Pasta Basics

How to Cook Pasta

BRING A STOCKPOT OF WATER TO A BOIL AND SALT IT Figure at least 1 gallon (16 cups; but you don’t need to measure; just use a lot!) per pound of pasta; less than that and the noodles may stick together. Your 2-gallon stockpot is perfect; fill it about two-thirds to the top and turn the heat to high. To flavor the pasta and help prevent sticking, add several large pinches of salt (about 2 tablespoons) for every gallon of water. And don’t add oil to the cooking water; the sauce will never properly cling to the pasta and become creamy.

WHEN THE WATER BOILS, ADD THE PASTA AND STIR To keep the noodles from sticking together when they first go in the water, toss long pasta strands with tongs or a wooden spoon as they soften or stir cut pasta with a slotted wooden spoon. When the water starts boiling again, adjust the heat so it bubbles enthusiastically without overflowing and continue to stir occasionally as the pasta cooks.

AFTER 5 MINUTES, START TASTING Carefully fish out a piece with a slotted spoon or tongs, blow on it to cool, take a bite, and look inside. Taste another piece every minute or so. When the noodle still has a little resistance but isn’t hard and chalky inside, the pasta is ready to drain; it will continue to cook in the sauce.

PULL THE DISH TOGETHER Ladle out at least 1 cup of the cooking water, then drain the pasta. The pasta needs to rest in the colander for only a few seconds; you want it still slightly moist (don’t rinse it!). The noodles are ready to toss with the heated sauce, adding some of the reserved water for creaminess. Tongs work well for strands; use a spoon for cut noodles.


Pasta cooking times vary depending on their shape, manufacturer, and storage conditions. So the only way to know when pasta is ready is to taste it. Here’s what’s going on inside at different stages.

A Undercooked pasta—which is still hard and chalky inside—needs to boil for a couple more minutes before tossing but is perfect for baked pastas.
B When you bite down, pasta should offer resistance and have a teeny bit of the tough interior still remaining. The Italians call this texture al dente or “to the teeth.” I call it “with bite”—barely tender but not at all mushy.
C This is overcooked: plump and beginng to lose its shape. Even if the pasta isn’t mushy yet, it will be by the time you drain, sauce it, and get it to the table.

Saucing and Tossing

The best—and most authentic—way to cook pasta is to combine the sauce and the pasta with a little of the cooking water. The idea is to coat and flavor the noodles and release their starch to add creaminess. If you like more sauce, double all the ingredients except the pasta.

What About Fresh Pasta?

Making your own fresh pasta isn’t difficult, but it requires more patience than most beginning cooks have. You can buy it, though, preferably from a store or restaurant that makes it fresh (stay away from the supermarket stuff). Use it in place of dried pasta in any of these recipes. Start tasting after 1 minute.

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