How to Boil Pasta
By popular request, here is my treatise, my manifesto as it were, on the art of pasta boiling. By the way, this post assumes dried pasta.
Boiling (and making) fresh pasta is a wholly separate critter.
How to Boil Pasta
This should be easy, right? Good news is that it is. However, like most things in the world of cooking, it pays to know a few tricks.
Tools: Pot (or saucepan), wooden spoon, strainer (optional)
Ingredients: Water, dried pasta, salt (preferrably Italian sea salt for the flavor), garlic powder
Goal: Turn your dried pasta into, succulent, supple al dente pasta. What does al dente mean? It translates to “to the tooth” and generally means that the pasta still has a little texture to it. In other words, it’s not all soggy.
Oh, and if you want the advanced goal, try to make pasta that is good enough on its own you don’t need sauce. Not that you won’t eat sauce, I’m just saying.
The Trick: Salt the water properly and treat the pasta like a sick child. You wouldn’t leave a sick child to call your best friend, play Farmville, or watch TV, so don’t do that to your pasta, either.
Step 1. Turn on the hot water. Yes, it’s somewhat anal of me to start here, but in my house, hot water can take a few seconds to start gushing forth from the faucet. So, I turn the water on.
Step 2. Turn on your burner. Do what? Yep, you heard me. The first thing you want to do is turn on your burner because it will start getting hot. This step mainly applies to electric stoves which are going to have to pump out some serious BTUs to get the water boiling, but it’s not a bad step even for gas stoves.
Step 3. Fill your pot with water. How much water? That’s the question, isn’t it? By now, I basically make pasta in two pots. A saucepan for small batches and a soup pot for big batches. I fill the saucepan 2/3 full and the soup pot about 1/2 full. Why those numbers? Honestly, because they work. I simply don’t have hard and fast rules for filling the pot with water.
With that said, you will want enough water that the pasta can get totally submerged and still have space to move around. If you are not sure how much that is, go large. It’s better to add more water than not enough since the only difference with more water is that you will need a little more salt and more time to get the water to boil.
Of course, if you want a guideline start by filling the pot half full.
Step 4. Turn the water off and put the pot on the burner. Sorry, I am being explicit.
Step 5. Salt the water. Don’t argue with me about sodium, high blood pressure, salt monsters from the briney deep, or anything else modern science has devised to make our food not taste good. You are making pasta, you need to salt your water. Case closed. Moving on.
How much salt? That’s the other question, isn’t it? On an episode of Iron Chef, one of the competitors said (via translator) that after exhaustive research, he found pasta cooked best in water that was as salty as the Mediterranean sea, which if I remember right is .0024 salt parts per million (or something like that.)
On the other hand, if you are as confused by parts per million as I am, pour about a tablespoon of salt per quart of water and then taste the water. If it’s not salty like you would imagine sea water to taste like, add more. If it is unpleasantly salty, add more water.
(By the way, I can’t give you an exact measurement for how much salt to use since it depends on a number of factors including the quality of your water, the size of your pot, and your palate.)
Step 6. Garlic the water. Okay, that’s not really a verb, but you get where I am going with this. Add garlic powder to the water to your own personal preference. I add enough so that the top of my water is loosely covered in garlic powder (which won’t dissolve in the water until stirred.) It seems to work.
By the way, I do this for every type of noodle I cook. Including Chinese lo mein, Japanese udon, rice noodles for Vietnamese pho, etc.
Step 7. Bring the water to a full on boil. The water should be boiling violently at the end of this step.
Step 8. Add your pasta of choice.
Step 9. Wait. Wait for the moment when your pasta has reached al dente perfection. When is that? Well, that’s the final question. The answer: I don’t know.
Every pot of spaghetti is different. Different brands make different noodles. Different amounts of water affect the boiling intensity (let’s face it, I am essentially eye balling the amount of liquid). Different amounts of salt change the characteristics of the water as do different types of salt. Different atmospheric pressure play a huge role.
Can you trust the pasta manufacturer to tell you how long the pasta takes to cook? Yes and no. Sure, they know how long their pasta takes to cook in their kitchens and labs. Not yours. So if they say their noodle takes 3-4 minutes to cook, there’s a good chance that is how long it takes. But there is certainly a chance it won’t. What a manufacturer’s suggestion will do is get you familiar with how long one type of pasta takes to cook relative to other types. For instance, angel hair is done very quickly, while rigatoni and penne seem to take longer. These are good things to know.
So you, o gentle reader, have a job. Watch that pasta like a hawk for it to change color. Dried, uncooked pasta is darker and more translucent than cooked pasta, which has a much lighter coloring. Your job is to wait for the color change. Then I usually wait another minute before I get a fork and taste a noodle. It’s usually crunchy, but sometimes I am surprised.
I wait another minute and try again. Usually the pasta is readythen so you can turn the burner off.
Step 10. Drain your pasta. Whether you use a collander or you pour the water out over the sink, you MUST DRAIN YOUR PASTA OR IT WILL GET MUSHY. No exceptions.
With one exception: leave just a little bit of the water in the pot. Maybe a tablespoon. You’ll see why in a sec.
Oh, and a cool trick I found with my pot that has two handles is that I can take my wooden spoon and jam it into the handle and use that to carry the pot around. Very helpful after I’ve drained my pasta and I have a scalding hot handle.
Step 11. Pour the noodles back into the original pot and set it back on its original burner. The water you kept around will cook off and your noodles won’t scald.
Why do step 11? Two reasons.
1) In the WellDone household, we’re not the type of people to toss the pasta into sauce and finish it that way. This is because BWD, Jr. is PICKY. So the pasta sits in its own pot and I like to keep it warm.
2) If you are the type of family that mixes sauce and noodle together, I have found that I am rarely ever ready to mix pasta and sauce. I always want to futz with the sauce, add a last bit of seasoning, etc. Putting the pasta back on the burner gives me a few extra seconds before the pasta stops cooking.
Why is that important? Well, pasta is like a giant sauce sponge. If you toss it in a sauce you, it will suck up the flavors of the sauce– as long as it hasn’t stopped cooking. Sadly, the pasta stops cooking very shortly after you take it out of the water. However, if you can keep it hot, you can fool the pasta into staying a sponge for a few more precious seconds.
And, that’s it. There’s only one final thing to do.
Thanks to McPig for the pic.