Boiled pasta is the basis of an enormous variety of pasta dishes. In most of them, the pasta is usually cooked in the same manner, regardless of the sauce and other ingredients that will be added to it. Notable exceptions are soups, gnocchi, and baked dishes like lasagna and manicotti, which are not covered here.
The four key “secrets” for cooking a good pasta are: cook in salted water, add the pasta only after the water is boiling, do not undercook or overcook, and drain and cool promptly. One must also be aware that some sauces or other accessories may take longer to prepare than the pasta itself.
On the average, for every 200 grams of pasta, one should use 4 liters (about 17 cups) of cold water and 2 tablespoons of salt. The salt should be added to the water to flavor the pasta. (Although some people believe salt is added because it raises the boiling point of water, thereby cooking the pasta faster, this is not true. The amount of salt being added raises the boiling point of the pasta only a fraction of a degree. The salt is purely for flavor). In addition, some people also add a few drops of Vegetable oil to the water, in order to reduce foaming and the risk of spillovers. It is worth noting, however, that adding oil to pasta water inhibits the ability of the drained pasta to absorb the flavors of any sauce and is generally considered undesirable.
The pot should be large enough for the water level to be one or two inches below the rim. It must also be wide enough to hold the uncooked pasta entirely submerged in the water; long pasta like spaghetti may have to be broken in half to fit a smaller pot.
When to add the pasta
The water should be brought to a boil, stirring. Once the water is vigorously boiling, the pasta should be thrown in, all at once. If the pasta is added to non-boiling water it will turn brown on the edges. The cooking time should be measured from this moment.
When the cold pasta is added to the water, the latter usually stops boiling for a few moments. The stove’s heat should be adjusted so that the water resumes boiling promptly, and stays boiling moderately while the pasta is cooking. The pasta should be kept entirely submerged at all times. (Failure to follow these rules will result in pasta that is partly overcooked and/or partly undercooked.)
Cooking time varies depending on the kind of pasta; usually it is listed on the pasta packaging. Typical times for dry pasta range from 5 minutes for thin spaghettini to 12 minutes or more for some thick varieties. Fresh, egg-based pasta (pasta all’uovo) takes very little time to cook – hardly a minute after the water has returned to a boil; filled pasta like tortellini needs only a few minutes.
The recommended time needs to be increased when cooking pasta at great altitudes, since water will boil at a lower temperature. Also, the cooking time may depend on the brand as well as on the kind of pasta.
The cooking time can be adjusted to vary the firmness of the pasta. The suggested time will usually produce a chewy pasta al dente, favored by connoisseurs but somewhat heavy to digest; a slightly longer time produces softer pasta, which may be more adequate for children. However, care must be taken to not overcook to the point where the pasta turns into a paste.
Testing the pasta
Beginners should probably play it safe and stick to the time given in the box. Experienced cooks test whether the pasta is ready by “fishing” a sample piece out of the boiling water with a slotted spoon and chewing on it. The pasta is ready when it has lost the “flour” taste of uncooked pasta and has become moist and flexible throughout its thickness, but is still firm enough to need chewing.
Drain and serve
When the pasta is cooked, it should be drained promptly with a strainer or colander. To avoid over-drying the pasta, immediately place the pasta on a large plate when it is still dripping a slight amount of water. Quickly mix together with the sauce and other accompaniments. The pasta should be eaten hot within a few minutes, unless the recipe says differently.
Note that the pasta will continue to cook in the colander, so its important you not overcook it in the first place. If you feel you have overcooked the pasta, you can rinse it with cold water to impede the cooking process. However, obviously, you will have cold pasta as a result. Rinsing is a non-optimal solution because it also washes away the starches. Typically, you want starches to help the sauce adhere to the pasta. On the other hand, if you are making a non-sauced pasta such as pierogi, you might want to wash the pasta to prevent them from sticking to one another.
Storing cooked pasta
When preparing a large portion that cannot be served immediately, for example, for a buffet-style meal — it is advisable to cool off the pasta a bit, immediately after draining it. Otherwise the heat still remaining in the pasta may cause it to overcook and stick to itself. This can be done by rinsing the pasta quickly in cold water, or spreading it out on a wide bowl or tray, or tossing it up into the air a few times with the colander.
For the same reason, it is better to allow the pasta get cold, and re-heat it before serving, than trying to keep it hot for a long time. In this case, it should be drained a bit earlier than the optimum point; each portion can be reheated by placing it in a strainer and plunging it for a few seconds into salted boiling water.
Where did I go wrong?
- The pasta came out too mushy: It is mushy because you overcooked the pasta. Alternatively, you drained the pasta when it was perfectly done, but it continued to cook in the strainer.
- The pasta still comes out mushy! Low-quality pasta can be next to impossible to cook properly: as soon as it is no longer undercooked, it becomes mushy. There are many types of flour. Good pasta is usually made with semolina, hard wheat, or durum hard wheat. These qualities of wheat contain little free starch, and more of the endosperm protein that forms the gluten that gives pasta its consistency. Low-quality pasta is often made with flour that has a higher content of free starch grains, so that once it cooks it becomes mushy.
- My recipe called for X-amount of sauce, yet the pasta soaked the sauce up with little leftover: People tend to over-drain their pasta. Drain the pasta when there it is still slightly dripping. Alternatively, add some olive oil to the drained pasta prior to saucing it.
- My pasta is undercooked, yet I followed the directions on the box. The box is a guideline and its advice should be used with caution. The pasta wasn’t cooked for long enough. After adding the pasta, wait for the water to boil again and continue to cook for as long as the box says.
- My ravioli came out a soggy mess and they fell apart. A rolling boil can do damage to filled pasta. Return the pot to a boil after placing in pasta, and turn the heat to medium once a rolling boil is achieved.
- I was told pasta is done when throwing it sticks it against a cabinet. Is this true? This is not true; it simply means your pasta is sufficiently sticky. The center of the pasta could still be raw.
- Does adding oil to the pasta water make it not stick: Water and oil don’t mix when they’re cold, and they don’t mix when they’re hot. Most of the oil will float to the the surface of the boiling water, far away from the pasta you want to protect, but potentially reducing foaming. When you drain the pasta, you dump the oil out first, so little if any oil will touch the pasta.