Pasta seems like an easy thing to cook — boil, drain, sauce, done — but like any other simple food, making boxed pasta can be complex. We hear the same pasta strictures on repeat: Salt the water (it should taste like the sea), don't break the spaghetti, don't simply ladle on the sauce. You get the idea.
Here's a roadmap for navigating the pitfalls of pasta. In the end, great pasta is both simple and complex — and getting there is pretty easy.
7 Things I Always Do When Making Boxed Pasta
1. Use good-quality noodles.
You can't make good pasta from bad pasta. Although pasta is simply flour, water, and maybe egg, the process of sourcing these base materials and mixing, extruding, and drying them is complex. Over the years, many Italian producers* have mastered the alchemy of making dry pasta. But there are good pastas extruded at boutique shops in the States, and surprisingly good factory-made pastas available at a lower price point.
De Cecco makes reliable noodles for $3 a box or less. When considering a new brand of pasta you've never used before, look at the noodles. Do they have rough, dry-looking slopes and edges with a coat of what looks like thin chalk dust? Let's hope so. Such an exterior hints that pasta has been pushed through dies, a process which, when the time comes, coaxes sauce into tight clinging.
*Afeltra and Setaro are two. Any brand from the dry noodle Mecca of Gragnano, Italy, should do the trick.
2. Think about sauce and shape pairings.
Some pasta shapes are perfect for specific sauces. Tagliatelle is made for Bolognese sauce. Bucatini was born for Amatriciana and a few others. These traditions are the result of countless meals — a result of how, as generations cooked over centuries, things shook out.
But nothing kills the warm buzz of cooking like too many rules. If you cook Bolognese with orecchiette, will your life end? Probably not.
Shape-to-sauce guidelines should be abstract. All you really have to do is think a little. Will that hefty, chewy, hollow bucatini pair well with a dainty clam sauce or a thin film of just garlic and oil? Maybe not. Will the ridges on rigatoni trap more vodka sauce per bite? Oh yeah.
3. Pull it before it's al dente.
Pasta continues to cook once off the heat; the internal heat of the noodle will continue to slowly push that noodle toward softness after it has been removed from its water. To account for this continued cooking, we need to remove noodles from water early — even earlier than when it's al dente.
Just how early? To nail the timing, we must also consider the next point.
4. Finish it in a pan of simmering sauce.
The best way to imbue your pasta with flavor, to really drill the essence of your sauce deep into the noodle's soul, is to finish pasta in sauce over considerable heat. After you drain your pasta, add that pasta to a heated pan containing your sauce. With one hand, grip the handle of your skillet as you vigorously toss the pasta, with tongs, into the sauce. Keep going for a good 30 seconds.
Heat is what seals most happy marriages of sauce and noodle.
You can add some pasta water to the sauce before finishing if your sauce looks thin. The flavor you get from finishing in this manner can be explosive. Now that we are finishing over added heat (that of the sauce and pan), the importance of removing pasta from its cooking water before the noodles have fully cooked becomes clearer. Not only does pasta continue to cook from its own heat, but it also continues its slide toward softness due to the external heat of the sauce and pan.
A caveat: You might not want to finish all pastas this way. Pasta destined to be coated in a raw sauce, such as pesto, may be best mixed in raw. Also, some dairy-based sauces may clump or otherwise morph strangely over higher heat.
5. Add finishing touches.
Once your dry pasta has been cooked, sauced, and plated, it's time for the final step: finishing with added ingredients.
Pasta luminary Marcella Hazan suggests finishing pastas coated in oil-based sauces with one last glug of olive oil, and pastas in butter-based sauces with more butter. Approach this step as you would adding salt; the flavor this method draws out intensifies in proportion to the quality of your oil or butter. Slick your pasta with buffalo butter and you may soar to a new plane of flavor. Finish with heady olive oil from a region like Sicily or Umbria, and you may never forget to finish with oil again.
The universe of finishers is wide. Cheeses, shaved orange or lemon rind, bread crumbs (for flavor, salt, and crunch), and colatura (a non-Italian fish sauce, like Red Boat, can pinch hit for colatura nicely) are all fair game.
6. Eat pasta piping hot.
The greatest challenge of pasta cookery is how rapidly pasta's flavor disintegrates. The window for eating pasta is so small, the time pasta is at full flavor so ephemeral. Pasta is best eaten the very instant it is ready. As the seconds pass, pasta loses flavor at a rate that almost feels exponential. You have to eat your noodles newborn and steaming.
This is difficult. This is why I try to make sure that pasta is the last dish on the table. This is why I try to get people seated a few minutes before the pasta is ready. This may sound crazy, but 90 seconds can be the difference between an ethereal carbonara and something more like Alfredo from a corner pizzeria.
7. Remind myself that I'm eating a gloriously fun food!
Pasta is up there with Japanese sushi, Mexican tacos, and American barbecue as one of the world's great foods. It's a blast to eat, and the possibilities are not only endless, but also endlessly inspiring.
If you ever find yourself stressing about how to cook pasta, or how your spaghetti will taste, just take a step back, relax, remember what you're eating, and smile.