I like pasta. I’d like to help people make better pasta. It pains me to think about all the poorly prepared pasta being served and eaten in America. My advice will focus on plain old store-bought dried pasta. Nothing fancy. You’ve probably made some yourself.
I’m specifically not talking about preparing or cooking fresh pasta, how to execute any particular pasta recipe, or why you should never, ever buy pasta sauce in a jar. (You really shouldn’t, though.) This is just about the basics: how to cook and serve dried pasta as part of some larger recipe, the details of which are out of scope, for now.
Here’s my advice, in no particular order.
Do not overcook your pasta.
Please, I beg you, do not overcook your pasta. Every time you serve a pile of starchy, gelatinous mush, an Italian grandmother sheds a single, silent tear. Overcooking is by far the most common pasta sin in America. (As evidence, consider that Olive Garden, the gold standard for incorrectly prepared Italian food, intentionally overcooks its pasta.)
These days, the cooking times on most boxes of dried pasta are in the ballpark, but there are exceptions. Boxed macaroni and cheese and other “children’s” pasta products routinely have cooking times that should be cut in half. But even in the best case, cooking times are just estimates. The actual cooking time will depend on the temperature and humidity of your kitchen, the mass and thermal conductivity of your cookware, the power of your cooktop, and on and on.
As you gain experience, you’ll be able to tell when pasta is ready by “feel” (with a pair of tongs or a stirring spoon). But the old fashioned way is still the most reliable: taste a piece. Drop the pasta in the boiling water (see the next section for more on that), set a timer for 1-2 minutes less than the time on the box of your trusted dried pasta brand, and start tasting when it goes off.
There’s an old saying about cooking eggs: done in the pan, overdone on the plate. The same goes for pasta. It will continue to cook after you remove it from the pot, and even more so when you put it directly into another hot pan or combine it with other hot, moist ingredients.
Dried pasta in hot water cooks from the outside in. The very last part to be cooked is the part that’s the least accessible to the hot water (e.g., the “knot” in the middle of a farfalle bow tie). Once the pasta is “cooked through,” meaning there’s no longer any trace of hard, dried pasta at the center, you’ve probably already waited too long to take it out of the water.
Here’s a good heuristic for string-shaped pasta like spaghetti. Fold the pasta back on itself and pinch it near the end, forming a small loop where it makes a u-turn. If that loops closes easily and completely collapses on itself, leaving no hole at all, you’ve waited too long to remove it from the water.
One last tip on cooking times. Pasta with a lot of surface area (e.g., rotini) cooks faster, and it also overcooks faster. It can take only a few seconds to go from “just right” to “too late.” Be aware of your pasta shape. The more surface area, the smaller the margin for error.
I’m going to continue to my next point, but cooking time will come up again. If you learn only one thing from reading this, it should be that doneness is the most complicated, difficult, and important aspect of cooking pasta.
Cook your pasta in a sufficient amount of boiling, salted water.
How much is a “sufficient” amount? A good rule of thumb is 4-6 quarts of water for each pound of dried pasta. (Most boxes of dried pasta are 1 pound.) You can probably get away with using less, but I think that leads to a pot that feels too crowded.
Fill your pot with cold water from the tap. Hot water is more likely to pick up unpleasant stuff from the pipes. Salt the water until it tastes like the ocean1. (If you don’t know what ocean water tastes like, please take a break now and find out. This blog post will be here when you return.) Nothing other than salt needs to be in the water. Do not add oil.
I’ve heard people say they add oil to the water to prevent the pasta from sticking to itself. This is misguided on multiple levels. First, the pasta will spend most of its time below the surface of the water, far from the oil which will all stay on the surface of the water. Second, you want pasta’s natural, starchy surface to be exposed upon exiting the water so the pasta can absorb the flavorful ingredients you’re about to combine it with. An oil coating would impair that.
As with most kitchen myths, there is a kernel of truth behind the notion of oil in the pasta water: pasta that sticks together is bad. You do not want pasta to stick to other pieces of pasta, or to any part of the pot you’re boiling it in. But the solution to this problem is simple: stir the pasta at a few key points during the cooking process.
Stir right after you dump the pasta into the water. Adding the pasta will decrease the temperature of the water, and may even take it off the boil. This is fine, but it does mean that the bubbling action won’t be there to keep the pasta from settling to the bottom and sticking to itself or the hot surface of the pot.
Stir again as the boil comes back, to confirm that the pieces really are all separate and not sticking to each other. With any luck, the bubbles will keep everything moving and all the pieces of pasta separated for the rest of the cooking time.
Long, stringy pasta shapes require the most stirring later in the cooking process because you can’t agitate them well until they become pliable, and at that point they may have been pressing up against their neighbor strands in hot water for a while. Be vigilant. If a few get away from you, tongs can help separate strands once the boil is rolling along again.
(And please, do not break long, stringy pasta. Cook and eat it at its natural length. You’ll figure out the fork-twirling thing with a little practice.)
Finish cooking your pasta in the sauce.
Pasta should go directly from the hot water where it (mostly) cooked into a vessel where it will be combined with the rest of the ingredients in the finished dish. It could be a traditional tomato sauce, olive oil with garlic, or a complicated multi-ingredient mixture. Whatever it is, the pasta must immediately meet it.
You should use a colander if it will take more than 15 seconds to fish out the pasta with tongs or other utensils. Remember, it’s still cooking! If you do use a colander, do not rinse your pasta. Just think of the colander as a really large utensil for separating the pasta from the water and bringing it to its next vessel.
When combining the pasta with the other ingredients, try to coat each and every piece of pasta. If possible, undercook the pasta slightly (i.e., leave a tiny bit of uncooked dry pasta at the center) and really finish cooking it in the sauce. This is most practical when combining a small amount of pasta with a sauce prepared in a very wide pan, preferably one that contains some liquid. If liquid is lacking, a bit of the water that the pasta cooked in can be added. (A splash of starchy pasta water is a common liquid thickener in many simple pasta recipes.)
Sauce your pasta, but don’t over-sauce it.
In case this doesn’t go without saying, if there’s a large volume of sauce, like a giant simmering pot of tomato sauce, don’t dump the pasta into it. You will need some other pot or pan in which to mix the pasta and just the right amount of sauce.
Once the hot water has been removed from it, the pot the pasta cooked in makes the perfect mixing vessel (and you won’t have to dirty another pot). You may want to put a ladle full of sauce in the bottom of the pot before you dump the freshly drained pasta into it, lest a few pieces stick to the hot bottom. Ladle in more sauce a bit at a time and mix until every piece of pasta is coated.
It seems to be the inclination of Americans to put on too much sauce, so when in doubt, under-do it. Sauce should touch every piece of pasta, but that doesn’t mean every piece should be covered with an opaque red coating.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the bowl of pale, virgin pasta with a giant mound of tomato sauce on top of it—a tasteless starch ball with a red hat. This is almost as big a sin as overcooking (and is usually combined with it, naturally).
Remember, sauce (or oil or whatever) must touch every piece. You have to mix it in before serving. Yes, even if you plan to provide more sauce on the side for people to add. If you learn only two things from reading this, let the second be that you must never, ever serve a single piece of pasta that looks like it just came out of hot water and never touched another ingredient.
Pasta should be served in warm bowls.
If you plan to put the pasta in a large serving bowl, warm that bowl, and also warm all the individual bowls for each place setting. The easiest way to warm bowls is to pour the hot pasta water into them. If using a colander, line the bottom of your sink with bowls (stacking if necessary) and put the colander into one of them. Then pour the pasta water into the bowls, ending by pouring the last of the water and the pasta itself into the colander. If you have a fancy “warming drawer,” that works too. But you’re going to have a bunch of hot water on hand anyway, so you might as well use it.
This may all sound crazy—warm bowls? really?—but trust me, it makes a difference. Putting hot, freshly sauced pasta into a massive, cold, ceramic dish will instantly suck the life out of it. Warm bowls. Seriously.
Serve and eat immediately.
Baked pasta dishes are an exception; they almost always need to rest a while before serving. But hot pasta mixed with sauce or other ingredients and not put into an oven must be served and eaten as soon as it’s ready. This usually means that the pasta shouldn’t even be dropped into the hot water until everyone is in the process of coming to the table. Some dishes can stand up to a few minutes on the table in a (warm) serving bowl, but the clock is ticking.
If this all sounds pedantic and overwrought, well, it is. But like anything else in cooking, it all becomes second nature if repeated enough times. Just note your mistakes each time and try to do the opposite next time.
I’m sure there are people reading this who have literally never undercooked pasta in their lives. Try that next time. See if you can intentionally undercook some pasta. You may find it harder than you think. Once you’ve done that, go back in the other direction. Eventually, you’ll home in on “just right.”
It’s often the case that the simpler the food, the more important the ingredients and the preparation techniques become. This is true for eggs, and it’s definitely true for pasta.
And speaking of ingredients, please do buy the best you can afford when making pasta dishes. Dried pasta itself is incredibly inexpensive, and you shouldn’t be smothering it in sauce. Spend your money on a little bit of good olive oil, fresh garlic, and real cheese. Yes, parmigiano reggiano is over $20 per pound these days, but a little goes a long way. And when that freshly grated cheese hits the hot surface of that perfectly cooked pasta sitting in its warmed bowl, you’ll know it’s all been worth it.
Bonus tip: pasta in soups.
Many soup recipes include pasta: elbow macaroni, tiny stars, wide noodles, etc. Pasta will overcook in soup just as easily as it will overcook in water. To prevent this, cook the pasta ahead of time, undercooking it slightly. After removing the pasta from the water, do something I just told you never to do: rinse the pasta in cold water to stop the cooking process, coat it in olive oil to prevent it from sticking to itself, then set it aside.
When the time comes to serve the soup, add just the right amount of pasta to each individual bowl. The (relatively) cool pasta will warm up quickly in the hot soup, and finish cooking through by the time the first bite is taken. It will also help lower the temperature of the soup sightly, making it easier to eat with less blowing and potential tongue burning.