Rows of Uncooked Pasta of different shapes and color
Essentials & Guides Kitchen Tips

The Ultimate Guide to Cooking Perfect Pasta

I cooked pasta for dinner tonight, and it got me thinking about all the tips and tricks I use to cook perfect pasta. Keep reading to learn how you can do the same.

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At its core, Italian cooking is really simple. It’s all about using quality ingredients and learning how to honor those ingredients by using the proper techniques that allow the food to shine and be the star of the meal. Cooking perfect pasta isn’t complicated. 

  1. Choosing the Right Size Pot

The most important tip is selecting the correct size pot for cooking your pasta. You need to cook pasta in A LOT of water because it is really going to expand, maybe even double in size, as it cooks.

For every pound of pasta, you should cook it in 4 quarts of water — but ideally it’s 6 quarts. I use an 8 quart stock pot.

chef cooking pasta

It might seem excessive, but that amount of boiling water will help the pasta move around freely — which will prevent the pasta from sticking or clumping together. 

You DO NOT need to use oil when cooking pasta. Adding oil will actually prevent the sauce from sticking to the pasta.

  1. Salt the Cooking Water

SALT.THE.COOKING.WATER. This is not a negotiable step. The water should taste as salty as the sea.

This is the only chance you have to season the pasta itself. You want to use at least 1 tablespoon of salt per every 4 quarts of water.

  1. Submerge and Stir

As soon as you add the pasta to the pot, try to submerge it in the water as quickly as possible — especially if you’re cooking long, ribbon-cut noodles like spaghetti or pappardelle.

You also want to get the pasta moving as quickly as you can. The surface of the pasta is coated with a sticky, glue-like starch so it will stick and cook together if you don’t stir the pasta within the first few minutes. You’ll also want to stir it every few minutes.

  1. The Taste Test

Are you always undercooking or overcooking your pasta? Well, there’s a simple solution to your problem. Usually, the box or package will list a cook time within a small range of time — like between 8-10 minutes. Use those instructions as a guide (not a rule)!

Don’t blindly follow the back of the box. Instead, taste your pasta two minutes before the box says the pasta will be cooked.

For example, if I was cooking penne pasta and the box said it would be fully cooked after 10-12 minutes, I would taste the pasta after 8 minutes. After the taste taste, I would make a decision to keep cooking or to drain it.

Traditionalists will insist that pasta should be cooked to al dente, which literally means “to the tooth.” The idea is to cook the pasta so that it has a little bit of a bite to it.

The pasta shouldn’t be too hard or overly soft. It should be somewhere in between the two extremes. It should resist just enough and have a springy bounce to it. It’s all about balance.

  1. Let’s Get Saucy

After the pasta is cooked to al dente, it’s time for a marriage — of pasta and sauce. Toss ALL of the pasta with ALL of the sauce.

person having a plate of spaghetti for a meal

Nothing makes me crazier than when someone serves a ladle of tomato sauce on top of a pile of spaghetti! That is not it works. Here’s an example of what not to do:

two plates of spaghetti

A great pasta dish is characterized by how the pasta and sauce interact with each other. They should become one single meal, not two separate components sitting on a plate.

The secret? Adding 1 or 2 cups of the leftover starchy cooking water to the sauce! The starchy water helps bind everything together. It’s like magic.

Even better, if you throw a little cheese into the mix. And who wouldn’t want some cheese with their pasta?!

a person sprinkling cheese on a plate of pasta

For logistics sake, this is why I don’t recommend draining your pasta into a colander over the sink. I like to scoop the pasta out of the water with a hand-held strainer/skimmer or I’ll use a large steamer basket that fits inside of the pot.

After everything is combined (the pasta, sauce, cheese, and herbs), I like to let everybody hang out for a minute or two before I serve it, so they can all get to know each other and blend together. Buon Appetito!

Bonus Perfect Pasta Tips:

  • Always bring the water up to a full, rolling boil.
  • Put a lid on the pot to bring it to a boil faster, but be sure to remove it after you’ve added the pasta.
  • Don’t ever rinse your pasta, unless you’re putting in a cold pasta salad.
  • Time the cooking of your sauce so that it’s finished cooking before the pasta is done.
  • Fresh pasta cooks in only 2-4 minutes. After you’ve mastered the dried version, try challenging your skills by cooking the fresh stuff!
  • Filled pasta like ravioli or tortellini float when they’re fully cooked.

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