It’s time to master the basics of cooking and learn how to cook pasta the right way! Whether you’re making spaghetti and meatballs for the kids or fettuccine alfredo for a date night in, you’ll nail it with these simple tips.
Okay, you probably already know the basics of how to cook pasta—boil water, add the pasta.
This guide covers everything else you need to know about cooking pasta, from why you need to salt the water (and you do!) to choosing the right shape for your sauce and knowing what al dente really means.
- Always defer to the instructions in your recipe and the pasta package.
- Note that these tips apply to pasta made with wheat; gluten-free, low-carb, and bean pastas all cook differently.
The Nuts-and-Bolts of How to Cook Pasta
There’s a little bit more to the equation than boiling water + pasta when it comes to cooking up the perfect bowl of spaghetti or elbow noodles for your family’s favorite mac and cheese recipe. Consider:
You’ll need a pot with enough room for the pasta to move around as it cooks and for you to be able to add the right amount of water (more on that below) without it boiling over.
If you’re making spaghetti, you may want to choose a tall pot that lets you drop the noodles in without cracking them in half first. Otherwise, the shape really doesn’t matter! Use a wide Dutch oven, a high-sided stockpot, or whatever else you have in your kitchen as long as it gives your pasta and your water ample room.
Aside from the shape, you may want to choose a pot with two handles on each side, rather than a large saucepan that has a long handle on one side. Two handles make it easier to lift the pot off the stovetop and drain it.
The Amount of Water
For each pound of pasta, you’ll need 4 to 6 quarts of water. I recommend measuring this out the first few times; after this, you should be able to eyeball the right amount of water if you use the same pot for cooking pasta every time.
Some people think using less water is a good shortcut because it will come to a boil faster. In theory, that might work, but in practice, your pasta will suffer if it doesn’t have that room to move freely in the pot.
Learn the secrets of How to Stop Water from Boiling Over here!
Yes, you should always salt the pasta water!
As your pasta cooks in the salted water, it absorbs the liquid and it seasons the insides of the noodles. This allows your finished dishes to truly shine. It really, really does make a difference.
You’ll need to add a lot more salt than you think, and more than you might even feel comfortable with, but remember: you’re going to be pouring most of it down the drain when the pasta is finished cooking!
Add a full tablespoon of kosher salt for every pound of dried pasta you’re cooking; pour it in right before adding the pasta, giving it a good stir to make sure it dissolves.
The water should come to a rolling, rapid boil before you add the pasta. You can expedite the process by turning your burner to maximum heat and partially covering the pot while you wait—leave a big enough opening that you can peek in to see if the water is boiling yet.
Once your water has reached a boil, add the salt as described above, then add the pasta and stir until the noodles separate. You’ll need to continue to stir the pasta occasionally as it cooks; every two to three minutes is perfect.
Knowing When Pasta Is Al Dente
Al dente is always the goal—it means the pasta is cooked through, but still firm and slightly chewy. This gives you a little leeway when adding the pasta to a hot sauce; the pasta will have room to soften a bit more without going mushy on you.
Often, pasta packages will tell you how many minutes are needed for it to reach al dente. If not, check for doneness two minutes before the package indicates.
How do you check for doneness? No, you don’t throw the pasta at the wall—you eat it! Al dente means “to the tooth” in Italian, so it only makes sense that eating it is the true test of doneness.
Remove a single piece of pasta from the boiling water, let it cool for a few seconds, then eat it. It should be chewy, with a little bit of resistance in the middle—never hard or crunchy.
Once the pasta is al dente, scoop a ladle or two of water from the pot if needed for your recipe, then drain it into a colander set in your kitchen sink.
If you’re not using the pasta right away, you can toss it in a bit of olive oil. This will keep it from sticking and turning into one solid mass of noodles. However, it’s best to use the pasta immediately, so have your sauce ready.
Now you know how to cook pasta!
Pairing Pasta with Sauce
Let’s say you’re not working with a recipe and you’re pairing the pasta and sauce yourself. How do you know which sauces pair with which pasta shapes? Here’s a quick guide:
- Long, stringy pastas like spaghetti and angel hair are best with light sauces like lemon pepper sauce. They also do well with pestos, like my basil pesto and pesto rosso.
- Thicker, shorter shapes like fusilli and penne work well with chunkier sauces, such as Amatriciana or Bolognese, but they’re also among the most versatile shapes—you can pair them with almost any sauce.
- Heartier pasta shapes, such as shells or orecchiette, also work well with a wide range of sauces, but their shape makes them especially well-suited for cheesy and creamy pairings.
- Wide, flat noodles like pappardelle also pair well with cream sauces like white wine lemon caper sauce and chunky sauces like braised pork ragu,
Think, too, about the eating experience. Do you want the sauce to collect inside the tubes of penne or the nooks of orecchiette? Are you going to be tossing the pasta with veggies and cheese, or keeping it simple with only a sauce?
When I’m making a dinner with both pasta and veggies, I tend to choose a noodle that’s either the same size as the veggie pieces or smaller. This makes it easier to eat and enjoy every bite.
Frequently Asked Questions
This depends on your family’s appetite, but typically a pound of pasta will feed 5 to 6 people. Per most package instructions, 2 ounces is a serving, but adults may find that 3 ounces is preferable, especially for a main dish with just pasta and sauce.
Rinsing pasta after it’s cooked is not necessary, and in fact it will wash away some of the starch that helps the sauce cling to the noodles. Don’t rinse pasta unless you’re working with a recipe that asks you to.
The starchy, salty water left after cooking pasta is a great addition to sauces. It helps emulsify and thicken the sauce so it coats the noodles better without getting too thick or gloppy. Reserved cooking water works especially well with cream sauces and pestos.
No, don’t add oil to the cooking water for pasta. Instead, stir the pasta every few minutes to keep it from sticking. Adding oil to the water will make it difficult for sauces to stick; instead they’ll just slide right off!