Rolling out the dough

Rolling out homemade pasta dough (because I love the photo; the post is about store-bought dried, what we most often use). Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

Stephanie Stiavetti (@sstiavetti) writes The Culinary Life blog. Her first book, Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese, will be available October 22 from Little, Brown, and it’s superb, the best one I’ve seen, in fact—accept no imitations!

Her last guest post was something of a rant, which I’m always in favor of! This is a lovely primer on something we do often but tend to ignore the finer points of, boiling pasta, and to me, the finer points are what make cooking fun  Take it away, Steph! —M.R.

A few weeks ago I talked about the demerits of cheap pasta and left you with the notion that artisan-made dry pasta is leagues ahead of its tasteless, texture-less, mass-produced cousins. It’s also worth noting that cooking dry pasta is an art in and of itself; while it’s a simple process, there’s still a high margin of error.

Since I just wrote a whole damn book on cooking with pasta I thought it might be useful to spell out the best way to prepare dry pasta, so even if you’re cooking with the cheap stuff you’ll have the best possible eating experience. I still argue that the best pasta is that which you make yourself, and we should be covering that in the upcoming weeks. For now, here’s a few tips to get the most out of dried pasta. Pop quiz: How long has that box of noodles been sitting in your cupboard, anyway?

Step 1: Boil some water.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but a lot of people get tripped up on this step and it’s downhill from there. You want the pot of water to be large enough that the noodles can float and bob freely, bumping into each other as infrequently as possible to prevent sticking and clumping. If you cook your pasta in too little water, the noodles will stick together into a gummy, half-cooked mess. The minimum amount of water you want to boil your pasta in is one quart, and that’s the amount you’ll need for just two servings of noodles. Large quantities of pasta will require an even bigger pot. Don’t be afraid to bust out the stockpot if you’re feeding a large group.

–>The standard water : pasta ratio: 1 quart of water for every 1/4 pound (4 ounces) of pasta.

Step 1.5: DO NOT add oil to the water.
Half of my family adds oil to their cooking water because they believe it prevents the noodles from sticking together, but it’s just not true. When you add oil to water, it floats on the surface. That’s it. Any oil that does grab the pasta will do nothing but slick it up. You actually want some sticky starch on the surface of your pasta so that sauce clings to the noodles.

Step 2: Salt the water.
Salt is very important when preparing pasta. It does a lot to bring out the flavor in both the noodles and your overall dish. After you’ve tasted pasta cooked in well-salted water, noodles cooked in plain water will taste bland, bland, bland. Iodized salt should be avoided like the plague—it lends an icky, almost metallic flavor to anything it touches. Instead, use kosher salt or natural sea salt.

Side note: If you don’t believe there’s a difference in the two, taste a dash of sea salt and then follow it with a dash of iodized, spending a few seconds to let each roll around your tongue. You might be surprised at the difference in flavor.

Do not add the salt until the water is at a full, rolling boil. Salt raises the boiling temperature of water, which will affect how well your pasta cooks. Bring your water all the way to a rolling boil, add the salt, and then bring the water back to a boil before adding the pasta. Make sure to stir the noodles for about 30 seconds just after adding them to the water, and make sure to stir frequently to prevent sticking.

How salty should you make your pasta water? “You want the ocean on your stovetop,” is what my Italian grandma liked to say, salting her pasta water to the point that made a lot of her American guests uncomfortable. Don’t worry—not all of that salt will absorb into your noodles. If you’d like a guideline as to how much salt to use, try this:

–>The standard salt : water ratio: at least 1 tablespoon of salt for every 2 quarts of water.

Step 3: Test the pasta.
This is another point of confusion for a lot of home cooks: how long should you cook your pasta? The answer is, it depends. If you’re making an uncooked sauce or just tossing with olive oil, herbs, and cheeses, you want to cook your noodles all the way to al dente. For those not in the know, “al dente” literally means “to the tooth.” The practical meaning, as far as pasta is concerned, is that the noodles are cooked to the degree that they are firm but not hard. You should be able to bite through them without any grit inside the noodle, but they should maintain a firm structure, never squishy, gummy, or soggy.

If you’re preparing a cooked sauce for your pasta, you should drain the noodles just before they get to the point of being al dente. Here you’ll want a little more firmness in the bite, with barely a touch of crunch at the very center of the noodle. You’ll finish the cooking process after you add the noodles to the sauce (more on this below). In this case, you’ll also want to reserve 1 cup of your pasta’s cooking water, some of which you will add to your sauce to finish cooking the pasta; this also has the added bonus of creating a more velvety texture, as the starch in the water thickens the sauce a touch while adding a little body.

If you’re going to be baking your noodles, such as in a macaroni and cheese casserole, you might consider pulling the noodles from the water a minute earlier, while they’re just a hair firmer at the core. This will allow the noodles to absorb the liquid in your casserole without getting soggy.

Step 3.5: DO NOT rinse the pasta.
Don’t rinse your pasta after straining unless you’re following a recipe that specifically calls for it. You’ll wash away all those gorgeously sticky starches that come in handy for keeping your sauce where it belongs: on the noodles. Rinsing can also make your pasta soggy while diluting the overall flavor of your dish. Rinsing may be necessary in some recipes to get the intended result, but if the recipe doesn’t call for it, avoid the temptation.

Many people rinse to keep their noodles from sticking while they complete the rest of the dish. Here’s an important rule of thumb: finish your sauce before you finish your noodles. Sauce is much more patient, waiting politely for its next assignment, while noodles give attitude and clump up like their little lives depend on it. If you have to let your pasta sit for a few minutes while you finish up another part of your dish, toss it excitedly every minute or so to keep it from sticking. Or better yet, learn to time your pasta so that it’s finished cooking exactly when you’ll need it.

Step 4: Sauce the pasta.
A lot of folks serve their pasta in a heap, with a huge glob of their cooked sauce plopped in the middle of it. While there’s nothing wrong with this, per se, there is a better way. Since your pasta should be cooked to just al dente, you might have noticed that it still has a tiny bit more cooking to do. By finishing your pasta off with a few minutes’ worth of cooking in the sauce, your noodles will absorb a good deal more flavor than if you’d finished them off in boiling water and stirred the sauce in at the last minute.

This is arguably the most important step in creating your dish, and it’s most effectively performed when your sauce has been prepared in a large, wide saucepan with a lot of surface area, which will allow more sauce to come in contact with the noodles. Different sauces will require variations of this method, but for your standard homemade cooked sauce, the following steps should do the trick:

After draining your pasta and reserving a bit of the starchy pasta water, add 1/4 cup of this cooking water to your sauce, which should be quite hot. Stir well, add the pasta to the sauce, and set over medium heat. Cook the pasta until the sauce has reduced enough to coat the noodles. If the sauce is reduced and the pasta still needs a bit more cooking, add in a little more starchy water. When the noodles are done, stir in a tablespoon of butter and cook just until it’s melted. Serve immediately.

Note: When cooking noodles in a sauce, don’t go crazy stirring the whole thing constantly with your spoon, lest you mash your noodles into porridge. Another reason a wide shallow saucepan works well: to keep the noodles from burning, you can simply flip the pan with your wrist, which, if done right, should effectively rotate the noodles and keep them from sticking to the bottom of the pan without creaming them with your spoon. (Thank you, Ming Tsai, for the video tutorial!)

The Challenge.
With a little practice, even the cheapest dry noodles can garner a respectable eating experience and act as a worthwhile base for your awesome sauce; but I’d still argue that artisan-made dry pasta will be far more impressive, especially to those who have trained their palates to recognize quality foods. Here’s a challenge: Go out and buy a box of the cheapest pasta you can find, and a box some high-quality artisan-made pasta, such as Baia, Cipriani, or Rustichella d’Abruzzo. Cook them separately to their respective instructions and serve them with the same sauce, side by side. Do you notice a difference in the two pastas? How do they differ in flavor, texture, and body? Which do you prefer? Leave your findings in the comments here.

Want more pasta links?

© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.
Stephanie Stiavetti

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24 Wonderful responses to “Stephanie’s Pasta Primer”

  • Andrew

    Salt does raise the boiling point temperature of your water slightly as you mentioned. Waiting for a rolling boil to add your salt makes no difference compared with adding it to the cold water however, especially if you wait for it to come back to a boil again after adding the salt. It’s still boiling at that higher temperature. And you really would have to add much more salt than one would desire for taste in order to raise that temperature significantly. I prefer to add my salt to the pot as soon as I’ve filled it with water. That way, it’s done and I won’t forget to do it, and it minimizes the risk of splashing boiling water in your face, which can occur with the vigorous boiling that occurs when you add the salt. The important thing is that you add salt (and enough of it) before the pasta goes in.

    • Bruce

      yeah, but your hundred dollar pasta pot does not like salt sitting on the bottom of it. Just take a look. That’s why I salt after the water is boiling.

      • John Robinson

        Diamon Kosher Salt seems to disolve at the same rater weather straight from the tap or boiling. It’s easier for me to just swish my (clean) hands around the cold water to dissolve the salt instead of slowly dumping and storing with a pair of tongs or whatever.

      • chris r

        Why would you spend $100 on a pot to boil water? The nice thing about water is that it is awesome at heat transfer (and retention) so using a heavy bottomed pot is kind of pointless. A heavy pot, in this application, just adds to the thermal mass increasing the required energy without providing any notable advantage.

  • Janet

    Stephanie, thanks for the tutorial on cooking pasta. I do most of what you stated, the salting, no oil, no rinsing and cooking to al dente. The last part about finishing the pasta in the sauce (for me it’s usually tomato) is what I don’t do. Will try that the next time we have pasta. Will your new book be available on Amazon.ca?

  • Jessica

    Thank you!!! I love this!! This (what I call) “Common Sense” seems all to elusive and unknown to SO many people these days. I shall share this with the world!

  • Jeff Woiton

    Ming’s pan-flipping video is great for new cooks, but one thing he didn’t mention is the shape of the pan. The ones he uses are perfect, but some just won’t lend themselves to the flip due to their geometry. I’ve had many a spill when asked to cook at a friend’s house on their consumer-grade pans (Teflon? Really?) because of geometry fighting against me – too much of a bowl shape, wrong angle of the handle, etc. And those big cast-iron skillets are wonders, but too heavy for most people.

  • Michael Villar

    @Chad After cooking via the ‘Kenji’ method a few times, I’m a believer also. It’s easy, efficient and has a greater margin for success than the traditional way. Most importantly, the water is much starchier through his method and can help thicken and salt a sauce.

  • alkali

    Adding just a bit of oil — which, yes, does float on top — prevents boiling over. (I agree that it is nonsense to add oil to keep the pasta from sticking together.)

  • Bruce

    Obviously, size matters if you are cooking long pasta vs. little shapes. The best description I have read of the big pasta pot is from Bill Buford’s great book called Heat. The all-day pot, topped off when necessary, in one of Mario Batali’s restaurants was known as The Bitch, and the starchy liquor it produced by the end of the night sounded sublime.

  • chris r

    At the concentrations you are listing salt does very little to impact the boiling point of water. In order to effect a 0.5C (roughly 1F) rise in the boiling point you need to have a 0.5 molal solution. That’s 29.2 grams of NaCl per Kg of water. Using 1Tbs of salt per 2 quarts of water gives you, roughly, a 0.125 molal solution which would raise your boiling point around 1/4 of a degree F. Adding salt to pasta water is not, and never has been, about the boiling point. It is only to add flavor. It’s one of those kitchen myths that is passed down from parent to child without any real science to support it.

    As an aside, it may seem that adding salt causes the water to boil harder – what is happening is that as the salt dissolves it creates tiny impurities that water vapor (steam) can form around causing a rush of bubbles (these are technically called nucleation sites).

  • Vince Scordo

    The biggest issue with folks cooking dry pasta in the US is an inadequate amount of water (and using inferior dry pasta, which isn’t a matter of technique but rather price point and/or accessibility).

    One point I don’t agree with is the “starchy water” – this isn’t always necessary (viz., adding pasta water to the condiment). For example, if one prepares a tomato sauce then starchy water isn’t necessary unless one is looking to loosen the sauce. Conversely, if one is making a linguine dish with garlic, parsley, red pepper flakes, and olive oil then a bit of starchy pasta water (to loosen the sauce) is probably a good idea.

    I think bringing the pasta to the pan with the sauce/condiment is also something that most home cooks do not do consistently in the US

    Here’s a link to our pasta tips: http://www.scordo.com/2010/03/8-tips-to-make-great-pasta-at-home-italian.html

    • Stephanie

      Hi Vince, the primary point of the starchy water is to loosen the sauce so that you can add the pasta to cook further – your sauce will thicken dramatically if your noodles absorb too much liquid once they’re in the sauce. If that’s your goal, then great – you might not need to add water. But if you do want to maintain your sauce’s consistency, then you’ll need to add some sort of liquid. And why add plain water when you can add the flavorful, relatively starchy water that you cooked the pasta in?

  • chris r

    Last comment – I think the amount of water is more of a matter of preference than anything else (barring the extremes of course). My Calabrian grandmother always used a lot of water while my Sicilian aunt always used a far smaller amount. I never noticed a difference between the results. I’ve tried different amounts and, for the most part, I find that less water leads to a pasta with more retained surface starch – which is great in some applications. Some more reading about this leads me to believe that much of the received wisdom regarding water, temp, and so forth isn’t necessarily backed up by testing.

    An exception is when you are cooking frozen pastas – in those cases you always want to use a lot of water as the larger amount of water won’t lose as much heat.

  • Dean

    Brava!!! It’s great that you so passionately advise us about something we all too often take for granted. Thanks for reminding us that getting the fundamentals right reaps great rewards..

  • Pombetom

    Thank you, chris r!! I was about to post the same comment, that adding normal amounts of salt to cooking water does NOT raise the boiling point appreciably, but I see you beat me to it. Well done! Colligative properties rule.

  • Tags

    If you can get a copy of Marcella Hazan’s “Marcella Cucina,” she explains much better than I could why “hand-stretched” (with a 2-inch-thick, 32-inch-long hardwood dowel with the edges rounded off with sandpaper to avoid tearing the pasta) pasta is superior to all other widely-known methods.

  • Andy

    My husband and I have trouble conforming to the last step, Step 4: Sauce the pasta. I know you say it’s important..but he likes a lot of sauce and I like a little. So we sauce our own. Works for us.

    • April

      Then I would reserve his “extra” sauce, sauce all of the pasta to your liking, and he can add his additional. You’ll both still get the pasta sauced to your liking with the benefit of more flavorful pasta.

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