How to cook pasta properly - Cooking Index
According to a survey in September 2005 by the Italian pasta manufacturers Barilla, more than half of all Americans do not cook their pasta properly. With 88 per cent of American adults eating pasta at least once a year and 35 per cent eating it at least once a week, that’s a lot of pasta being prepared poorly.
We surveyed a selection of chefs and Italian experts to highlight the mistakes people make and to get their hints and tips for cooking pasta properly. We came up with the top seven mistakes people make when cooking pasta
1. Not using a big enough cooking pan
This is probably the most common mistake people make when cooking pasta. You need a lot of water to cook pasta properly. The very minimum that the experts recommend is four quarts of water for one pound of pasta (just under 3.8 litres of water for 450 grams of pasta – so the best way to say this for those using metric measurements is that you need at least 4 litres of water for 500 grams of pasta ). However the experts we consulted said they would use between five and six quarts of water for each pound of pasta (4.75 litres to 5.7 litres per 500 grams) to get the very best results.
If you do not use enough water to cook pasta then the water tends to become very cloudy (from the natural starches in the pasta), the pasta will not have enough space to move around and cook properly and very often it will stick to the side of the pan. Because the starch is not diluted enough, the pasta will become sticky and unpleasant.
The problem for most people is that they tend not to have a big enough pan in their kitchen. If you cook pasta on a regular basis it is well worth going out and buying a specific pasta pot (with a good solid base – avoid any pan with a very thin base as it will not heat the water consistently) as you will really notice the difference in the taste of your pasta.
2. Not adding salt to the water
Because we are constantly being told about the perils of salt in our diet and the prevalence of low sodium diets, many cooks are tempted to add only a tiny pinch of salt to their cooking water or even to leave it out altogether. This is a mistake. Pasta needs plenty of salt to cook properly. If you leave it out the pasta is likely to cook unevenly and, most importantly, the surface will be slightly slimy. Add roughly a teaspoon of salt per litre of water that you put in the pan (this may seem like a lot to you but this is how every Italian will cook it and it really does make a difference).
The pasta does not absorb salt in the same way that vegetables or potatoes do, so you will not notice the saltiness when you eat it.
The only exception to the ‘add plenty of salt’ rule is cooking fresh pasta, in which you do not need to add salt to the water. The way fresh pasta is made means that it does not need salt in the water to react to the surface in the same way that dried pasta does.
3. Adding olive oil to the cooking pan
It is hard to work out where this idea came from originally but 44 per cent of Americans say they add olive oil to the cooking pan. I suspect the idea is that the oil will stop the pasta sticking together in the pan but what it in fact does it to coat the pasta with a thin layer of oil which means that the sauce you serve with it will not stick to the pasta properly.
If you have used enough water and remember to stir your pasta regularly as it is cooking, it will not stick together. So there’s no need to add oil.
4. Adding the pasta to the water before it has boiled
Pasta needs to be cooked in boiling water. Make sure that when you add the pasta to the pan the water is on a rolling boil (ie boiling very hard). Also make sure that if it stops boiling when you add the pasta that you get the water boiling again as quickly as possible. If you add pasta to cold water and then heat up the water, the pasta will not cook properly.
5. Not stirring the pasta once it is cooking
Pasta needs to be stirred while it is cooking. This stops it sticking together (especially spaghetti, linguine etc) and ensures that all the pasta cooks consistently.
6. Overcooking the pasta
How cooked you eat your pasta is obviously a very personal thing. Different people will cook the same pasta for as much as five minutes difference and each will claim that they have cooked their pasta perfectly. But, while accepting that taste is a subjective thing, there are definitely people who undercook their pasta and people who overcook their pasta. Undercooking is less common because undercooked pasta is crunchy and obviously indigestible. Overcooked pasta is limp and loses its shape easily. If you overcook pasta you might as well throw it away and start again as it will taste disgusting!
The key to cooking pasta well is to keep testing it as you cook it. There will be a guide cooking time on the packet so about a minute before that time is up, start tasting the pasta. It will be ready when it is slightly firm to the bite – a state the Italians call al dente – but with no crunchiness. At this point you should turn off the heat and drain the pasta in a colander. Shake the pasta to get rid of all the excess water (you need to be especially careful to do this properly if they are pasta shapes which might catch pockets of hot water) and serve immediately. The pasta continues to cook while you are draining it in the colander, so when you are tasting remember that what you eat will be cooked for approximately a minute longer during the time when you are draining and serving it.
7. Rinsing the pasta after cooking
51 per cent of Americans say they rinse their pasta under boiling water after cooking their pasta. This is not a good idea. Cooking to the al dente level means that there are just the right amount of starches on the surface of the pasta to absorb the sauce you will serve with it. If you rinse the pasta then you will take these starches away.
There are two exceptions to this rule. If you have cooked your pasta in too small a pan and the water is very cloudy and starchy then it may be worth rinsing your pasta with boiling water to remove these starches. This is likely to do more harm than good for your pasta eating.
The other exception is when cooking pasta for pasta salads. It is best to rinse the pasta under boiling water – because for a pasta salad you don’t want the pasta to be so sticky - and then to immediately rinse it under cold water to stop the cooking process and keep the pasta at just the right level of ‘bite’. People who cook pasta for pasta salads often just turn off the heat (which means it keeps on cooking for far too long) or drain the pasta and let it stand. In our experience it is better to rinse it.
Although all these suggestions may seem a little prescriptive, we promise you that if you do follow them you will significantly improve your enjoyment of pasta. Good luck!
Other hints and tips relating to cooking and serving pasta:
List of Cooking Index pasta recipes