions first and then adjust as you like.
Why Salt the Pasta Water?
Pasta water really does need to be salty. The usual recommendation is for it to taste "salty like the sea" and that's not an exaggeration. This seasons the pasta from the inside out, enhancing the final flavor of the dish. I usually add the salt to the pasta pot as it's coming to a boil so that I don't forget, though you can add it after the water comes to a boil if you prefer.
Knowing When the Pasta is Done
In general, the cooking time listed on the package of your pasta is a good, if approximate, place to start. I usually test my pasta about a minute or two early, just to be safe. Simply fish a piece of pasta out of the pot and place it on your cutting board to cool slightly. Be careful as it will be very hot! I often cut it in half to make it easier to taste. Cutting the pasta will also gives me a sense of how firm it still is and will tell me if it is even close to being ready.
If the pasta seems soft enough, I pop it into my mouth as a final test. It should be chewy without any crunch and no longer taste raw — cooked pasta has an almost sweet flavor. While many people like their pasta al dente, if you like it a little softer and less chewy, then by all means cook your pasta that way!
Additionally, if you are serving it with a saucy sauce such as a bolognese or red sauce, you may want to finish cooking the pasta by simmering it in the sauce for a minute or two. If that's the case, be sure to remove the pasta from the water when it still has a little bit of crunch in the very middle so that it can finish cooking in the sauce without over cooking.
Save a Scoop of Water!
The water that your pasta was cooking in is full of starch and salt. Use this to your advantage and scoop out a cup or so of the cooking water before you drain the pasta. While it doesn't work with all sauces, a little splash of this water can help loosen the sauce — making it saucy, in other words! This works especially well with oil-based sauces such as pesto and creamy sauces such as Alfredo.
Add the pasta and stir to prevent sticking. Bring back to the boil and cook.
How to Cook Pasta
Makes one pound of pasta, enough for 4 to 6 people
What You Need
1 pound dry pasta
4 to 6 quarts water
1 to 2 tablespoon salt
Sauce of choice
6-quart or larger pot
Measuring cups and spoons
Long-handled spoon or tongs
Colander, sieve, or skimmer/spider
- Prepare the sauce: Prepare or heat up your sauce. When your sauce is just about ready, turn it down to low to keep it warm.
- Bring the water to a boil: Fill a pot with water and add salt. Cover the pot and bring the water to a boil.
- Add the pasta: Add the pasta to the boiling water and stir to keep it from sticking.
- Bring the water back to the boil: Bring the pasta back to the boil (you can cover the pot to hasten this process but keep an eye on it as the trapped foam from the pasta can cause it to overflow.)
- Begin timing the pasta: Begin timing your pasta when it comes back to the boil. (If you used a lid, remove it and cook the pasta uncovered.)
- Check the pasta for doneness: About 2 minutes earlier than the package instructions say, start testing your pasta. Carefully remove a piece of pasta with a sieve or fork and place it on your cutting board. Using the knife, cut it in half and check for doneness. Taste a piece. Continue to cook for another minute if needed.
- Remove the pasta from the water: When the pasta has cooked to your liking, turn off the heat. Using a tongs, sieve, or skimmer, lift the pasta out of the water, pausing for a few seconds to drain off most of the water. Transfer the pasta to the pan with the sauce. You will probably have to do this in batches to get all of the pasta out of the water.
Alternatively, place a colander in the sink while the pasta is cooking. When the pasta is done, reserve a cup of cooking water (if needed), drain the pasta and dump it into the sauce.
- Toss and serve. Toss the pasta with the sauce until it is well coated and has finished cooking. Serve and enjoy!
- If you are cooking the pasta for a cold pasta salad, drain the pasta in a colander, rinse with cool water, and drain well. Place pasta in a bowl and toss with a little oil to prevent sticking.
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(Image credits: Dana Velden)