How to make perfect pasta in 9 easy steps

January 20, 2011

Fettuccine Carbonara

I know, I know. Cooking pasta is, literally, as simple as boiling water.

But the truth is that a lot of people have a lot of questions and a lot of misconceptions about it. So, in the interest of perfect pasta, let’s take it one step at a time.

1. Start with plenty of boiling water

Lots and lots of water will keep your pasta from sticking together. A good rule of thumb is 4 quarts per pound of pasta. So far, so good, right?

2. Add salt

Here’s where I start to blow your mind. Salt your pasta water! Use enough salt to make it taste like the ocean. Yes, the ocean. This will take about 1 tablespoon of coarse kosher salt, or 1 1/2 teaspoons of finely ground salt, per quart of water. But don’t measure – practice seasoning and tasting. You know what the ocean tastes like.

(Remember once when you were a kid, you were at the beach, and you inadvertently swallowed a mouthful of ocean? Well, now that previously-negative experience can help you cook great pasta!)

Why salt your pasta water? Because it’ll season your pasta. You’ll be surprised at how salt in the pasta water takes pasta from being merely a blank slate that holds sauce to a flavor note that contributes to the entire dish. Especially in the simplest pasta dishes – just pasta, fresh tomatoes, and olive oil, say – seasoning the pasta water will really make a difference.

And I know that “salty as the ocean” is a lot of salt. Don’t freak out. Most of it gets strained off and goes down the drain – and it really takes that much salt for enough to get into the pasta during cooking.

(A side note. Pretty much any time you boil something in water, then drain the water, it’s a good idea to make the water as salty as the ocean. Blanched vegetables. Boilied potatoes. Etc. They’ll all get seasoned through and through and taste loads better.)

3. Don’t add oil

This is another mind-blower one for some. Yes, oil in the water will help the pasta from sticking together. But it’s also true that oil will keep the sauce from sticking to the pasta.

Check it out. If you were to look at a piece of cooked pasta with a magnifying glass, you’d see that the surface is rough with swollen starches. Those rough surfaces are great for sauce to cling to. If you add oil, though, those surfaces will be more smooth. Not great for sauce to cling to.

So instead of adding oil to the water, simply use plenty of water (see #1).

4. Add pasta and stir

Add your pasta, give it a stir to keep it from sticking together, and stir again every few minutes for the same reason. If the pasta is too long to fit into the pot, either break it in half beforehand, or simply let it stick out the top for a few seconds until it’s softened, then gently ease it in with a long-handled spoon.

5. Cook until al dente

Here’s another one that makes people crazy. And by “people” I mean Italian chefs and cooking teachers. Most are quite vehement in their opinion that it is absolutely wrong to overcook pasta. But perhaps because I’m not Italian, I’m not as passionate about this one.

So let me say that I’ve heard “al dente” explained two ways. The most common explanation is that it means “to the tooth,” as in the pasta should be tender but still have a little bite, a little chewiness.

The explanation I like better, though, is that “al dente” means “to your tooth.” As in, it’s done whenever it’s cooked to your liking.

Salt in the water? I’ll swear by it. Leaving out the oil? I’ll swear by that, too. Al dente pasta? It’s up to you.

6. Meanwhile, make sure your sauce is ready

When pasta is just-cooked and just-drained, it’s at its hottest and most ready to absorb sauce. So the rule of thumb is that you always want your sauce waiting for your pasta and not the other way around.

In other words, start your sauce whenever you need to so that it’s ready before the pasta is.

7. Drain

Simple enough, right? But here’s an idea. Don’t shake the pasta to within an inch of its life trying to squeak out every last drop of water. That water is nicely seasoned. If there’s a little still on the pasta, it’ll enhance your sauce, not water it down. Relax with the shaking already.

And a tip. Some recipes (like this one for Fettuccine Carbonara with Broccolini, pictured in this post) instruct you to save some pasta cooking water before draining. To help me remember to do this, I put my strainer in the sink and then sit a measuring cup in the strainer – so I can’t help but bump into the measuring cup and remember to save a little water before draining.

8. Don’t rinse

Another one that might surprise you. Don’t rinse your nice, hot, just-drained pasta.

For one, it’ll cool the pasta down, which will make it less likely to absorb the sauce (see #6). And two, rinsing washes away the nice shaggy surface on the pasta that helps sauce stick (see #3).

Even if I’m making a pasta salad, a dish that’ll ultimately be served cold, I don’t rinse. Instead, I toss the hot pasta with the dressing – so the dressing will soak in and flavor the pasta – and then I set it aside at room temperature, giving it a stir every few minutes to help cool it off.

9. Toss, or top, with sauce.

And there you have it – perfect pasta!


A disclaimer

I realize that some of you learned how to cook pasta from your mother, or your grandmother, and gosh-darnit, grandma always put oil in her pasta cooking water – or otherwise did something that’s contrary to the steps above.

And who am I to tell you that your grandmother was wrong? Or to rob you of the opportunity to feel close to her by putting oil in your pasta water?

So, if it makes you happy to ignore any of the above, especially if it evokes a cooking memory of someone that you love, by all means do what makes you happy.

Perfect pasta isn’t rocket science. And it’s not critical. But these steps – including doing what makes you happy – are the little things that can make the difference between a good dish and a great one.

Buon appetito!


8 thoughts on “How to make perfect pasta in 9 easy steps

  1. Babette

    Ha! I am teaching a pasta making class and after we MAKE the pasta the one BIGGIE I am stressing? THE NO RINSE STEP.

    I’m a no oiler, too.

    I like your style, Jill!

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  3. Chef John

    Get tips! But, with all due respect…#9. Top with sauce?

    In some rare cases, yes, but I’ve always thought the “mix hot sauce with pasta in pot and let sit for a minute” was the most important step of all.

    The sauce is absorbed a bit by the hot pasta in the pot, and then served together. It never really mixes as well on the plate.

  4. wgfoodie

    Love the tips. The two things that make me cringe and hold my tongue when I see others cooking are a). walking away (resulting in a sticky/tough mess), b). draining under cold water. With a close c). not going directly from drain to pot and serving a cold, dried up pasta with sauce. :)

  5. Jill Post author

    In my defense, John, I said “toss, or top, with sauce” – but your point is well taken about not mixing well on the plate. Sometimes I kind of like that – because I can design each bite with whatever proportions of sauce and pasta that I want – but tossing pasta and sauce in the pot before serving usually does make the most sense.

  6. Jill Post author

    I know what you mean, wgfoodie – sometimes it’s hard to be a kitchen bystander! I have a hard time holding my tongue when I see people use a knife less than ideally.

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