Pasta Cooking Basics Article -
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Pasta Cooking Basics

Learn how to make this dinnertime staple.

Pasta is one dish most people claim to be able to cook. It's true, pasta is relatively simple to prepare--anyone can boil water. Still, there are a few simple tricks you should know.

Tools of the Trade

1. A large (6- to 8-quart) pot
2. Four to six quarts of cold water
3. A healthy dose (1-2 tablespoons) of salt
4. A wooden or long-handled spoon, and
5. A colander for draining the pasta

Boil Water

To cook evenly and prevent it from sticking together, pasta needs "breathing" room. Use a deep saucepan and at least 4 quarts of water per pound of pasta. Salt is added to the cooking water, not to lower the boiling point, but rather to season the pasta. If you don't season the cooking water, the pasta may taste flat--no matter how salty the sauce you dress it in.

  • Bring the water to a full, rolling boil. The temperature will drop once you add the pasta, so make sure it's boiling before dropping in the pasta.
  • Gently stir short pasta immediately after adding to water; let spaghetti and long strands soften for a minute before stirring. Don't break pasta in half.
  • It's not necessary to add oil to the water; you'll just be pouring good olive oil down the drain. Just use plenty of water and stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
  • Don't combine two types or sizes of pasta in the same pot of water, as they will finish cooking at different times.

Al Dente

Pasta should be cooked until it's tender but slightly firm to the bite. If it's going to be used in a recipe--like baked ziti, macaroni and cheese, or lasagna--it can be even firmer, since it will absorb liquid and cook more in the oven. The longer you cook pasta, the mushier it gets. Don't rely on the clock to evaluate doneness. Use those teeth!

  • If you're tossing the pasta with a sauce, reserve a cup or two of the cooking water before you drain the pot. The water can be added to thin out a thick sauce, like pesto, and the starch in the water helps sauces stick to each shape or strand.
  • Cook according to package instructions (usually 10 to 12 minutes).
  • Drain the pasta in a colander. If you're making a cold pasta salad, rinse with cool water to stop the cooking. Otherwise, return the colander to the pot and cover to keep it warm.
  • Pasta should be served immediately in warm bowls. Ladle a scant half cup of sauce in the bottom of each bowl, top with pasta, and add more sauce.

Jul. 16, 2009 12:24 pm
I break my spaghetti strands into about three short lengths. Am I missing anything? Saves me having to cut up my spaghetti.
Aug. 26, 2009 4:14 pm
I agree with everything except with not adding oil to the water. In my experience with pasta, adding oil does two things: It prevents pasta, particularly the wide variety (ie lasagna, fettuccine) from sticking after placing into a colander. Second, it prevents boil over when the pasta is plunged into a rolling boil. About 1~2 TBSP is really all you need.
Aug. 28, 2009 5:01 pm
Question? I thought it was old school to rinse pasta? I do not rinse pasta for hot dishes, I do for a cold salad. I do add Olive oil to water, after I drain the pasta, I use a cooking spray (Pam, i.e.) on the cooked pasta to keep it from sticking together. Can someone answer my question, please? My husband & I have a _________riding on this! Thanks so much.. Lari
Oct. 3, 2009 9:35 pm
They say not to add oil because it can keep the sauce from sticking to the pasta.
Nov. 6, 2009 1:48 pm
Can someone please tell me how to mix cooked spaghetti with cooked veggies, tomatoes etc. Everyone says to toss but all I end up with is all pasta and vegies not mixed in. Help
Jan. 10, 2010 10:16 am
what's the trick to keeping spaghetti from "pooling" after the sauce is added. when i put it all in a big bowl. after a few minutes, there's waterin the bottom of the bowl. yes i drain the pasta well in a colander...what am i forgetting?
The mom 1 
Jan. 13, 2010 4:56 am
I am making mac and cheese for a birthday celebration for 100. Can i make it ahead of time. How far in advance and what do i need to do to reheat?
Jun. 15, 2010 10:35 am
Looking into preparing pasta then not serving until next day. So how would I reheat it? Throw in boiling water again for a few minutes? Your thoughts are appreciated.
Jul. 22, 2010 7:40 pm
We are serving a pasta buffet so need to have spaghetti stay nice for 3 hrs. How long will it hold in chaffer and how often should I change or replace? Have served for large events for many years but it's usually over within 1 hr. so no problems!
Aug. 11, 2010 7:25 am
my daughter just steered me onto this website and i just love it since i'm 61 and never really learned how to cook. thanks for the help.--Donna.
Oct. 8, 2010 9:24 pm
I break my pasta & I add pam to keep from sticking. Sounds like according to the cook I'm doing some things wrong , however, that works best for me
Nov. 17, 2010 3:08 pm
I reheat pasta in the microwave with a little butter or whatever sauce complements it. I have reheated mac and cheese in the microwave as well and add a little milk before.
Dec. 6, 2010 9:30 am
I always end up having to break the pasta when I'm cooking. Does it really effect the cooking of it? I just prefer to have my angel hair a little shorter.
Dec. 20, 2010 9:27 am
This site is awesome ...., all non-cooks need to check into this site ...thanks so much for such great recipes ....
Jan. 16, 2011 10:20 am
Do you get answers to the questions you pose on this site? I would love to hear some answers to excellent questions asked.
Jan. 29, 2011 2:01 pm
i never add oil to my water the sauce always sticks better without it !
Feb. 9, 2011 7:51 am
I usually cook the pasta ahead of time, and while it is draining add 6 tablespoons of butter or marg to bottom of empty pot to melt plus large clove minced garlic (we love garlic) and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Saute garlic for a few minutes to soften. Return the drained pasta to the pot and toss in butter mixture, replace lid and let stand. When ready to reheat, put in 1/4 cup of water and let the pasta steam on low heat to reheat it. Toss again and voila, ready for sauce! I am of the no oil plenty of water school, and while I keep spaghetti and fettucini whole, I can't see it makes any difference in taste if you want to break it up.
Feb. 10, 2011 6:07 pm
the only thing i ever did right was pasta... until i found this website! now i can do ANYTHING! MMMmmWWaaahhh!
Feb. 13, 2011 1:26 am
Salt does not lower the boiling point of water ! It increase the boiling point. I agree on the olive oil. You would just be pouring good olive oil down the drain. Capt. Qent, long spaghetti are actually more difficult to manage, if you are comfortable with braking them (in half should be enough). If you don't brake them, you will roll them on the fork while you eat them (please avoid cutting them with a knife :) ).
Feb. 13, 2011 1:45 am
My 2 cents. Lari (rinse pasta) : Yes, rinsing pasta is ok only for cold salad. CouleeRegionMike (water in the bottom of the bowl) : remember that the fat (for instance extra virgin olive oil) is the main component of the sauce rather than the water. Also avoid putting to much sauce. There is a risk in overdoing. Mom 1 (mac and cheese) : Sorry I am not an expert of mac and cheese as I am Italian and not American :). Sammy (reheat) : Mix it with the sauce otherwise next day you will have everything stuck together. The next day you can put it in a pan and heat it (traditional way) or just microwave. I suggest to add a bit of water and stir before heating as the pasta absorbs water and will be drier the next day. Lgllyblonde : Breaking pasta is ok If you like (I hope you refer to spaghetti and not maccheroni :) ). It is only about presentation. They present better if you don't break them.
Feb. 16, 2011 12:30 pm
When I boil my pasta I always add a tablespoon or two of sunflower oil. This prevents the pasta from sticking to the pan. Never heard of boiling pasta in olive oil..anyway, if the pasta is still sticky after I drain the water, I add one (or two) more tablespoon(s) of oil and stir. For reheating - I use a pan. I coat the pan with sunflower oil and fry the pasta until it is gently browned (no sauces for this one - cook plain pasta). Tastes really good. If you have a sauce mixed in, heat in a pan without oil. You can also use an oven, although this takes a longer time. Being a health freak I do not recommend using a microwave (although it heats the food up the fastest).
Feb. 16, 2011 12:35 pm
Oh, forgot to mention one more point. I don't use cold water and then heat it in a saucepan till it's boiling hot. Instead, I use the electric kettle to heat my water. It saves time this way. It would be already boiling so I add it to the saucepan and throw in the pasta right away.
Feb. 17, 2011 10:30 pm
My family is Italian and I cook pasta all the time. I always break spaghetti in half - it's just easier to fit in the pot and to eat! I also add just a bit of olive oil to the water. It keeps the pasta from sticking together and I don't think it keeps the sauce from sticking to it if you just use a small amount (1-2 tbs). I also add the salt as it reduces the starchiness and stickiness! And I don't rinse it. Just cook till al dente and then drain quickly in a colander. :)
Feb. 23, 2011 8:07 am
Being of Italian background, I do not cut spaghetti-we know how to twirl, but if you do,so be it - no big deal. I NEVER salt or oil my pasta while cooking - have never been told it was different - have always gotten great compliments for my cooking and sauces (home-made - not hard at all to do). Thanks for letting me put in my "2 cents".
Mar. 26, 2011 10:34 am
For the person having a buffet. I asked a restaurant once how they handled a spaghetti dinner with such a large menu. I was told they cook the spaghetti ahead and keep it in containers in the cooler. When they get an order, they drop a serving in boiling water, drain and mix with sauce.
Jun. 15, 2011 3:35 pm
Good to know...;)
Jun. 15, 2011 3:38 pm
can i make fresh pasta and cook it later or even the next day? I cannot seem to find the answer to this simple question. Thank you so much!
Jul. 15, 2011 2:25 pm
The reason for not adding oil to the pasta cooking water is that you want the sauce to stick to the pasta. IF you cook your pasta in enough water and to al dente you should not have your pasta sticking together. Italian cooks NEVER add oil to the water...Salt is a must and my daughter who has lived in Italy 20 years sometimes adds a clove or 2 of garlic which flavors the pasta nicely. REPEAT....NO OIL IN THE PASTA WATER!!!!
Nov. 8, 2011 8:19 am
I love making basil and parmesean pasta, but I can't get the noodles the right consistency. I am going to try out this recipe and see if I can make it come out a little better.
Jan. 21, 2012 1:56 pm
The best tip I ever received on cooking pasta was to rinse in cold water as soon as pasta is at the stage of tenderness you want. This halts the cooking immediately and removes the sticky texture. I then have no problems even if I serve it next day. If dish is to be served warm, I put it back in the warm pot after the cold water bath, add some butter or olive oil for taste, and just gently warm it before serving. Keeps pastas from getting mushy and sticking together when used for a salad.
Fergie's Daddy 
May 20, 2012 4:11 pm
Author says not to break pasta, but there's absolutely nothing wrong with breaking the pasta. I do it every time I cook pasta, which is several times a week for many many years now. Adding oil is pointless. Mario Batali rolls his eyes when people ask him if he adds oil to the pot of water.I'm rolling my eyes right now. I never add oil and my pasta is always perfect. THE most important thing is to have enough water in the pot. Also, Mario Batali almost always undercooks the pasta by a minute, then drains the pasta, then adds the pasta to the dish/sauce he's cooking. Let it cook in the sauce for a minute to 2 minutes. If there's not enough liquid in your dish, add some of the pasta water, which will already be hot.
May 24, 2012 6:01 am
After "eye-balling" amounts of dry pasta to cook and always ending up with a "gob" of extra pasta, I invested in a digital cooking scale and always weigh the 2 oz recommended pasta per serving! Wow! what a difference! Do it! What I need now is a fool-proof way to freeze pasta as my husband needs to bring lunch with him each day. Help! The texture seems to become grainy....
Aug. 3, 2012 10:59 am
I never used to salt pasta, but once I tried it I realized I liked it--a lot. I hardly ever cook unsalted pasta anymore. It just tastes too good with the salt. That having been said, I do break spaghetti noodles... because I find the long strands can be tricky to eat, not to affect the way it cooks. And I do use olive oil sometimes to prevent sticking, if I make more pasta than I think will be eaten right away--I just don't dump it in the water, I add it after the pasta has drained. It's true that it can affect the way the sauce coats the pasta, although in my experience this seems to depend on the kind of sauce. It also tends to make it taste like the oil.
Oct. 7, 2012 9:55 pm
Hi, Seems to me that their are a lot of variations that are comfortable to the individual. Personally, I do salt my water for taste, I do rinse my pasta to remove the starch and I do add just a smidge of any oil because I forget to come back and stir. I do have a tendency to always cook too much as well. So in order to compensate I have learned over the years that you can freeze cooked pasta as well. In order to reheat just dump it in a colander under hot water in the sink and viola! Works great when you have teenage kids in the house. As far as for the breaking of the pasta in half, that is only for presentation. I remember as a kid my dad teaching me how to "twirl" with a fork and spoon. This unfortunately is a lost art. If you slurp like my kids do, lol, I would suggest breaking your spaghetti up first.
Dec. 9, 2012 10:30 pm
too complicated
Jan. 27, 2014 1:19 pm
How many cups of cooked pasta equals one quarter pound of uncooked pasta?
Mar. 15, 2015 9:36 am
I want to make buttered noodles for 15 for my husband to take to an outing this next Friday. I would like to know how to pack up buttered noodles and how to reheat in microwave? Anyone?
May 24, 2015 8:19 am
Leave the salt out of the water, your pasta will retain water if cooked in saltwater. Cook in fresh cool water, add salt afterwards if desired, this will help keep your pasta from turning to mush.
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