You would think that cooking dried pasta would be as simple as following the directions on the plastic. If that were true, then everyone would always have well-seasoned, al dente pasta. But more often than not, people end up with noodles that are flat in flavor, over-cooked, or too slippery to hold the sauce. This how-to teaches you some tips to get you perfectly cooked noodles every time. The number one thing you need to know—don’t follow the package instructions.
Use good-quality noodles.
The kind (i.e. brand) of noodles you get affects the flavor and texture of your pasta, plus its ability to take on sauce. Good-quality noodles are more often than not extruded. These noodles are a bit textured with tiny little crevices that help them catch more sauce. These types of noodles also cook to al dente more easily and have a better mouthfeel once cooked.
Follow the tried and tested boiling method.
People have started to contest different ways of cooking dried pasta. But a tried and tested method is boiling a large pot of water and letting it come to a rolling boil before dropping your noodles. There’s very little chance that you’ll mess up cooking your noodles in this way. The only thing to remember is to have enough water in the pot that the amount of pasta that you cook can move around freely without sticking to each other.
Salt your water.
Salting your water is the only way that you can season your noodles inside out. (The salt in the water enters the noodles, putting flavor inside.) Don’t skip this step because even the tastiest sauce can’t hide bland noodles. As a rule of thumb, add enough salt to the water that it tastes salty. But not too much that it makes you want to spit it out.
If you’re cooking long noodles (e.g. spaghetti), it’s not going to fit in the pot. Some people make the mistake of leaving half the pasta submerged at the beginning, waiting for the rest of it to slide into the water by itself as the bottom half cooks. Obviously, that’s going to get you unevenly cooked noodles. To make sure everything’s underwater, hold the top of the dried pasta and “stir” the water until the bottom half becomes soft enough to bend. It should only take a couple of seconds. By then, you can twist the pasta so it fits into the pot. This also prevents the noodles from clumping together.
Don’t put oil!
A lot of people add oil to their pasta water to prevent the noodles from sticking to each other. While it works in that way, the oil doesn’t actually disappear once you drain your pasta. And this coating of oil will also stop your sauce from sticking to the noodles—which is exactly what you don’t want to happen when cooking pasta. To prevent your noodles from sticking, just stir it every one to two minutes.
Listen to your gut.
Over-cooking the noodles is the top mistake people make when preparing dried pasta. Listen to your gut—not the package instructions (i.e. even if it says 12 minutes, if it seems cooked enough by 10 minutes, take it out already). To know if your pasta is ready, pick a noodle up and bite into it. There should be a needlepoint-sized white dot in the center of your noodle. Al dente is usually achieved two minutes less than the package instructions. (Don’t ask us why they don’t just all subtract two minutes from the time.) So start testing your noodles for al dente by that mark. Bear in mind that this will still cook in your sauce later, so you’ll need that insurance for when it cooks the second time.
Reserve your pasta water.
During cooking, the dried noodles expel starch into the water. This starch and water combo acts in the same principle as a slurry (cornstarch plus water, used to thicken sauces) but in a less intense way. Because of that, you should always reserve your pasta water (aim for at least a cup) because adding this later on to your sauce helps it thicken and cling to the noodles better. This, plus constantly agitating your pan (moving it in a forward-backward motion while stirring the pasta) is a sure-fire way to get a cohesive pasta dish.