Kitchen Tip of the Week – How to Cook Perfect Pasta

30 09 2008

Dried pasta is an excellent option for dinner: it’s quick, delicious, versatile and very economical.  It has suffered from a bit of a bad reputation in recent years as people steered away from carbohydrates in favour of low-carb, meat-heavy diets but in moderation, pasta can be incorporated into most diets.  There are also high fibre pastas made with whole wheat and grains that are a welcome option for many people.

The key to a successful pasta dinner is to cook the noodles properly.  At the Italian table, the pasta is the star, not the sauce.  The pasta should not be drowned out in sauce – it should merely be dressed with enough to compliment it.  Therefore, it is important that we cook the pasta properly.

How to Cook Perfect Pasta

The following pointers apply to dried pasta (spaghetti, penne, etc), as opposed to fresh. Fresh pasta has a much shorter cooking time and the texture is quite different from dried.

What You’ll Need:

  • Dried pasta – any type, such as penne, spaghetti, bucatini, etc.  See below for tips on what types of pasta to use.
  • Lots of water
  • Salt
  • A large stockpot with a cover
  • A strainer
  • Large spoon
  • Kitchen timer

Select your pasta.  There are literally hundreds of kinds of dried pastas available and they are all made of the same basic ingredients (flour/durum semolina, water and sometimes egg).  The shape you choose will depend on what type of sauce you’re serving with it.  For example, chunky sauces work well with pastas that can catch the sauce, such as rigatoni or orecchiette.  For a creamy sauce, you might want to choose a penne or macaroni so the creamy goodness gets inside the tubes of pasta.  For more information about pasta shapes, check out The National Pasta Association’s website.

Add water to stockpot.  The amount you will need will depend upon how much pasta you’re using.  However, it’s important that you use enough.  Some guidelines are as follows:

  • For each pound of pasta, use 4 to 6 quarts of water.  The rough metric translation is about 4 to 5-1/2 litres of water per 450 grams of pasta.  Adjust amounts according to the amount of pasta you are cooking.

Salt the water – generously.  Salt will help flavour the pasta.  Again, the amount of salt will depend upon how much pasta you’re making but the water should be almost as salty as seawater.  For the proportions given above (6 to 8 quarts) add about 2 Tablespoons of salt.  

Don’t add any oil to the water!  This is a kitchen myth that persists.  There is a belief that if you add oil, it will keep the pasta from sticking together.  The truth is, if you use a pot that is the correct size and enough water, the pasta shouldn’t stick together.  Adding oil to the water will only make the pasta oily, keeping any sauces from sticking to it.  

Bring water to boil on high heat with the stockpot lid on.

Add pasta to boiling water and turn down heat to medium-high so it doesn’t boil over. It should still be a gentle boil.  Stir pasta to separate it.  If you’re making long pasta, such as spaghetti, it will cook down so it’s fully submerged in about 30 seconds.  Cook with the lid off.

Using the cooking time on the package as a guideline, set your kitchen timer for 2 minutes less than the recommended time (which is usually between 9 and 13 minutes). Test a piece of pasta at this point. Properly cooked pasta is called al dente, which is Italian for ‘to the tooth’.  This means that the pasta has a little bit of a bite in the middle of it.  It’s not crunchy but it’s not completely limp and soggy either.  If it is not ready, cook for another minute and test again.  Cook until desired tenderness.

Once pasta is ready, carefully scoop out about 1/4 cup of the cooking water and set aside.  Add a cup of cold water to the pasta pot to stop the water from boiling and turn off heat.

Carefully drain pasta into a strainer in the sink.  Do not rinse!  (Note: if you are making a cold pasta salad, it’s ok to rinse the pasta to stop the cooking and cool the pasta for dressing).


In a separate pan, heat your sauce.  Add pasta and a few spoonfuls of the pasta cooking water you set aside. The cooking water contains starch and will help pull your sauce together.  Pour pasta into sauce and toss to coat.  Serve immediately. Enjoy!





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