Ten Tips For Cooking Pasta…Perfectly

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There is an old saying about pasta that goes like this: “cooked pasta waits for no one.” Most people I know think that they have the technique down of how to cook pasta, even understanding the nebulous “al dente” phrase for when it is really cooked.  And since pasta is Italy’s national dish and loved by people worldwide, here are ten tips that just might make you change a few things in the way that you buy and cook it.

1)    Buy pasta that is made from 100% semolina, a hard wheat flour that is necessary for pasta to hold up in the cooking process. Many good Italian brands are on the market so look on the package and if the product is made from “enriched flour” instead of semolina, don’t buy it.

2)    Use a large pot and at least 4 quarts of water for every pound of pasta; pasta expands as it cooks and needs the proper amount of water to cook correctly

3)    Salt the water after it comes to a boil and before you put the pasta in. The salt will dissolve more readily. You need 1 tablespoon of salt per pound of pasta; not using it will leave a bland tasting product.

4)    Do not add oil when cooking pasta; this will only result in coating the pasta and making it difficult for the sauce to adhere. If you use enough water to begin with, pasta will not stick.

5)    Pasta is cooked when you can fish a piece out of the water, cut it in half and look to see if there is any white uncooked flour remaining in the center. If not, then it is cooked. My rule for cooking dry store bought pasta is to bring the water to a rapid boil; stir in the pasta and bring the water back to a boil. Put on the lid and turn the heat off. Set the timer for 7 minutes. Works beautifully for cuts like spaghetti, ziti, rigatoni and other short cuts of pasta. Saves energy too.

6)    Drain the pasta but reserve about ¼ cup of the cooking water to mix with your sauce. The water is starchy and will help the sauce adhere.

7)    After draining the pasta, return it to the pasta pot or to the sauce pan, which should be large enough to toss the pasta to lightly coat it and not drown it with sauce.

8)    Use the right sauce with the right pasta; short cuts like rigatoni, ziti and spaghetti can handle a chunky tomato sauce while more delicate pasta like angel hair are better with lighter sauces like garlic, oil and black pepper

9)    There is much debate over how many people a pound of pasta serves. In Italy that would be 8 because it is served as a first course. If we followed this practice there would be no need for the pasta police to tell us that it is a forbidden carb with consequences. If you consult the Mediterranean diet pyramid, pasta is one of the foods you should eat in moderation.

10)  Try whole wheat pasta which is becoming more and more popular and has a nutty flavor that pairs well with sauces such as caper and tuna or olive based ones.

User Comments

RoseMarieCulhane's avatar

RoseMarieCulhane said on May 21, 2012

when I saw your recipe for pizza on T.V You used a flour I have never heard of. Can I use another brand because I cannot find the one you used. My Dad was born in Bari Italy.I learned to cook by standing on a chair watching my Dad cook. He always made the Sunday Gravy with braciolla,meatballs,pork and beef meat. Iam now 73years old and I sure miss my PaPa. Thank God for the good old days. God Bless you. You bring many memories back from my childhood. Thank You, RoseMarie Rutigliano, Culhane
Mary Ann Esposito's avatar

Mary Ann Esposito said on May 21, 2012

RoseMarie,

The flour I used was Caputo or Italian 00 flour.You find Italian 00 flour wherever King Arthur flour is sold or look on line Caputo flour is available on line
Vicki Bensinger's avatar

Vicki Bensinger said on May 26, 2012

There's been debate about reusing pasta water. I've read that many restaurants reuse their pasta water, cooking pasta in it over and over then saving the water which they claim to be culinary gold because of the amount of starch in the water. Then using small amounts to add to the sauce which helps to adhere the sauce to the pasta.

What is your opinion on that? Do you ever use the same water to cook more pasta in it and if so numerous times or not?

I've heard that some have thought of bottling the starchy water and selling it.

I look forward to your reply.
Mary Ann Esposito's avatar

Mary Ann Esposito said on May 27, 2012

Vicki
It is true that pasta water has a lot of starch and it is a common practice to add a little of that water to the sauce to help give cling to the pasta but I have not seen anyone I know use the water multiple times. It is not a bad idea though, since I use the whey leftover from cheese making in my dough recipes. Obviously, restaurants might use this method for practical purposes.