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Cooking pasta for a crowd

Cooking pasta for a crowd can be a nightmare if you try to do it the "normal" way by following the cooking instructions on the packet.

Not counting the time it takes for water to boil, it generally takes 8 to 10 minutes to cook each batch of pasta, which might be enough to feed around six people.

Imagine if you are throwing a pasta party and cooking pasta for a crowd of, say, 30 to 50 people! You will be spending your entire time in the kitchen, you will be too stressed out to enjoy your party.

Don't worry. There is an easy way out and this is how restaurants cook pasta...

The trick is to parboil pasta - that is, partially pre-cook it for about two minutes. I've read some instructions that say to cook for exactly two minutes, but hey, a few seconds plus or minus are not going to ruin your pasta dish, will they?

Cooking pasta for a crowd - the details

Below are more detailed instructions and guidelines for cooking pasta for a crowd:
  1. Set aside time in the morning or early afternoon before the party. This is because the pre-cooked pasta will keep fresh in the refrigerator for up to about six hours.

  2. Have a large / tall cooking pot -- one that is big enough to comfortably hold about six litres of water, with enough room above the water surface to accommodate the boiling bubbles. Otherwise you will have to spend much longer time cooking in small batches. Make sure you have enough water for the pasta to "swim" freely and not be all clumped up. More water is better than less.

  3. Add a generous amont of salt to the water -- about three heaped teaspoonsful, and bring to the boil over a BIG fire. Cooking pasta requires rapidly boiling water. If your fire is small and the water is barely boiling, you may need longer cooking time, and in the end the pasta may not turn out nice.

  4. Add pasta. Long pasta like spaghetti, fettucine or linguine will wilt (soften) and sink to the bottom. Once the water returns to a boil, start your timing and cook the pasta for about two minutes.

  5. Rinse the pasta thoroughly in cold water, to stop the cooking process.

  6. Add a few drop of olive oil and mix well, to prevent the pasta from clumping together. Normally, this is not done for regular pasta, as the oil might prevent the pasta sauce from sticking to the pasta. But for parboiled pasta when cooking pasta for a crowd, this is okay. Pasta sauce sticks well to parboiled pasta.

  7. Cover with cling film and store in the refrigerator for up to six hours.

  8. At party time, re-cook the pasta -- as usual, in rapidly boiling salted water -- for one to two minutes. The actual cooking time will depend on the type and brand of pasta, as some need longer cooking than others. If you are not sure, start to test the pasta for al dente (cooked but firm, not soft) after one minute.

These instructions are slightly different from cooking pasta for regular meals. For example, rinsing in cold water and adding oil at the end of cooking is not normally recommended, Well, some compromises are inevitable when cooking for large crowds. Click here for a detailed article about cooking regular pasta rather than cooking pasta for a crowd.

How much pasta to cook?

When cooking pasta for a crowd, bear in mind that people tend to eat less at parties, especially at parties where they mix and mingle rather than sit down and eat.

A 500 gram packet of dried pasta is usually said to serve 4 to 6 persons, depending on whether they are big or small eaters. But I find this recommendation somewhat excessive - see my article on how much pasta to cook. For mornal meals, I usually work on 50 to 75 grams or pasta per person.

When cooking pasta for a crowd, I would use even less, and calculate on the basis of each packet serving 10 or more people. This is just a rough guideline. It depends on so many factors, such as how many other dishes there will be and so on. But often enough, I have been to parties where, at the end of it, there is plenty of pasta - and other food - left over. You may have had similar experiences.

So don't overcook. Whether it is pasta or some other dish, knowing how much to cook for a crowd is itself a skill to be cultivated. It takes experience. And if there is not enough of your dish to go around, take it as a compliment that your guests have enjoyed it tremendously :-)

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