Pasta is a staple in most households. It’s economical, nutritious and filling. Pasta is also a versatile menu item, which can be served as a side dish, an entree, or even used in a salad, such as macaroni salad. You might think that all that’s needed is to toss it into boiling water, wait the number of minutes specified on the package and then drain and serve. This does describe the basic process, but there are a few tricks you need to know to avoid mushy, under-done or stuck together pasta. Let’s take cooking pasta step-by-step to a perfect result, every time.
The procedure for cooking pasta is the same, no matter what type of pasta you’re using. However, it’s good to know that if you’re cooking spaghetti, especially for kids, it’s perfectly all right to break those long strands into four smaller lengths, as you’re putting the pasta into the pot. Kids find the smaller lengths easier to skewer, while adults who haven’t mastered the twirling-around-the-fork routine can make meal time a little less messy on the napkin. You can also break lasagna noodles in half, which helps prevent these thick noodles getting stuck together in the colander by the time you’re ready to assemble. Just overlap broken pieces as you assemble the dish.
1. The number one rule in cooking pasta is to be sure to use plenty of water. If the package says, ‘4 quarts of water’, be sure you use 4 quarts! Insufficient water tends to make the noodles stick together and become mushy with starch by the time they’re cooked.
2. Add a teaspoon of salt for every 2 quarts of water. This raises the boiling temperature of the water, which gets the uncooked pasta off to a good start. The dry pasta cools the water temperature by several degrees when plunged into the boiling water. Be sure the water is at a rolling boil when you add the pasta. Watch the pot until the water returns to a simmer, just short of boiling. Begin timing at this point. Add a tablespoon of oil to the pot. This prevents the pasta from sticking together.
3. You’ve probably heard of cooking pasta ‘al dente’. Al dente is an Italian term meaning, ‘to the bite’, or, in other words, when the pasta, bitten between the teeth, is firm, not mushy and not hard. Pasta packages usually indicate a window of cooking time, such as 8-10 minutes, due to variances in cookware. Test the pasta at the minimum cooking time, removing a strand or single noodle, such as penne or rigatoni with a slotted spoon or tongs. Allow the noodle to cool for a moment, so that you don’t burn your lips!
4. When the pasta is al dente, remove the pot from the heat and drain immediately into a (preferably) metal colander. Plastic colanders work, but there’s more chance of the pasta becoming embedded in the drainage holes. Contrary to popular opinion, rinse the pasta under hot running water. Drain thoroughly and remove to a bowl until you’re ready to assemble your dish or serve the pasta as a side.
Cooking pasta is easy, so long as you know these simple, but important secrets to great pasta. Enjoy!