Summer's Best Potluck Dish: Three Bean Salad

A bunch of uncooked paccheri pasta on the counter
Tips for Cooking Pasta

Seems like a no-brainer, right? Open the box, dump the contents in boiling water, drain and done.

Well. Not so fast. The difference between good pasta and not so good pasta comes down to a handful of “musts” and a couple of “must nots.” If you were lucky enough to grow up with an Italian nonna, likely the process is familiar. But to many, these open secrets may have been missed.

Perfect pasta begins with the right vessel. Make sure to cook your pasta in plenty of water. A pound of pasta requires a large stock pot. A half-pound can go in a medium saucepan. This ratio of water to noodles will ensure that the pasta cooks evenly and won’t stick to itself or to the bottom of the pot.

Before the pasta goes in, add lots of kosher salt to the water – likely way more than you think is necessary. Pasta dough isn’t made with salt, and this is the only chance to actually season the noodles. To test if enough salt has been added, I quickly dip a finger into the water before it boils and taste it. It should not be overly salty, but you should be able to taste the salt in the water. I like a ratio of two tablespoons of Morton’s Kosher salt to 5 quarts of water.

Don’t add oil to the water. First of all, it’s a huge waste of good olive oil. Secondly, what little oil doesn’t wind up down the drain will coat the pasta, keeping your sauce from clinging as it should – your dish will not be cohesive. Plus, though you may have heard that oil will keep your water from bubbling up and over the top of the pot, this isn’t true. (If this happens, there is just too much water in the pot and not enough space for the pasta to circulate. You might also need to manage the heat level of your burner.)

Spaghetti in a pot of boiling water

Extra pasta water is your friend. Before you drain your pasta, scoop out a cup or two of the cooking water – I use a Pyrex measuring cup. This water has starch from cooking, and is an invaluable ingredient for finishing the dish and thickening the sauce. Or if you prefer, you can scoop out the pasta with a large slotted spoon or tongs, and add it directly to your pan with the sauce. That way there is plenty of cooking water left in the pot to tap when finishing your dish.

Don’t rinse the pasta. It stops it from cooking (keep reading, you’ll finish your pasta in your sauce) and doing so rinses away flavor and starch.

Cook it until it is al dente, about 2 minutes shy of the recommended cooking time. Then, **and this is super important** put your noodles directly into your pan with the sauce. The pasta and sauce must meld together over low heat as you stir in some pasta water, which will finish cooking the pasta, and allow your dish to come together. Taste for seasoning, realizing the cooking water is well salted, and only add more salt if needed.

Serve immediately! Pasta waits for no one.

Bucatini in red sauce with Parmigiano, herbs and almond slivers

The only exception to these rules is when cooking lasagne. Adding oil to the pot is a good thing in this case, as it will help keep your noodles from sticking together and tearing, which is important as you prepare your pan. Rinsing the noodles after they are drained will help, as well. Once rinsed, lay them on a paper towel-lined baking sheet to keep them separated and easy to use.

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