Cooking Pasta

by Elizabeth Skipper | September 4th, 2012 | Ask the Chef

I’ve read and seen many different directions on cooking pasta. Some suggest adding oil, some suggest salt, some say plain water. What should I add to water when cooking pasta, and how can I tell when it’s done? I’m open to any pasta cooking tips that you may have!

Pasta is a broad subject, which includes commercial dry pastas, purchased or homemade fresh ones, and filled varieties like ravioli and tortellini. As commercial pasta is most often referred to, I’ll stick to addressing cooking that kind.

The first rule of thumb is to use plenty of water. Some authorities call for at least four quarts (a gallon) of water for as little as a quarter pound of pasta. I find this excessive, but certainly you want this much water for a pound. This ensures plenty of room for the pasta to move around in and for the cook to stir it, which keeps the pasta from sticking. Pasta which sticks together never cooks all the way through and is unpleasant.

A lighter weight pot than a stock pot is preferable. A gallon of water weighs over eight pounds. Add that much boiling water to the weight of the pot and the pasta, and you can see the potential kitchen hazard. The pot should also be large enough that there’s plenty of head room above the water level for boiling up and stirring. For these reasons, it’s also wise not to try to cook too much pasta at a time in a home kitchen.

First bring a large pot of water to a boil, then add salt. Salt the water generously; a lot of salt in the water does not translate into a lot of salt in the pasta. I recommend a heaping tablespoon of salt to a gallon of water. It doesn’t all get absorbed, and without seasoning, the pasta will taste flat no matter how well the sauce is flavored. A friend complained that her shrimp scampi with capellini never tasted right until I convinced her to salt the pasta cooking water. Problem solved.

After the water returns to a boil, stir in the pasta, a bit at a time. Keep the heat on high until all the pasta is added, and then turn it down a bit. You want a good steady low boil, not an all-out rolling boil. Start timing immediately.

Use a long wooden spoon to stir occasionally. Stir thoroughly. Follow the directions on the package for timing, but begin checking for doneness at the minimum time suggested to ensure you don’t over-do it. Americans tend to cook their pasta past the stage where Italians like it. The term “al dente”, which means “to the tooth”, describes the desired texture. The pasta should not taste raw, but should be slightly chewy and flavorful, not at all soft or mushy.

Capellini, or angel hair, cooks in as little as two minutes. Thicker pastas like rigatoni or shells can take fifteen minutes or more. Different brands of the same kind can have different cooking times. So don’t cook different kinds of pasta or even two brands of the same kind together. Test often for doneness and cook to your own preference.

Drain the pasta in a large colander as soon as it’s done. Some sauces call for a little pasta cooking water to be added. (The starch in the water helps bind the sauce.) If so, remove a quarter- to a half-cup now. Pour the pasta into the colander, and shake it a few times, up and down and all around, to get all the water out. Be sure the sauce is ready to be added.

The suggestion you mention above about adding oil to the water is made in the belief that this will keep the pasta from sticking, and that it will keep the pot from boiling over. If you follow these directions, that won’t be a problem. Oil makes the pasta slick, which then poses the problem of the sauce not adhering to it.

All this said, there’s also a cooking method referred to as the absorption method, which works best with smaller amounts of shorter, chunkier shapes of pasta. As the name implies, this uses a minimal amount of liquid. It’s similar to the method of preparing risotto, where the grain/pasta is first sautéed with some butter or oil and then liquid/sauce is added to it bit by bit. It adds cooking time to the pasta, but since a large amount of water doesn’t need to come to a boil first, the overall timing doesn’t change much. This is an interesting method to try when you just want a little warm pasta for one or two, with a minimum amount of fuss and clean-up.

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