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Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell
Kitchn Cooking School

How to Be a Cook Who Is a Pro at Pasta and Noodles

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If the extent of your interaction with pasta in the kitchen is a pound of the dry stuff and a jar of red sauce, then get ready: There’s so much more to the world of noodles, and you’re going to learn it today.

Why Noodles?

Noodles, like grains or beans, are a food group where most people have one type (or possibly two) that they cook and eat over and over. And their technique for preparing it is so well-worn that they barely give it much thought. This is a shame: Not only are there many kinds of noodles available to cook with, but there are also many basic techniques for cooking dried wheat noodles (like Italian pasta) that will result in a far superior dish. But then there are also other sorts of noodles, like rice noodles, that if you’re not cooking yet you really should be.

Start Here: Noodle Basics

Dried and fresh pasta: Most people are familiar with dried pasta, which comes in many, many (many, many) shapes. Fresh pasta, including stuffed tortellini and ravioli, is often for sale in the refrigerated section of stores, but it’s easy to make at home and comes together quicker than you might think. It can feel extra fancy, and cooks up lightning-quick. When eggs are included, fresh pasta has a rich flavor and pleasingly chewy texture.

Credit: Joe Lingeman
Short chunky noodles for chunky sauces.

Pasta shapes: It can be hard to keep track of all the names of pasta shapes, and even experts occasionally confuse their ferrazuoli for their fileja. But here’s a great rule of thumb: If you’re making a chunky sauce, use short, shaped noodles that can hold the chunks. If you’re making a smooth, creamy sauce, use long, smooth noodles.

Credit: Joe Lingeman
Smooth noodles for smooth creamy sauces.

Other kinds of noodles: Italian pastas aren’t the only noodles out there, of course! Noodles were famously invented in China and there are dozens of varieties, all of which are delicious. Some of our favorites are soba noodles (made from buckwheat), udon noodles (thicker and made from wheat), ramen noodles (wheat noodles made with an alkaline water, which gives them their springiness), and rice noodles of all kinds. Many of these noodles (udon and ramen, for instance) taste best in soup. But they’re great in stir-fries and cold salads as well.

The Age-Old Pasta Cooking Method

All noodles cook by absorbing water. Most are dunked in salted, boiling water and cooked until tender. Use a lot of water so that the pasta has room to bob around, and give it plenty of salt. You can (and should) taste the (cold) water before heating it up, to make sure it’s salty enough: Pasta water should be salty like the sea, as the Italian saying goes. The reason for this? It seasons noodles from the inside out. Pasta will taste flat, even in a good sauce, if the pasta itself isn’t seasoned well.

One way to check whether pasta is done — especially with long noodles — is to pull one out and break it in half. If the noodle has just a dot of uncooked white in the center, it’s what the Italians call “al dente” and it’s ready. This is because the hot noodles will continue to cook a little even out of the water. If you wait until they’re fully done in the water, they’ll end up overcooked on the plate. If you’re unsure, err on the side of undercooked — you can always cook them a little more.

Cooking Rice Noodles, Soba, and Udon

Rice noodles are delicious in stir-fries, soups, and cold salads, and they’re very simple to prepare. They vary in size and thickness, and each package will have different instructions, but often you just need to let them sit, covered in freshly boiled water for a period of time, until they soften. If the package directions are confusing, or unclear (which can often happen if the instructions are translated) just pull out one to taste it occasionally, and finish when they’re tender and limp, but not mushy. Although it’s not traditional (or necessary) to cook rice noodles in salted water, we still recommend it. The salt will pleasantly season them, and it won’t affect their tenderness. If you’re using the noodles in a stir-fry or salad, you will want to rinse them off afterward. This will keep them from sticking together.

Soba noodles are made mostly or entirely from buckwheat, and are typically eaten cold in salads, or hot in soup, although they’re also delicious plain and dipped in a little cold soba sauce. They’re typically easy to cook: The one tip is that they should be dunked in an ice-water bath immediately after boiling so they don’t overcook and fall apart. And save the soba water! If you add a little warm soba water to the dipping sauce, it makes a delicious soup.

Udon noodles are made from wheat, but are much thicker than their Italian brethren and are also great in soups and stir-fries (sensing a pattern here?). You can buy udon that are not fully dried — they come sealed in packages and are stored in the fridge. We recommend this, only because they’re much easier to cook and the dried variety don’t offer any taste advantages. Cook according the package directions, and be sure to rinse them off as well, so they don’t stick.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

If You Learn Just One Thing Today …

The next time you’re making spaghetti and red sauce (or any pasta and any sauce), pull it out of the water at least one to two minutes before the package directs, and transfer it straight from the water to a pan or skillet of simmering sauce, to finish cooking. This has two major effects on the resulting dish. The first is that you keep a lot of the starch (that makes noodles stick to each other when you drain them and let them sit too long), and that starch will help the sauce stick to the noodles. Second, by cooking the noodles for a couple of minutes in the sauce, you’re effectively letting the sauce season them — so that they’re extra flavorful inside and out.

And a side tip: Reserve a scoop of pasta water from the pot just before draining it. This sounds counterintuitive, but a few splashes added to the pan of simmering sauce and noodles will actually thicken the sauce — and of course help it cling to the noodles even better. 

What You Don’t Need to Do

Two habits common to many cooks are actually detrimental when it comes to making a delicious dish: adding oil to the pasta water, and rinsing the noodles under the faucet after cooking them.

Both of these habits likely came from cooks trying to keep pasta from sticking together, but as noted above it’s both easier and more effective to use the sticky behavior of starchy pasta water to help sauce cling to your noodles. When you either add oil or rinse pasta, you’re just making the noodles slippery, and making it likely everyone will have big piles of sauce left over on their plates when they’re done with dinner.

Both guidelines have an exception, however. Rinsing is actually a good idea any time you’re using noodles for a stir-fry, or when you’re making a cold pasta salad. In both instances, the noodles will be sitting together long enough to clump, and it’s worth giving them a good, thorough rinse under cool water — and adding some oil. And you also add oil to the water when you make one-pot pastas — more on that, below.

Level Up! Noodle Pro Tips

Ready to get next-level? Let’s talk about making one-pot pasta dishes! Just as you can cook grains like pasta (in a big pot of bubbling water), you can cook pasta like grains by using an exact ratio of noodles to water. The advantages of this method might not be immediately clear, but what it means is that you can combine all the ingredients for a single dish into one pot, and make a rich, delicious pasta dish — often in just 15 to 20 minutes.

As we noted above, pasta water is full of starchy goodness. So one of the reasons this works so well is that the smaller amount of pasta water cooks down into rich, thick sauce, flavored by whatever ingredients you throw into the pot. Note: This won’t work as well with gluten-free or non-wheat pastas, as they are predictably much less starchy.

The basic ratio is 4 1/2 cups water to 12 ounces of long noodles. You’ll want to season the water with salt and pepper and add aromatics like garlic and whatever other ingredients you want to include in your sauce — anything from shrimp and kale to mushrooms and pesto to sausage and artichokes are fair game. Here are five great variations to try.

In this dish, you’ll also want to include a couple of tablespoons of a nice olive oil. This is partly for flavor but also, quite likely, to keep the pasta from binding together in all that starchy sauce.

Our Favorite Gear

We have recommendations for basic gear on our equipment checklist, but here are a few more tools specifically for vegetables that can save time, and frustration.

  • Pasta machine isn’t necessary for making your own, but it’s not expensive and you can make a much wider variety of fresh noodle shapes with it. We also love this electric version, and if you have a KitchenAid mixer you can even get attachments.
  • High-sided skillet that’s big enough to toss both sauce and pasta together (or to cook a one-pot dish) is also useful.
  • A good way to toss pasta directly from the water into the pot is with a pair of tongs (for long noodles) or a tool called a spider (for short-shaped pasta), which is essentially a strainer on a long handle.

5 Foundational Noodle Recipes

All of our assignments have three options, depending on how much time you have today. Do what you can; come back for more later!

15-Minute Assignment: Watch & Read

If you haven’t yet, watch the crash course video above. After that, read these basic primers. If you could pick just one thing from all this information, what would you like to try first?

30-Minute Assignment: Practice!

Make a simple but delicious pasta cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper). Practice properly seasoning the water, and using reserved water to make the sauce. Be sure to taste the salted water in the pot until it tastes like seawater. Remove half the pasta two minutes before the package suggests, and set aside. Cook the rest as instructed, remove (reserving some water), and then make the sauce. When the sauce is ready, divide it in half. Now cook the first noodles with half the sauce, remove, and cook the second noodles with the remainder of the sauce.

Check your work: Before eating, pick up some of each noodles and examine them. Does the sauce cling to the noodles? Now taste. Write down your best description of the taste and the texture of both noodles. What differences do you notice? Which tastes more pleasing? Which method do you prefer?

60-Minute Assignment: Stretch Yourself

Make a pasta sauce from scratch. You can choose between any of these five basic sauces, or use Marcella Hazan’s classic marinara. Let the sauce cook together, and then make your pasta. Again, practice properly salting the water. Undercook the noodles by one to two minutes and finish them in the sauce.

Check your work: Before eating, pick up some of the noodles and examine. Does the sauce cling? Now taste. Write down your best description of the taste and the texture of the sauce. What do you notice? How does this taste different than jarred sauce?

What It Takes to Be a Noodle Expert

The wonderful thing about practicing making noodles is it gives you an excuse to make lots and lots of noodles. One of the best ways to get more confident is to ignore the cook times on packages of noodles and begin tasting your pasta every few minutes as it cooks — both in the water and in the sauce, to see how it changes. You’ll soon get a feel for your ideal noodle texture, and how long it takes to get there.

Meet Your Classmates

Follow your fellow classmates and share your questions and progress on Instagram and Twitter with #kitchncookingschool.

You can also join your Kitchn Cooking School cohort in our Kitchn Facebook group, which is devoted to all things Cooking School this month.

Credit: Kitchn