Ways You're Cooking Pasta Wrong - and How to Make It Perfect Every Time

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Using a smaller pot will cook the pasta faster, right? Wrong. Using too small a pot will crowd the spaghetti, and you will end up with clumpy, gummy pasta. Additionally, the pasta will significantly drop the temperature of the small amount of water in the pot, meaning the time it will take for the water to return to a boil won't save you any time. For every pound of pasta, make sure to use at least 4 quarts of water in order to give it the space that it deserves.

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Starting With Hot Water

Science can blow minds, especially when it comes to boiling water. Maybe you thought starting with hot water in your pasta pot would reduce the time it takes to come to a boil - I did. No matter if you start with hot or cold water that watched pot will take about the same amount of time to come to a boil. Cold water absorbs heat faster than hot water. Once the water is hot, the heating rate slows down, so the advantage of starting with hot water is negligible.

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Not Salting the Water

So many people consider adding salt to the water an optional step, but the salt is crucial to bringing out the flavor of the pasta. In addition to adding flavor, the salt prevents the pasta from becoming slimy while cooking. You should add about one to two tablespoons of salt for every five to six quarts of water.

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Adding Oil to the Water

You've probably heard that adding olive oil to the water when cooking your pasta will prevent the pasta from sticking to itself. In reality, you can cook clump-free pasta if you just cook it in a large pot of rapidly boiling water. Adding oil of any kind to the pasta as it cooks is only going to cause the pasta sauce to slip right off the noodle later on, resulting in a pasta-sauce relationship that's anything but harmonious.

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Adding the Pasta Before the Water Boils

You may have been tempted to add the pasta to the pot just as the first bubble appears on the surface of the water, but unless you're Alton Brown, you should wait until the water is at a rolling boil. The pasta will drop the temperature of the water, and the longer the pasta sits in water that isn't boiling, the gummier and stickier it will be, and more likely it is that your pasta will turn out clumpy.

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Not Stirring the Pasta

Once the pasta is dropped into the water, the boiling will slow for the next minute or two. To keep the pasta from sticking during this time, it is important to stir the pasta until the water comes back to a rolling boil.

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Cooking All Types of Pasta the Same

Pasta cooking times can vary by brand, size of the noodle, and whether or not the pasta is fresh versus dried. Use the package as a guide for how long to cook your pasta, but always taste the noodles starting a couple minutes before the package advises to find that perfect al dente. You don't need to throw the noodles against the wall to see if they are ready, but the process is a little more hands-on than setting a timer.

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Leaving the Pasta in the Colander

You don't need to be too precise when it comes to draining your spaghetti in a colander. A little water on the pasta will help to keep the noodles from clumping, and the starchy water will add body to your sauce.

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Not Cooking the Sauce Before the Pasta

Once again, leaving your pasta in the colander while you cook the sauce only gives your pasta time to stick and dry out. Instead, prepare the sauce while you wait for the water to come to a boil. Then set the sauce aside while you cook your pasta.

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Not Reserving Pasta Water for the Sauce

Don't pour all of that flavorful, starchy water down the drain. A little pasta water added to the sauce will bring the dish together by thickening the sauce.

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Rinsing the Pasta After Cooking

There is no need to rinse your noodles after cooking. In fact, rinsing the pasta will wash away the starches that help the sauces stick, as well as the flavor you worked to produce by salting the water. There is one caveat: If you are using something like penne for a cold pasta salad, you will need to rinse it to prevent any sticking as it cools.

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Not Finishing the Pasta in the Sauce

You're almost ready to sit down and enjoy your plate of pasta, but if you are simply chucking the naked noodles (noods?) into a bowl and then pouring the sauce on top, you're doing it wrong! Instead, finish your pasta in the sauce while it's still on the stove. Drain your pasta when it is still a minute or two away from al dente perfection and let it finishing cooking in the sauce. Doing this will allow the pasta to absorb some of the sauce and the end result will be tastier and more full of flavor than if you just dump sauce over some bland pasta. This is also the point at which you would add a little bit of the pasta water back into the pan, along with a knob of butter, and after some pan-agitating, you'll end up with a gloriously saucy, emulsified and perfectly delicious plate of pasta.

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Using Too Much Sauce

Finally, this one isn't a rule, but if you want to enjoy pasta like an Italian, lay off the sauce. If you take the time to cook your spaghetti correctly, ensuring a perfect al dente texture and starchy taste, then drowning your pasta in sauce seems almost sacrilegious. Instead, toss your pasta in just enough sauce to coat the noodles, adding a splash of the reserved starchy pasta water to help the sauce stick to them. Armed with all of these tips and techniques, you'll be able to go forth and cook pasta just like Nonna used to make!

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Angela Carlos contributed to this story.

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