If you’ve gotten a bowl of pasta that was mush you know how disappointing poorly cooked pasta can be. Your heart was set on a beautiful bowl of spaghetti only to discover that the pasta is over cooked and the dish is ruined. Or you’ve made homemade macaroni and cheese only to discover that it turned into a paste in the oven. Learning to cook dried pasta takes a little practice.
To start with you need a big pot. Your pasta should be swimming in water. The rule of thumb is six quarts of water per one pound of pasta. I have a two gallon pasta pot and have pushed two pounds into it–only small pastas such as elbows or bow-ties. Once I attempted two pounds of spaghetti and it was disastrous. The pasta stuck together and some clumps did not get done, very upsetting. You want the pot large enough that you can leave a few inches at the top so when you add your pasta it’s not too full to allow for boiling.
Warm your water over high heat and toss in a palm full of non-iodized table salt. Yes, a palm full. I know that sounds like a lot but mixed into more than a gallon of water it’s not that much. Italians believe that your water should taste like the sea, not the dead sea, but sea water is salty right? Never add oil to your cooking water. It will make your pasta slick and prevent it from absorbing the flavors of your sauce or other ingredients later. Cover your pot and bring your water to a full boil. Don’t cheat and add the pasta too early. The truth is, water must be a minimum of 180 degrees to cook pasta but the water will cool significantly when you add your pasta. You want it boiling so it doesn’t dip too low and leave you with a starchy mess.elbows or bow-ties. Once I attempted two pounds of spaghetti and it was disastrous. The pasta stuck together and some clumps did not get done, very upsetting. You want the pot large enough that you can leave a few inches at the top so when you add your pasta it’s not too full to allow for boiling.
Now add your pasta and stir until it begins to boil again. Stirring is important so your pasta doesn’t stick together. It tends to stick more in the beginning. Once it’s boiling again, leave it uncovered, and set your timer. You can reduce the heat a touch if it begins to boil over.
This is important: Are you serving the pasta as is or are you incorporating it into a baked pasta dish? If this is as far as you’re taking it, set your kitchen timer for two minutes less than the shortest recommended cooking time on the box. If, however, the pasta is destined for a baked dish set the timer for five minutes less than the lowest recommended time. While your pasta is cooking get your strainer ready and find a slotted spoon or set of tongs. When time is up, grab a couple of pieces of pasta. If the pasta is not going into the oven later, you want the hard, uncooked feeling completely gone but you still want it to be firm in the center, called al dente. It should be firm not mushy. Do this quickly because your pasta is still cooking and will continue to cook while you’re straining. It’s kind of like pornography, you’ll know it when you taste it.If you feel like it needs a bit more time, cook it in thirty second increments at this point, tasting it every time until you feel (literally) like if it cooked thirty more seconds it would be perfect. Pull it quickly and strain. Again, do not add oil. Toss your pasta back into the pan and on the stove for a few seconds, stirring constantly to cook off any extra water. Then toss in a few spoonfuls of your sauce to prevent sticking and serve.
If your pasta is headed into the oven, pull it and strain as soon as it’s pliable but still very undercooked. If you would eat it as is, you’ve cooked it too much. Remember it will continue cooking in the oven and will absorb the juices in your dish. The extra starch remaining in the pasta will also serve to thicken your dish.
It takes a few practice runs but before long you can tell by the way a piece of pasta feels whether it’s done. The guesswork will diminish and your pasta’s will be perfect.