Your Ten-Step Guide to Cooking the Perfect Pasta, Including How to Salt the Water

Following these pieces of advice from chefs will ensure tastier, more nutritional noodles for all

cooking tagliatelle with bolognese
Not many home cooks are aware that pasta’s nutritional value is affected by its preparation. luchezar/Getty Images

Every year, Americans consume over six billion pounds of pasta. Easy and versatile, it’s a culinary staple for chefs and babysitters alike—from gourmet lasagna to Kraft macaroni and cheese. According to a survey commissioned by Noodles & Company, nearly 60 percent of Americans eat pasta or noodles at least once a week.

Pasta began its rise to prominence in the United States with a trans-Atlantic journey, from Europe to the New World. Back in the late 18th century, Thomas Jefferson fell in love with the stuff while dining in Paris. He had a macaroni machine sent to Philadelphia from Naples, Italy. The founding father’s “Notes on Macaroni”—in which he uses the word “macaroni” to refer to pasta in general—ruminate on the specifics of pasta-making; these instructions for creating a flour and water dough and molding it with a machine survive in his papers at Monticello.

Your Ten-Step Guide to Cooking the Perfect Pasta, Including How to Salt the Water
Thomas Jefferson’s drawing of a macaroni machine and instructions for making pasta, circa 1787. Library of Congress

Jefferson was ahead of the curve, though. The wider American populace’ fascination with pasta didn’t heat up until the late 1800s, when immigration from Italy became common. Italian immigrants brought their native cuisine with them, opening restaurants and popularizing ingredients like tomato sauce, olive oil and—you guessed it—pasta. Some transitions were easy: Meatballs were already popular in the United States, enabling the quick canonization of spaghetti and meatballs in the Italian American food scene. Now, it’s difficult to find a grocery store that doesn’t dedicate half an aisle to varieties of pasta. After all, pasta comes in more than 400 known shapes.

Over the past few decades, pasta—which carries lots of carbohydrates—has earned a bad reputation from proponents of low-carb diets, like the original Atkins diet. But the widely touted Mediterranean Diet includes pasta as a key dish. Indeed, carbohydrates are an essential part of a balanced diet, writes Byrdie’s Kelsey Clark. The official Dietary Guidelines for Americans, created by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Agriculture, says carbohydrates should constitute 45 to 65 percent of the total calories a person consumes per day. They’re a primary nutritional source of energy. Take that, Atkins.

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However, not many home cooks are aware that pasta’s nutritional value is affected by its preparation. For the healthiest, tastiest pasta, pasta should be cooked al dente, which means “to the tooth” or “to the bite” in Italian. Your pasta’s firmness will impact its glycemic index: how quickly its carbohydrates release glucose into the bloodstream. A low glycemic index is better for the body, as a slower release helps maintain steady glucose levels—al dente noodles, taking longer to digest, maintain a lower glycemic index than soft and mushy pasta, which we digest faster.

Here are ten more tips for cooking healthy and delicious pasta:

1. Use a large pot.

Your pasta will expand while cooking. Start with a big pot and fill it with enough water for your noodles to have ample cooking space. If you use a small pot, adding the pasta will have a greater impact on the water temperature and increase the time it takes to bring back to a boil.

2. Fill the pot with cold water.

This tip applies to more than pasta-cooking. When boiling anything, remember that hot water dissolves pollutants quicker than cold water, meaning the hot water in your pipes is more likely to contain leached contaminates. To be safe, always use cold water from the tap, and run the water for a few seconds before filling your pot.

3. Don’t skimp on the salt.

Do as Mario Batali does, and salt your pasta water until it tastes “like the sea.” Add salt to the pot as the water comes to a boil. The pasta will absorb the sodium while cooking, adding an extra touch of flavor to the meal. For optimal flavor, former Del Posto executive chef Mark Ladner advised using about one tablespoon of salt per quart of water.

An old wives’ tale claims adding salt makes water boil faster. Technically, it’s true, but the effect is minimal. To lower the boiling point of one quart of water by one degree Fahrenheit, you would need to add three tablespoons of salt. And that’s way too much for the taste buds.

4. Do not put oil in the pot.

As Italian American chef Lidia Bastianich advised, never add oil to your pasta water. While some people believe it keeps pasta from sticking together, oil can clog the pasta’s starchy pores and make it slick, preventing sauce from sticking. And since oil is less dense than water, it doesn’t absorb. Instead, it rests as a slick layer atop the water, waiting to freshly coat the pasta as it’s poured out and drained.

How To Cook The Perfect Pasta | Gordon Ramsay

5. Wait until the water reaches a stable boil to add your pasta.

This one’s for all the impatient cooks out there. Give your water time to reach a full boil, with big bubbles bursting on its surface. Using a lid to trap heat in the pot will speed up this process. Water at an adequate boil will cook pasta faster, without suffering a significant temperature drop when the noodles are added, and this will keep your pasta from getting mushy

6. Stir, stir, stir.

After you add your pasta to the boiling water, don’t forget about it. If you don’t stir the pot every couple of minutes, the pasta will surely stick together, leading to uneven cooking. 

7. Remove the lid.

Once you’ve added the pasta, wait for the water to come back to a rolling boil, and if you use a lid to aid the process, remove it. If you don’t, the starch in the pasta will foam up and explode over your pot’s rim. 

8. Keep time, and consistently test. 

You can cook for the number of minutes the pasta’s package prescribes, but your best measuring tool is your mouth. As chef Jacob Kenedy wrote in his book The Geometry of Pasta, “start tasting the pasta at 15 to 20 second intervals, from a minute or two before you think the pasta might be ready.” 

If serving the pasta with a sauce, chef Michael Chiarello recommended cooking pasta about four minutes less than its package says to. Then, add it to your sautéing sauce and let the pasta finish cooking there. When using this method, just make sure your amount of sauce is proportionate. The pasta shouldn’t be swimming in it. 

spaghetti cooking
If cooking long pasta, such as linguine or spaghetti, try using tongs or a pasta fork to transfer noodles from their boiling pot to the pan containing your sauce. skaman306/Getty Images

9. Don’t pour all the pasta water down the drain.

The water your pasta cooked in can be a great addition to a sauce. It’s salty and, most importantly, full of starch, which helps bind and thicken a sauce. Take a ladle of the water—a quarter cup or so—and set it aside before draining your pasta, then add that water to your sauce. 

The way you drain the pasta can also affect the flavor and texture. If cooking long pasta, such as linguine or spaghetti, try using tongs or a pasta fork to transfer noodles from their boiling pot to the pan containing your sauce. You want to marry the sauce and the pasta as quickly as possible once it’s done cooking. With short pasta, a pasta pot with a built-in strainer is ideal, or you can use a colander in the sink. Just make sure you don’t let the pasta sit too long in the strainer—it will dry and stick together. 

10. Don’t rinse cooked pasta.

Adding oil to pasta water is not the only way to prevent sauces from sticking correctly. Rinsing the cooked pasta under clean water does the same thing, by getting rid of the starchy residue pasta chefs covet. As chef Giada De Laurentiis wrote in her cookbook Everyday Pasta, “the starch on the surface contributes flavor and helps the sauce adhere.” 

All things considered, this tried-and-true culinary staple is pretty easy to cook. Still, following these tips will help you create perfect pasta at home, every time. Whether your noodles become part of fragrant bolognese, fresh scampi or delectable fettuccine alfredo is up to you and your sauce-making skills. 

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