Kathy Maister's Start Cooking

How to Cook Pasta

posted in Main Dishes, Pasta, Rice and Grains, Soups, Salads, Sides and Sauces by Kathy Maister

Cooking pasta is really very easy, until it goes wrong. And then it’s a disaster!

But if you follow a few simple rules, there is no reason why it need ever be troublesome.

The rules really are very simple:

1. Use a BIG pot

2. Boil lots of water (Cover the pot — the water will boil faster)

3. Add salt when the water comes to the boil

4. Put in your pasta and bring it back to the boil

5. Give the pasta a stir

6. Cook the pasta for no longer than it says on the packet.

1 and 2. Use a BIG Pot and boil lots of water.
The first mistake people make when cooking pasta is the size of their pot. Pasta needs a lot of space to move around in while it cooks. If it doesn’t have this space, then there’s a good chance that the pasta will stick together or to the sides of the pan, with disastrous consequences.

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Technically, 1 pound of pasta yields 8 servings, according to what most boxes say. However, in my family it’s usually 4 servings! What can I say…hearty appetites!

To cook 1 pound of pasta, it is recommended that you use 4 quarts of water. That means you will need a 6-quart pot. (In addition to the water, the pasta needs to fit in as well.) If you cook a lot of pasta it is worth investing in a big pot – it’s also really useful for other dishes, especially for making soups.

Even though we are going to be bringing the water to a boil, be sure to start off with cold tap water. Apparently, hot water enables the impurities in the pipes to come through the pipes faster.

3. Add salt to the water when it comes to the boil.

The addition of salt is vitally important to the cooking process, as it ensures even cooking throughout the depth of the pasta. If you don’t add salt the pasta acquires a slimy texture when cooked. But don’t add it too early or it will just make the pot take longer to come to a boil.

You need to add 2 tablespoons of salt to the water when cooking pasta for four, (oops I mean eight.)

Very little of the salt stays with the pasta when it is served. (It stays in the cooking water.) So those on a low salt diet don’t have to worry too much about the amount of salt that goes into the water.

4 and 5. Put in the pasta all at once and bring it back to the boil.

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As the pasta comes back to the boil, give it a good stir with a wooden spoon, a pair of long tongs, or a spatula to make sure that none of the pasta is sticking together.

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6. Cook the pasta for no longer than it says on the packet.

When the water comes back to the boil start your timing. This is VERY important. (I use a timer that beeps at me after the set timing.)

On the packet will be the cooking time for that particular pasta. Do be aware that different manufacturers’ times are different – even for the same type of pasta.

Once the pasta is getting near the set time it should be ready, lift out a piece of pasta with a fork or a pair of tongs and bite it to see if it is cooked. The pasta is cooked when it is slightly firm to the bite, a condition called al dente.

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Repeat the biting test as the pasta nears the point of perfection. As soon as this point is reached, you should stop cooking straight away and drain the pasta through a colander. Don’t overcook pasta!

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You don’t want the pasta to sit around once it’s cooked. It will go soggy, so be ready to serve up your pasta and sauce as soon as the pasta is cooked.

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Some people recommend that you put oil in the water when you add the salt (step 3). I really don’t recommend adding oil because while it may stop the pasta sticking, pasta that’s cooked in oily water will become oily itself. As a result, the sauce slides off, doesn’t get absorbed, and you have flavorless pasta.

Oh, and by the way: Tossing the strand of spaghetti on the wall to see if it sticks is not my way of checking for tenderness. Let’s just say I have heard it has been done that way.

Enjoy your pasta! Any questions?

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Cooking Pasta Ingredients:

(6-8 Servings)

  • 1 pound of pasta
  • 4 quarts of water
  • 2 tablespoons of salt

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25 Comments

Sara Sweetser said:

Hi auntie kathy!!! I have been lurking for so long I thought I should write. I have learned so much from this site so far!! One piece of advice I do have is never try low carb pasta!! It tastes like paste. Keep up the good work, I love reading your blogs.

Kathy (Maister) said:

Thanks Sara! I am delighted you have joined in! This is just the beginning….
Cheers!

Fiona Torrance said:

Kathy –
Thank you so much for posting the piece about pasta. Before I learned to add a little olive oil to my pot (yes—and use a large pot!) my pasta looked like a stick ornament of sorts. What I haven’t mastered is lasagne. Would you post some recommendations on cooking lasagne? Thank you—your blog’s great!

Kathy (Maister) said:

Hi Fiona, I will add lasagne to the “to do list”, and let you know when it’s been posted. In the mean time, let me know what else you would like me to cover. All suggestions are greatly appreciated!
Cheers!

Bethany Riskin said:

The analogy that I have always remembered is, “Pasta loves to swim.”

Kathy, I had NO IDEA that adding salt before the water boils makes it take longer to come to a boil. I have always started with hot tap water and salt, then waited forever for it to boil. So, from now on, I will start with cold water and add salt when it boils.

One note: instructions on the package usually give a range, such as “6 to 8 minutes.” I set my timer for the lower number to check to see if it is al dente (“to the tooth).

Great guidelines on pairing pasta and sauces in your previous blog! I have copied that one for quick-reference. I LOVE this blog and I love you for doing it!

Raymond said:

i like to learn more ^_^ nice prisentision

Kriss Daily said:

How do you prevent water forming on the plate of pasta after a tomato based red sauce i/s applied

Kathy Maister said:

Hi Fiona, I now have a post and a video on Lasagna!

Bethany and Raymond, many thanks!

Kriss, First of all do not use any oil in the boiling water used to cook the pasta.

Drain the pasta thoroughly. Reserve one cup of the pasta cooking water.

Instead of then topping the pasta with sauce, add the pasta to the pot of tomato sauce and mix it all together. It may be even get too dry! This is where you can add 1/4-1/2 cup of pasta cooking water to the pasta to keep it moist.

Good Luck!

Kathy Maister said:

Today’s New York Times (1-28-08) newspaper had a great article on why you should always start with cold water when cooking anything:

The Claim: Never Drink Hot Water From the Tap

By ANAHAD O’CONNOR

THE FACTS
The claim has the ring of a myth. But environmental scientists say it is real.

The reason is that hot water dissolves contaminants more quickly than cold water, and many pipes in homes contain lead that can leach into water. And lead can damage the brain and nervous system, especially in young children.

Lead is rarely found in source water, but can enter it through corroded plumbing. The Environmental Protection Agency says that older homes are more likely to have lead pipes and fixtures, but that even newer plumbing advertised as “lead-free” can still contain as much as 8 percent lead. A study published in The Journal of Environmental Health in 2002 found that tap water represented 14 to 20 percent of total lead exposure.

Scientists emphasize that the risk is small. But to minimize it, the E.P.A. says cold tap water should always be used for preparing baby formula, cooking and drinking. It also warns that boiling water does not remove lead but can actually increase its concentration. More information is at http://www.epa.gov/lead or (800) 424-5323 (LEAD).

THE BOTTOM LINE
Hot water from the tap should never be used for cooking or drinking.
scitimes@nytimes.com

Ponzo said:

That pot isn’t nearly big enough. It should be at least twice that size.

Kathy Maister said:

Ponzo, in my video on How to Cook Pasta, I did use a bigger pot. All the pasta directions say to use a 4-6 quart pot to cook 1 pound of pasta. The pot I used above was actually a 7 quart pot. It did work fine but, I agree, if you have a bigger pot, by all means use it!

KGWagner said:

Kathy:

“Even though we are going to be bringing the water to a boil, be sure to start off with cold tap water. Apparently, hot water enables the impurities in the pipes to come through the pipes faster.”

Actually, it’s usually the hot water tank that’s going to bring little bits of flotsam and jetsam along. The tanks tend to oxidize internally, and as bits fall off or flake into the tank, they get passed along to you.

Then, there’s the issues brought up in the article you linked that talk about hot water leaching your plumbing more easily. I have my doubts on that one, because if heated water leached any appreciable amount of lead from those joints, it wouldn’t take long for your plumbing to fail. They’re talking about the lead in the solder used to form the pipe joints, which is quite minimal, and is only seen in copper plumbing.

Kathy Maister said:

Hi KGW, you and my brother would get along really well! A while ago I asked my brother (a Water Commissioner) about hot tap water. The detailed, scientific explanation, which he gave me, including graphs and charts, all came to the same conclusion; start with cold water! :)

Valerie said:

Hi Kathy,

Thanks for all of your help cooking. I really enjoy your site. I was looking for help on homeade noodles. My homeade noodles aren’t turning out very well. Do you have any advice or will you be adding that to your list? Thanks again so much!

Kathy Maister said:

Hi Valerie, I don’t think I will be making home-made pasta in the near future here at startcooking.com. Perhaps eventually but for now, does anyone have a favorite pasta making site to recommend to Valerie?

KGWagner said:

Valerie –

Making pasta is conceptually simple. There’s a recipe here that works.

In reality, it’s a lot of work that generally doesn’t pay. Little things like the size of your eggs and the humidity in the air will conspire to make your life difficult, and handling the stuff is no fun in any event. For what commercial dried pasta costs, you end up working like a slave for about 5 cents an hour to make the stuff, and it’s not much better.

The only time I’ve found it to be worthwhile is if you want to use a custom filling to make something like ravioli or stuffed tortellini that you can’t get anywhere else. Even then, you gotta want it bad.

Kathy Maister said:

KGW, that exactly why I will most likely not be making pasta here a startcooking.com. Making good home made pasta is all about touch and feel and experience. Valerie, with practice I’m sure you will master it!

KGWagner said:

When we bought the Kitchen Stand mixer beast, we also got all the various attachments for it, one of which was the pasta making machinery. You can make anything with this thing. Guess how many times we’ve used it? Once.

Assuming you want to go through all the work, then there’s a mountain of gadgetry to clean up. And, while the results were good, they were indistinguishable from what we could get in the box or bag from Kroger’s.

So, it eats valuable storage space waiting on inspiration, but more accurately as a reminder that there sits a couple hundred dollars that could have been spent better.

The old saw about not going grocery shopping while you’re hungry applies to kitchen utensil shopping, too

Valerie said:

KGWagner,

Thanks for the website. I will give it a try. I believe you when you say it is SO much work.

But I personally think it tastes better than dried pasta in a box or the fresh refrigerated kind from the store. However, I still need to see if the frozen kind is good – and that might make my life easier.

I had homeade pasta in chicken soupat a tiny little bistro – and it was probably the yummiest meal I’ve ever had.

Thank you again – I am anxious to try this one out!

KGWagner said:

Valerie –

We didn’t find the taste to be too much better here – what little improvement was probably in our minds after having spent all that effort to make it. Refused to believe it wasn’t better

But, that was part of the motivation for buying the equipment to make it – flavoring. You can add spices to change it, or modify thicknesses, etc. I mean, what would be wrong with a slightly thicker pasta, sheeted like you might strip into lasagne noodles, seasoned with onion or garlic powder, then cut into 1″ squares for a hearty soup?

I’m making myself hungry here… maybe I’ll drag out that machine again…

Kathy Maister said:

Let me agree with both sides of this discussion.

On the one hand I don’t think making your own pasta is something I want to recommend to the beginner cook (my readers). On the other hand, I can agree that if you do decide to try it, it can be fun and worthwhile.

When I was young and single, I shared an apartment with two real “foodies”! After living in
Italy for a year, they came home having perfected making their own pasta. At least three times a week they made fresh pasta for dinner-by hand with a hand crank pasta machine. As we all cooked together we laughed and talked and shared the events of the day. It usually took quite some time to actually get the meal on the table. The ritual was delightful! And yes I do believe that pasta tasted better than the dried stuff in the box. :)

Valerie said:

KCWagner~ you are making me hungry, so I better get offline and go cook!

Kathy- Thank you again for having this website. It sure sounds like you and roomates had a great time!

kay said:

i love the recipe

Gerald Arnoult said:

Mrs. Kathy Maister:

Dos the type of cookware you use effect the test and quality of food? (Spaghetti and meat balls) such as Cast-iron Stainless steal or Aluminum cook ware?

Thank you

G.A.

Kathy Maister said:

Hi Gerald,

This is an excellent question! Pans can be made from cast iron, enamel cast iron, aluminum, anodized aluminum, non-stick aluminum, stainless steel etc.

Food reacts differently on all of these surfaces. Here is an excellent 10 video describing all of these types of pans. Rita also has a video on seasoning a cast iron pan which is very helpful.