A box of pasta in the pantry means you always have something to cook. Be sure to seek out high-quality pasta and remember to cook it properly. It should be al dente (meaning that it has a pleasant “chew” but not undercooked).
There aren’t very many tricks to cooking pasta, beyond these: plenty of rapidly boiling water, enough salt to make the water taste salty, and a big colander for draining.
Cooking the Pasta
Different pasta manufacturers may produce similar shapes with the same names, but due to the differences in sizes and shapes, they all take a very slightly different amount of time to cook properly. You can usually find a cooking time on the package, and that is a good general guide. But don’t rely just on the package; tasting a piece is the best way to tell when the pasta is properly cooked.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. The general suggestion is 1 gallon of water for every 1 pound of pasta, which means you will want a pot that holds at least 5 quarts. Add enough salt to make the water taste salty. One tablespoon is about enough for a gallon of water, but you could use less or a little more. Don’t skip the salt, however; pasta cooked in unsalted water has practically no flavor at all. Remember to cover the pot so that it comes to a boil more quickly.
- Add the pasta all at once and stir until the strands or pieces are softened and submerged. Long shapes like linguine may need to be pushed down under the water with your spoon until they soften enough to stay there. Stir all pastas a few times to make sure the pieces are separated. If you don’t take the time to do it at this point, you’ll end up with large clumps.
- Let the pasta cook until it is fully cooked with a good bite. The pasta should be cooked through, but it should not be so soft that you can’t feel it resisting a little bit when you bite into it.
- Once the pasta is done, scoop out a cup or so of the pasta water to finish the sauce. This is the “secret ingredient” that keeps sauces from feeling oily and slipping off the pasta and keeps the finished dish creamy.
- Immediately drain the pasta through a colander and let as much water as possible drain away. You can shake the colander a few times, to be sure that any water trapped inside tube shaped pasta is drained.
Saucing the Pasta
Your pasta should be freshly drained and very hot when you combine it with a sauce. The way you combine it depends upon the type of sauce.
Ragù-style sauces are thick and have a substantial body. To combine your pasta with a ragù-style sauce, drain the pasta as much as possible, and shake it well. Pour the pasta into a heated pasta bowl (or fill individual pasta plates), and then ladle the hot sauce over the pasta.
Other sauces, including pesto, carbonara-style, and raw tomato sauces are tossed together with the hot pasta. Drain the pasta and pour it into a bowl (you could use the pot you cooked the pasta in, but it is a little easier to work in a bowl). Add the prepared sauce and use a lifting motion to combine the pasta and sauce. Add enough of the pasta water you set aside to keep the sauce loose enough for an even, creamy coating on each strand.