For as long as I've cooked pasta, I've cooked it just like everyone else — bring a pot of water to a boil, dump in noodles, cook until al dente, drain, and toss in the sauce of choosing. Things were going along swimmingly (I was eating great pasta at home) until I learned I could be eating even better pasta.
You see, you may have noticed that your favorite Italian restaurant always seems to make their pasta taste just a tiny bit better than yours — the pasta seems to be cooked more perfectly and it's more well-coated in the sauce. Turns out there's one thing they do differently that matters a whole lot: They undercook it.
A Case for Undercooking Your Pasta
Toss everything you know about cooking pasta out the window. The secret to the best bowl of pasta is to actually undercook it when it's in boiling water and then finish cooking it in the skillet of simmering sauce. You see, your spaghetti and marinara want to fall in love with each other, but when you just toss one into another, they sort of just mingle instead of marry.
Let the spaghetti finish cooking in the marinara, however, and it will absorb some of the flavorful sauce. Add a big splash of pasta water to the situation too; since it contains starch from the spaghetti, it will actually help thicken the marinara slightly so that the noodles are well-coated instead of the sauce sinking to the bottom of your bowl in a liquidy pool. Armed with that tip, here's the method to memorize.
The 3-Step Method for Cooking Better Pasta
1. Boil the pasta 1 minute before al dente.
Take whatever your box of pasta says to cook it to al dente and shave off a minute — set the timer for that number instead. Your pasta will be a little too firm to eat when you drain it, but trust that it will be perfect once you're finished with it.
2. Save some of that pasta water.
Before you drain your pasta, scoop out about a cup of water from the pot and reserve it. You likely will only use a splash or two of this water, but it's good to have more than you need on hand just in case.
3. Finish cooking the pasta in simmering sauce.
Bring the sauce you're using to a simmer in a skillet or in the empty pot you used to boil your pasta. Or, for many recipes, you already have a mixture of good things sautéed in a skillet on the stove waiting for your pasta. Dump the undercooked noodles into the pan along with a big splash of pasta water.
Maintain a simmer on the stove and toss the noodles continuously in the sauce. The sauce will thicken and start to coat the pasta. If things look like they're drying out before the pasta is cooked to al dente, add another splash or two of pasta water and continue to toss, toss, toss. Pull it off the stove, serve, and commend yourself for cracking the restaurant pasta code.