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Welcome to cooking pasta 101! Read on to learn the three basic steps for cooking pasta start to finish, and my tried-and-true pro techniques for how to cook perfect pasta at home, every time!
You might assume that cooking pasta doesn’t require a whole tutorial. I mean it’s basically boiling water, right?! The truth is that it’s not complicated to master the art of cooking pasta. But like anything, if you want awesome results, it’s all about the details!
I’m teaching my easy-to-execute pro “secrets” because I believe everyone should know the basics of cooking dried pasta correctly. It’s a life skill, right up there with riding a bike.
Pasta was a cornerstone dish in my Italian-American family. The process of properly cooking pasta is totally ingrained in me, passed on from my mother and grandmothers. My first baby food was a tiny type of pasta (called pastina) that was mixed with milk and butter to make a creamy cereal.
In other words, pasta is life. I worked in Italian restaurants, and almost wrote my first cookbook with only pasta dishes!
Fresh versus dried pasta
This tutorial is about cooking extruded, dried pasta, long pasta shapes or short pastas made with durum wheat flour and water. In comparison, fresh pasta is made with eggs and the cooking steps are different.
Tip: Buy high-quality dried pasta. Pasta that has been cut with bronze dies has a wonderful rough texture, which is the BEST for catching sauce. Good pasta in hand, you’re already halfway to making the best pasta ever.
Frequently asked pasta-cooking questions:
- Which is the best pot to use for cooking pasta
- How much water does it take to cook pasta
- The proper way to salt pasta water
- How long does it take to cook pasta
- The meaning of al dente
How to cook pasta properly
Master the three “golden rules” and cook pasta like a pro:
- Water volume: Learn the ideal amount of water for cooking pasta
- Salt quantity: The best salt ratio for tasty pasta
- Cooking time: Time chart for different pasta shapes
#1: Use the correct amount of water
No matter the pasta shape, to cook up to a pound of pasta, you need lots of water — at least 4 quarts (1 gallon). So what’s the best pot to use?
The best type of pot for cooking pasta is large and deep. The size matters because there needs to be enough capacity to allow the pasta to submerge fully and move freely in the pot while it cooks. This prevents the pasta from clumping and sticking together, ensuring each piece of pasta cooks evenly.
The perfect size large pot to use to cook pasta is 5-6 quarts for every pound of pasta. This amount serves 4-6 people. If you’re doubling a recipe or regularly cooking for a larger crowd, an 8-10 quart pot will work best.
Use a basic stainless steel pot or coated aluminum pot with a lid that has at least a 5-quart capacity. Add 4 quarts of cold tap water and bring to a full rolling bowl over high heat.
I don’t recommend using a heavy pot like a Dutch oven to boil pasta. Not only does it take twice as long to bring water to a boil in a cast iron pot, but when it’s full of water AND pasta the pot is very heavy! You could sprain your wrists lugging that thing to the sink to drain :-O
Save your beautiful pot for cooking an old-school pasta sauce or make fall-apart delicious slow-cooked red wine short ribs.
#2: Salting Pasta Water
Salt is the absolute key to delicious, perfectly cooked pasta, definitely.
You might have heard that you should salt your pasta water so that it tastes like the sea, which is only a slight exaggeration.
For cooking pasta, the perfect ratio of salt to water is 1 tablespoon kosher salt or coarse sea salt per quart of water. *Note that if you have regular table salt, reduce the total amount to 2 teaspoons per quart — it’s a “saltier” salt compared to kosher salt.
- It might seem like a lot of sodium, but just enough salt is absorbed into the pasta, which makes it tastes good. Restaurant chefs often use double that amount. Know that you’re not actually consuming all that salt — it’s diluted with water, most of which is drained off.
- Another thing to remember is that a portion of the starchy pasta water often becomes part of your finished sauce (like creating a saucy texture in pesto) so you want it to taste seasoned and full of flavor.
- Bring the pot of water to a full boil before adding salt. It will dissolve faster and you’ll avoid damaging your pot — before reaching a boil, the grains of salt can settle in the bottom and cause pitting in the metal.
#3: Pasta Cooking Time
How to boil pasta: Fill a large pot with 4-5 quarts water and bring to a rolling boil. Add 1 tablespoon salt per quart of water and the pasta. Stir frequently, and taste the pasta at intervals.
- Different pasta shapes and brands will have different cooking times — it’s not one size fits all. What you’re going for is that all-important al dente texture.
- Cooking directions on the box can be inaccurate, so instead of setting a clock and walking away, I encourage you to follow your senses. Taste early (about 3 minutes into cooking time) and often.
Refer to this chart of common pasta types to get a general guideline of pasta cooking times:
Basic Pasta Cooking Times:
Time starting with adding pasta to boiling salted water. Refer to package directions and be sure to taste-test!
- To use cooked pasta in a cold pasta salad, cook as directed. Drain and toss with enough olive oil to coat, then spread on a sheet pan or baking dish and allow to cool, stirring it occasionally to keep it from sticking together. Transfer to a container, add the salad dressing and refrigerate.
- If you’re cooking for guests or dinner party, have your sauce ready, then cook the pasta just before serving. Hot pasta waits for no one!
- Don’t rinse cooked pasta. All that precious starch that binds or “marries” the pasta with the sauce should not go down the drain.
- Do you need to add oil to boiling pasta to keep it from getting sticky? No, please don’t! Oil creates a slick layer that prevents sauce from sticking to the surface of the pasta. If anything it’s a waste of good olive oil. Just use enough boiling water as directed and stir, stir.
Al dente pasta, which literally means “to the tooth,” has a springy texture when you take a bite. If you break open a piece of perfectly cooked pasta, you should see a core of lighter yellow inside.
The trick to achieving that elusive al dente doneness is to taste the pasta as it cooks. Practice slightly undercooking pasta because it will continue to cook in the moments after you drain it and add your homemade tomato sauce, amatriciana sauce or a spiced-up arrabbiata sauce.
I often take the pot off the heat a minute or two before it’s done, allowing the pasta to finish cooking in the the hot water while I multitask in the kitchen.
Equipment for cooking pasta
Cooking pasta doesn’t require fancy tools, far from it! All you need is the right size pot, a spoon for stirring and a spacious non-plastic colander to drain the pasta into. Pasta pots with colander inserts are an upgrade, but not necessary. A slotted wooden spoon is what I use because metal spoons burn your mouth.
Masterclass: How to Cook Pasta Like a Pro
Yield: One pound pasta, enough for 4-6 people as a main course
- 4 quarts cold tap water
- ¼ cup kosher salt, use half the amount (2 tablespoons) if using table salt
- 1 pound dried pasta
- Bring the water to a rolling boil in a 5-6 quart tall pot. Add the salt and stir it in to dissolve.
- Add the pasta to the pot and stir. Bring the water back to a boil, then adjust the heat to a lively simmer. Cook the pasta uncovered until al dente (use the time chart above as a guideline), stirring it frequently. Use a slotted spoon to sample the pasta for doneness as it cooks.
- Before draining, scoop out some of the pasta cooking water and reserve for your sauce recipe, if needed. The starchy water helps "marry" the pasta with the sauce.
- Transfer the pasta to a pan or serving bowl and combine with your sauce. Serve hot pasta right away!
Karen’s Notes and Tips
- Before draining, scoop out and reserve the pasta water to add to your sauce recipe.
- Don’t rinse pasta after draining.
- Toss hot pasta with sauce (such as Easy Homemade Marinara) and serve immediately.
- If you’re prepping pasta for a baked dish such as mac and cheese, parboil the pasta, which means partially cooking it by reducing the cook time by half.
- To use cooked pasta in a cold pasta salad, cook as directed. Drain (don’t rinse) and spread the pasta on a sheet pan or baking dish. Drizzle with enough olive oil to coat, and allow to cool, stirring it occasionally to keep it from sticking together. Transfer to a container, add the salad dressing and refrigerate.