7 secrets to always making the perfect al dente pasta

7 secrets to always making the perfect al dente pasta

Pasta is one of the most popular foods in the world, and yet it can be frustratingly difficult to get right.

The best thing about al dente pasta is what chefs call “the mouthfeel”… that delicious combination of textures and flavors that is so satisfying. It’s that key moment when you get a delicious bite of pasta with just the right amount of rich, succulent sauce. MMM. Nothing better, right? But get it wrong and even the best pasta dish will be ruined! It sticks, it clumps together, sometimes it’s undercooked, sometimes it’s mushy. The sauce seems too dry or it slides off completely and pools in the bowl. It’s done!

But fear not, pasta lovers! After extensive research, I have narrowed down all the various techniques out there to just seven essential steps, 7 inside secrets, for perfecting pasta. Follow these 7 inside secrets and your pasta will be al dente and delicious every time.

Secret #1 LOTS OF WATER!

Start with a large volume of cold water in a large pot. At least 4 quarts per pound of pasta. The pasta needs space to “swim” in the water. Without enough water, the paste stays in place. As it cooks, the paste releases starch, a glue-like substance, and if it touches another piece, it literally sticks to the other piece. This is where those hard, fused ends come from! If using a pot and strainer combination, add additional water so the pasta is completely covered and has plenty of room to move. NEVER break the strands. If they don’t fit, use a larger pot.

Secret #2 The water must be BOILING!

Make sure the water is boiling, not just a bubble or two, before adding the pasta. If it doesn’t come to a full boil, it cooks too slowly and will lose consistency. Use a tight-fitting lid to bring the pasta water to a boil quickly and efficiently.

Secret #3 – Salt the water generously!

Once the water comes to a rapid boil, add a generous tablespoon of salt. Do not add the salt to cold water or it will sink to the bottom. Salt does two things. Raises the temperature of the water and flavors the pasta. Most of the salt runs off, so the sodium content isn’t really an issue.

Secret #4 – DO NOT ADD OIL to the water! Have you perhaps heard of adding oil to water to prevent pasta from sticking? The theory sounds reasonable, but here are the problems with that approach. The oil sits on top of the pasta water so it can’t prevent the strands from sticking together under the water. Then when the pasta is drained, the oil coats the pasta and the sauce slides off and pools in the bottom of the bowl. Good quality pasta has a bit of texture to it and the texture, combined with the starchy water in the cooked and drained noodles, helps the sauce to stick to the chunks. Save your good oil for your sauces!

Secret #5 – STIR the pasta! This is essential. When you first add the pasta, it will start to soften and relax in the boiling water. Give the pot a good stir so that everything is below the water line and moving freely. Then gently stir every few minutes or so while it cooks. This prevents it from settling to the bottom and sticking to the pot as it cooks or sticking to other pieces. (see secret #1).

Secret #6 – Taste and retest the TASTE! Once you’ve dropped the pasta, set the timer for the time listed on the package. At the last minute, carefully remove a piece of pasta, blow on it to cool, and taste. It should be cooked through but still with a firm “bite”. If it’s not right, try another part in 30 seconds. Repeat until good. The pasta continues to cook once it’s drained and added to the sauce, so a bit of cooking is actually when you want to remove it from the heat and drain it. Get everything ready so your pasta doesn’t sit in the strainer for too long!

Secret #7 – DO NOT RINSE* your pasta! When you drain the pasta, it’s okay to leave some of the starchy water in it. Don’t rinse this! The starchy water helps the pasta and sauce come together.

* The exception to this rule are pasta salads, stuffed shells, cannelloni, etc., and lasagna. Cold salad pasta should be rinsed under cold water, drained very well, and then tossed with a little salad dressing or olive oil to prevent clumping. For stuffed pasta and lasagna, rinse under cold running water until comfortable handling. Drain well and rub gently with a drizzle of olive oil to make the pasta easier to work with when assembling the dish.

SECRET BONUS: Reserve some of the pasta water. for velvety sauces! Just before draining, carefully remove ½ cup of the starchy pasta water and set aside. This starchy liquid will help smooth your sauces to perfection – it’s an old Italian trick from Nonna’s! Once you’ve combined the pasta and sauce (best done right in the hot pot), add a splash of the reserved starchy pasta water. The starch works to create a creamy, rich and smooth texture that makes the dish sing. Balance the amount of sauce with the pasta to achieve that perfect “mouthfeel”, be careful not to overdo it! Enjoy your meal!

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