Pasta is so simple, even a broke college kid can make it, right?
Well, yes, if simply scarfing down calories is your goal. It doesn’t take much know-how to boil water, open a jar of sauce, and hope for the best. But if you want a delicious, authentic Italian-American plate of al dente pasta, there are many nuances to master.
From leaving the noodles in the colander to not salting the water, here are 8 common mistakes we’ve all made when cooking pasta.
Also see, Avocado whole wheat pasta salad.
1. Your pot is too small
Size does matter. Pasta should be swimming because it will soak up water and expand. Once it expands, if there isn’t enough water left, it will get mushy and sticky. For 1 pound of pasta, fill a 4 or 5 quart pot about 3/4 of the way with water and boil. For 2 pounds of pasta, you’ll need to jump to a 1- to 12 quart pot.
2. You don’t salt the water
Adding salt to the water helps flavor the pasta. Too many home cooks don’t add nearly enough salt — some are guilty of not adding any. Your pasta water should taste as salty as the sea. You’ll want to add about 1 tbsp of salt per quart of water right as it’s coming to a boil.
3. You make way too much
Judging how much dry pasta to cook can be difficult, especially when cooking for for crowd. The recommended serving size for pasta is 2 ounces. For spaghetti, that means the bunch you’ve grabbed should be the diameter of a quarter. You can use a bottle cap to measure this on the fly. For smaller noodles, it’s about a fist full. If you’re still unsure, you can always use a scale or look at the nutrition label for recommended number of servings per box.
4. You’re impatient
If you’re taking two kids to two different practices tonight and still need to go pick up a third, you might be tempted to toss the pasta in before the water is ready. But it’s worth waiting the extra minute until you see the big bubbles start to rise to the surface. The boiling water is what prevents pasta from turning mushy, so that high temperature is critical to the texture of the final dish.
5. You walk away
Dry boxed noodles are very forgiving in their cook time, so you might find yourself swept up in another activity away from your boiling pot, but stirring is very important. This simple step is easily overlooked. Stirring helps make sure the pasta cooks evenly and doesn’t stick.
6. You rinse your pasta
Rinsing you pasta is a huge mistake. All the starch present will help create a smooth, silky mouthfeel in your sauce.
7. You dump the water down the drain
Pasta water is a great addition to your sauce. The salty, starchy water adds flavor but also helps the sauce stick to the pasta. It can also thicken the sauce. Add about 1/4-1/2 cup to your sauce pot before adding the pasta.
8. You let your pasta sit
Your finished pasta should never wait around in a colander — or worse, a pot of hot water. The hot water will, of course, continue to cook the pasta if left to sit, and the colander will give it too much of a chance to cool and stick. As soon as the pasta is finished, toss it with warm sauce and a splash of starchy cooking water.
9. You Don’t pair the sauce well
Not every noodle is designed for every sauce. While you may reach for whatever is opened, there is much more of a science to it than that. Long skinny pastas, such as spaghetti or linguini, are best served with light olive oil-based sauces or light cream sauce, like a Carbonara. Twisty pastas like fusilli or rotini are good with textured sauces such as pesto. Penne and rigatoni are best for thick, chunky, or meaty sauces and also hold up well in bakes (like ziti). Shells are also great for scooping up thick, chunky sauces and larger ones can even be stuffed.
10. You don’t cook the pasta with the sauce
If you have a habit of cooking your pasta and your sauce separately, you’re making a big mistake. Once you’ve drained your al dente pasta, you can toss it in a pan with some sauce for 30 seconds or so to marry the two. Pasta has pores, and when it’s hot, it can pick up on the flavors in your sauce, making a much better dish.
Also see, Tomato basil gnocchi soup.
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