Pasta is a staple in most kitchens. Almost every home cook, regardless of skill level, has prepared dried pasta by following the instructions on the box. Boil the water, add the pasta, and cook until it’s done. That’s all there is to it, right? Well…yes and no. If you want to take your skills to the next level (and I don’t mean making pasta from scratch), read my top 5 tips for how to cook pasta perfectly every single time.
Ok, so we all know how to follow the directions on a box of dried pasta. It’s pretty straightforward, right? You might be reading this thinking, “My pasta comes out perfectly fine. There’s nothing wrong with it, and I don’t need any tips.”
I have no doubt your dried pasta is fine. However, I’m here to tell you how you can make it better. There are a few pasta tips I’ve discovered along the way that definitely take dinner to the next level without making things unnecessarily complicated.
My Top 5 Tips For How To Cook Pasta
Pasta Tip 1: Use plenty of salt and water.
At culinary school, we were taught that pasta water should “taste like the sea.” That’s a bit extreme, in my opinion, but the water should definitely taste like it’s generously salted.
I typically recommend people start by using around 1 tablespoon of kosher salt per quart (or liter) of water. Serious Eats did a pasta water salt test, and they came to a similar conclusion. You might discover you prefer more or less salt, but that’s a good baseline.
Another rookie mistake I see people making is not using a large enough pot of water. Water evaporates as it boils, and you want to make sure the pasta is covered the entire time it cooks. I recommend using around 1 gallon of water (4 quarts) to cook 1 pound of pasta. That would mean 1/4 cup of salt!
I go through a lot of kosher salt, which is my top pick for all-purpose cooking. The grocery store carries it, but I purchase large boxes of Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt from Amazon so I never have to worry about running out.
I recommend using this ratio the next few times you cook pasta. Taste the water so you know what the recommended amount of salt tastes like. Eventually, you’ll be able to eye it out without measuring!
PS- Don’t add olive oil to the pasta water. It serves no purpose, and is a waste of oil. If your pasta is sticking together in the pot, you need to stir it more frequently.
Pasta Tip 2: Save that pasta water!
Pasta water is magical. It’s full of starch and salt, and these two things will enhance the flavor and texture of your pasta dish, especially if you’re not using a sauce.
For example, say you’re making pasta with olive oil, garlic, lemon, cheese, salt and pepper. Instead of adding more and more oil until the ingredients can easily be combined, use a mixture of oil and pasta water.
My Cacio e Pepe is a perfect example of this. The recipe uses pasta water, butter, cheese and black pepper to create what I like to think of as “grown up macaroni and cheese.” The pasta water creates a glue that holds the ingredients together, adds salt, and thickens the sauce.
How To Save Pasta Water
When your pasta is almost finished cooking, use a ladle to reserve anywhere from 1/4 – 1 cup of pasta water. Use however much you need and discard the rest.
Pasta Tip 3: Test for al dente
You can set a kitchen timer to alert you when the time noted on the box has arrived. Or, you can try setting it for 1-2 minutes before the recommended time. Taste the pasta and see where it’s at. I’ve found that sometimes the recommended times on the box lead to mushy pasta.
Al dente pasta should be slightly chewy and firm, not very soft and lacking in texture.
And if you want to take things one step further, you should definitely try my next tip.
Pasta Tip 4: Finish cooking in the sauce
We salt the water to season the pasta, right? Well, why not also season the pasta with sauce? Try setting the pasta timer so it goes off anywhere from 2-4 minutes early. While the pasta is cooking, heat your sauce in a separate saucepan.
When the timer goes off, drain the pasta or use kitchen tongs to transfer the pasta directly to the sauce, shaking off the excess water first. Let the pasta finish cooking in the simmering sauce so that it absorbs all of those wonderful flavors. Stir as it cooks in the sauce, and taste every minute or so until the pasta is al dente.
My all-purpose tomato sauce is a great option for this method, but you can also use jarred sauces.
Pasta Tip 5: Prevent the finished pasta from sticking
If your pasta finishes cooking and you’re not going to use it immediately, I recommend one of two options:
- The most typical solution is to run cold water over the pasta, which will wash away the starches that cause the pasta to stick as it cools. This works very well, but you lose those lovely starches.
- The other option, if it’s appropriate for your recipe, is to transfer the pasta to a bowl and toss it with a small amount of olive oil (or a similar oil); just enough to lightly coat the pasta.
Want to put these newfound pasta tips to the test? Be sure to check out my pasta recipe archives! Some of my recent favorite pasta recipes include Penne Alla Vodka, Sun-Dried Tomato Pasta, and Cacio e Pepe!