We Tried 5 Methods for Cooking Dried Pasta and the Winner Is Alton’s Go-To
Cooking pasta is one of the most basic forms of self-care in my kitchen. The meals that my family leans on to comfort us after difficult days (or years — hello, 2020) often begin with a box of dried pasta. You may think there’s only one way to prepare pasta, but there are a wide range of methods that include everything from roasting the noodles in the oven to soaking them in the refrigerator overnight (with no pot of boiling water in sight!).
Every box of dried pasta lists the same instructions — bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add dried pasta, and cook until al dente — but we wanted to know if this is truly the best way to cook dried pasta. We put five techniques to the test to determine once and for all the ultimate method for preparing dried pasta.
How We Tested These Dried Pasta Cooking Methods
We scoured the internet for varied and inventive ways to cook dried pasta, and found five distinctly different methods. We used the same brand of dried spaghetti noodles purchased on the same day from the same store for these tests to control for variability between ingredients. The methods were tested and tasted on the same day in order to perform side-by-side evaluations. Kosher salt was added in the quantity and at the time indicated by each method. In the end, there was one method that is better and faster than what’s on the back of the box.
Pasta Cooking Method: Saucepan Shortcut
- Timing: 13 minutes
- Rating: 1/10
About this method: The goal of this method is to cook pasta in as little water as possible — a third of the five quarts of water that pasta is usually cooked in. Bring about 6 cups of water to a boil in a saucepan. There was no instruction on when or how much salt to add, but since the water was reduced by 1/3, I reduced the salt by 1/3 as well, adding 1 teaspoon kosher salt to the water once it came to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente.
Results: The premise of the method is that cooking pasta in a large quantity of water is excessive, and that pasta can be prepared with just a fraction of the amount of liquid. This method holds promise, but the amount of water is cut too severely. After coming to a boil, it took 2 minutes for the pasta to soften enough to bend and fit inside the saucepan. Then all of the water had evaporated before the pasta cooked to al dente, leaving the — still raw — pasta stuck to the bottom of the pan and to each other.
Takeaways: The theory behind the method is intriguing, but the liquid amount was reduced too severely. Reducing the water by half of the traditional amount (about 2 1/2 quarts) should eliminate the evaporation and sticking issues, while still reducing the overall amount of water required.
Pasta Cooking Method: Roasted and Soaked
- Timing: 40 minutes plus overnight soaking
- Rating: 3/10
About this method: This wildly unconventional method stopped me in my tracks the first time I read about it. Begin by toasting spaghetti strands in a preheated oven (I tested at 350°F) until the noodles darken in color. The spaghetti was toasted after 8 minutes, then cooled for 20 minutes before being submerged in water in a zip-top bag or baking dish. Soak the spaghetti for 10 hours in the refrigerator, then reheat in simmering sauce for 2 to 3 minutes.
Results: The individual strands of spaghetti did not stick together upon soaking, which makes it easy to portion into simmering sauce when it is time to reheat. But overall, this no-boil pasta trick too good to be true. This method requires extensive advance preparation that I can only imagine undertaking if I had no access to boiling water.
Takeaways: This method complicates an otherwise straightforward process. Although the starches hydrate overnight, the flavor is unmistakably chalky with doughy texture. Use this pasta method only if pairing the noodles with a robust, full-flavored sauce.
Pasta Cooking Method: Soak and Cook for One Minute
- Timing: 1 hour 40 minutes
- Rating: 5/10
About this method: The goal of this method is to cut down on the cooking time by soaking the pasta in cold water fist. Soak the pasta strands for 90 minutes to give the noodles time to absorb the moisture without activating the starches. The pasta is pliable but not gummy. Bring water to a boil and cook the soaked noodles for 1 to 2 minutes.
Results: While this method eliminates a majority of the boiling water cook time (about 8 to 9 minutes), there was not an overall reduction in preparation or cook time for this method. In fact, this method takes longer than the traditional method of cooking pasta. The pasta strands did not stick together after soaking and were cooked to al dente in boiling water, but the flavor was slightly chalky.
Takeaways: If you’re looking for a time machine to bring a box of pasta from pantry to plate in literally 1 minute, this is not it. If you are preparing a multi-course meal or are a restaurant line cook, this technique may streamline your workflow. For the everyday cook, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which someone would opt to stand by as pasta soaks, then bring water to a boil, and finally cook it (albeit for just 1 minute) rather than taking the traditional route.
Pasta Cooking Method: Boiled in Salted Water
- Timing: 28 minutes
- Rating: 8/10
About this method: This is the method we all know by heart and the one every brand of dried pasta lists on the back of the box. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil with 1 tablespoon kosher salt in a large pot. Once the water is at a rolling boil, add the pasta, stir to keep it from sticking, and begin timing once the water returns to a boil. Cook until the pasta is al dente, which will depend on the brand and type of pasta you’re cooking. For the spaghetti brand I used, I set the timer for 10 minutes.
Results: Pasta cooked using this method was al dente and well-seasoned. It took 18 minutes for the water to come to a boil, and then another 10 minutes for the spaghetti to cook. The process is the closest thing to a cooking reflex, since it is one I’ve repeated every week since learning how to cook.
Takeaways: While the flavor and texture of pasta prepared with this method are just right, there are drawbacks. The four to six quarts of water that this method requires feels excessive. It takes significant time and energy to heat that quantity of water — almost twice as long as it takes to cook the spaghetti itself. Additionally, most of the pasta water is poured down the drain in the end, save for a small scoopful to loosen sauces.
Pasta Cooking Method: Cold Water Start
- Timing: 22 minutes
- Rating: 10/10
About this method: Alton Brown’s cold water pasta flies in the face of traditional methods. The method calls for 64 ounces (or 2 quarts) of water, about half of what is traditionally used. It also eliminates the extra step of heating the water separately; instead the pasta and cold water are added to a pot at the same time. Cover the pot, bring to a boil, then remove the lid, and simmer until the pasta is al dente.
Results: It took a few minutes for the spaghetti to soften enough to be submerged in the water. The noodles were al dente, right on schedule, after just 4 minutes and 30 seconds of simmering.
Takeaways: The water and pasta go in at the same time, eliminating the block of time reserved for heating water on its own. Since a smaller volume of water is used, that liquid is even more starchy than traditional pasta water — a big bonus for adding to sauces. This method was among the quickest, was straightforward, and resulted in really great tasting pasta.
Turns out, you don’t have to wait for a big pot of water to boil for the best-tasting pasta. The winning method is, in some ways, an amalgamation of all of the best characteristics of the methods tested. The pasta begins in cold water, soaking up the moisture before the heat activates the starches. Starting pasta in a smaller volume of cold water delivered well-seasoned noodles in less time and with extra-starchy cooking liquid that’s perfect for adding to sauces. If you have leftover pasta, you can toss it with a small amount of olive oil — just enough to keep the noodles from sticking together in a solid mass — and refrigerate for three days.
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