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Cooking pasta properly

Cooking pasta is easy. Just follow the instructions on the packet. Cooking it properly is anotgher matter.

Before you even start, make sure you have the proper kitchen equipment and tools. Otherwise, you could end up in a mess - with soggy, sticky, over-cooked pasta - like I did when I first began cooking pasta years ago.

To cook pasta successfully, you need:

  • a large, preferably tall, cooking pot
  • a big fire
  • plenty of water
  • salt
  • a kitchen timer
  • a colander to drain the pasta after cooking or, better still, tongs to lift out the pasta.

As for the instructions given on the package, they tend to be brief. And, this is important to note: the cooking time given on the package may not be accurate.

So do read on for some of the finer points on pasta cooking... I learned them only after I thought I already knew how to cook pasta properly. but evidently I didn't. I hope you will find these pasta cooking tips useful:

Cooking pot and water

First, cook pasta in plenty of rapidly boiling water - in an open pot. A few important points to note here:
  1. Use plenty of water. The usual recommendation is about one to 1.5 litres (or quarts) of water per 100 grams of pasta. But there is no need to measure the amount of water for cooking pasta. I ever saw a packet of pasta with the instructions: Bring to a boil 4 quarts (3.78 litres) of water. If you need to be so precise, you have no place in the kitchen!

    Just make sure you have enough water for the pasta to "swim" freely and not be all clumped up. More water is better than less. Ideally, you should have enough water such that, when you add pasta while it is boiling, the water continues to boil and does not stop boiling. This will give your pasta a firmer texture.

    At the same time, do not fill your cooking pot too full, otherwise the water might boil over. This is why you need a big cooking pot. A tall cooking pot is ideal.

  2. Cook over a BIG fire - otherwise a big pot of water will take forever to boil! More importantly, 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. Just make sure the fire is not so big that the water for cooking pasta boils over.

  3. One last thing... cook in an open pot. Do not cover the lid. Some people recommend covering the lid for a short while after the pasta has been added, to return the water to the boil more quickly. This helps if you are cooking large amounts. But ideally, the water for cooking pasta should not stop boiling in the first place.

Salted water

Cooking pasta in salted water improves both the taste and the texture.

The purpose is not so much to make the pasta salty. This effect is minimal, since most of the salt will remain in the water anyway. So don't be afraid to use plenty of salt. Add a generous amount, say about one heaped teaspoonful for cooking 200 to 300 grams of dried pasta, for about four persons.

The purpose of adding salt is primarily to improve the texture of the pasta, making it firmer and more "crunchy" rather than soft and soggy. If you ever cook beans, you will know that you should add salt towards the end of the cooking period, otherwise the beans will not soften. For cooking pasta, you do the opposite - add salt at the beginnig because you don't want the pasta to soften.

Here, the important point to note is this:

  • Add salt after the water boils, but before putting in the pasta. Salt raises the boiling point of water. This is why you add salt after the water has boiled. If you add before, the water will take slightly longer time to boil, that's all.

Do not add oil

Some pasta cooking instructions recommend adding a dash of olive oil to the cooking water to prevent the pasta from sticking together. But experienced chefs will tell you that only poor quality pasta tends to stick together, in which case adding oil might help.

The better way to prevent pasta from sticking or clumping is to cook in plenty of water and stir occasionally, especially at the beginning stage of cooking. And, of course, use good quality pasta. Do not waste precious olive oil for cooking pasta.

Adding oil will also change the quality of the pasta cooking liquid - which, in some cases, is an essential part of the pasta dish.

Watch the time - and stir

Different types of pasta are made differently. Some are thicker, some thinner. Likewise, different brands of pasta are also made differently. So the cooking time varies. Unless you always cook the same type and same brand of pasta, it is important to note the cooking time given on the package.

During cooking, it is useful to stir the pasta occasionally, especially at the start of cooking, to prevent them from clumping together. This is especially important when you do not have sufficient cooking water.

Here are some pointers about pasta cooking times:

  1. The cooking time should be measured after the water returns to the boil, not from the time you first add the pasta.

  2. Not all cooking times stated on the package is reliable. It is best to check your pasta for doneness about one or two minutes before the minimum recommended time. For example, if it says 10 minutes, start to check after about eight minutes.

    The pasta is done when it is firm to the bite and slightly tender. And when you break it apart, the colour should be even. White or light yellow in the centre indicates that the pasta has not cooked through. Some pasta chefs, however, say the pasta should have a timy white dot in the middle.

  3. Some brands of pasta give two different timings: one for al dente (literally "to the tooth" meaning firm but not soft) and one for cottura (meaning well cooked). Choose according to your taste. Most people prefer al dente.

  4. The pasta will continue to cook as long as it remains hot, even after you drain it. Some people recommending adding cold water to stop the cooking, but this will only "wash away" some of the pasta flavour. DO NOT ADD COLD WATER. Instead, you may wish to shorten the time for cooking pasta (or rather, for boiling pasta) and allow it to continue cooking after it has been drained. For quick cooking pasta (such as angle hair) that takes less than 5 minutes, you might shorten the boiling time by 1/2 to one minute. For slower cooking pasta, it may even be okay to shorten the time by 2 or more minutues. There are no fixed formulae. This is is where your experience comes in.

Drain, mix and serve

  1. Before draining your pasta, set aside some of the cooking water if necessary. For example, if you are serving with a sauce that is somewhat dry, you will need to add a bit of the cooking water. Rather than drain, it is actually preferable to lift the pasta out of the cooking water, using tongs or a pasta ladle. This will keep the pasta wet.

    The water used for cooking pasta is starchy and will, in some recipes, help thicken the sauce. In dishes like carbonara, which uses egg, the cooking water will also prevent the egg from curdling when it comes into direct contact with the hot pasta.

  2. Ideally, you should add your pasta sauce immediately after draining. Mix well to prevent the pasta from clumping together. And serve immediately. Hot pasta absorbs the sauce better. So always have your sauce ready and, once the pasta is cooked, drain and mix with the sauce.

  3. Do not rinse with water after cooking pasta - unless you have a special reason, such as when you want to make a pasta salad. Rinsing will remove the surface starch and the pasta won't mix well with the sauce. It will also cool down the pasta too much and again, the pasta and sauce will not mix well.

  4. Do not add oil to the drained pasta - unless you want it for a special reason. Adding oil will only impart an oil flavour and change the taste of your pasta dish.

    If for some reason you cannot serve immediately - for example if some family members are eating later of it you are taking your pasta to a pot luck party - then you might want to keep the pasta and sauce separate. In this case, add a bit of the oil / wet part of your pasta sauce to prevent the pasta from sticking together. Or if you must add oil, add just a tiny amount and mix well.

The above tips and guidelines may seem detailed. But it is the details that make the difference between an excellent pasta dish and a so-so one. In any case, once you get used to the routine, cooking pasta is a breeze.


Click here to learn about cooking pasta for a crowd.

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