Pasta is one of the most popular foods in the world and yet, it can be frustratingly difficult to get it right.
The best thing about al dente pasta is what chefs refer to as “the mouth feel”… that delectable combination of textures and tastes that is so satisfying. It’s that key moment when you get a luscious bite of pasta with just the right amount of rich, succulent sauce. Mmmm. Nothing better, right? But get it wrong and even the best pasta dish is ruined! It sticks, it clumps, sometimes it’s underdone, sometimes it’s mushy. The sauce seems too dry or it slides off entirely and pools in the bowl. It’s maddening!
But fear not, pasta lovers! After extensive research, I have narrowed down all the various techniques out there to just seven essential steps – 7 insider secrets – to perfect pasta. Follow these 7 insider secrets and your pasta will be al dente and delicious every time.
Secret #1 LOTS of WATER!
Start with a large volume of cold water in a big pot. At least 4 quarts per pound of pasta. The pasta needs room to “swim” in the water. Without enough water, the pasta stays in place. As it cooks, pasta releases starch, a glue-like substance, and if it’s touching another piece, it literally bonds itself to the other piece. This is where those hard, fused ends come from! If using a pot and strainer combo, add extra water so the pasta is completely covered and has plenty of room to move around. NEVER break the strands. If they don’t fit, use a bigger pot.
Secret #2 The Water should be BOILING HARD!
Make sure the water is at a rolling boil – not just a bubble or two – before you drop in your pasta. If not at a full boil, it cooks too slowly and the consistency will be off. Use a snug-fitting lid to bring your pasta water up to a fast, rolling boil efficiently.
Secret #3 – SALT the water generously!
Once the water is at a fast, roiling boil, add a generous tablespoon or so of salt. Don’t add the salt to the cold water or it will sink to the bottom. The salt does two things. It raises the temperature of the water and it flavors the pasta. Most of the salt drains away so the sodium content isn’t really an issue.
Secret #4 – Do NOT ADD OIL to the water! Perhaps you’ve heard to add oil to the water to prevent your pasta from sticking? The theory sounds reasonable but here are the problems with that approach. The oil sits on top of the pasta water so it can’t keep the strands below the water from sticking. Then, when the pasta is drained, the oil coats the pasta and your sauce slips off and pools in the bottom of your bowl. Good quality pasta has a bit of texture to it and the texture, combined with the starchy water on the drained, cooked noodles helps the sauce cling to the pieces. Save your good oil for your sauces!
Secret #5 – STIR the pasta! This is essential. When you first add your pasta, it will start to soften and relax into the boiling water. Give the pot a good stir so everything is below the water line and moving freely. Then stir gently every few minutes or so as it cooks. This keeps it from settling to the bottom and sticking to the pot as it cooks or from attaching to other pieces. (see secret #1).
Secret #6 – TASTE test and retest! Once you have dropped your pasta in, set your timer for the time on the package. In the last minute, carefully remove a piece of pasta, blow on it to cool and taste. It should be cooked but still with a firm “bite”. If not right, try another piece in 30 seconds. Repeat until it is just right. Pasta continues to cook once drained and is added to sauce so a tiny bit underdone is actually when you want to take it off the heat and drain it. Have everything ready so your pasta doesn’t sit in the colander for any length of time!
Secret #7 – DON’T RINSE* your pasta! When you drain your pasta, it is OK to leave a little bit of the starchy water on it. Don’t rinse this off! The starchy water helps the pasta and sauce bond.
* The exception to this rule is for pasta salads, stuffed shells, cannelloni, etc., and lasagna. Pasta for cold salad should be rinsed in cool water, drained very well and then tossed with a bit of salad dressing or olive oil to keep it from clumping together. For stuffed pasta and lasagna, rinse in cool running water until comfortable to handle. Drain well and rub gently with a tiny bit of olive oil to make the pasta easier to work when assembling the dish.
BONUS SECRET: Reserve a bit of the pasta water for velvety sauces! Just before draining, carefully remove a ½ cup or so of the starchy pasta water and set aside. This starchy liquid will help smooth out your sauces beautifully – it’s an old Italian Nonna trick! Once you have combined your pasta and sauce (best done right in the hot pot), add a splash of the reserved, starchy pasta water. The starch works to create a creamy, rich, smooth texture that makes the dish sing. Balance the amount of sauce with the pasta for that perfect “mouth feel” being careful not to over sauce it! Buon appetite!