Sure, just about anyone can figure out how to cook pasta—figuring out how to cook it to the perfect texture, though, is another challenge entirely.
When cooked too long, pasta starts to get gummy and squishy. When not cooked long enough, noodles have too much of a crunch. Al dente pasta strikes that delicate balance between tender and chewy with just enough bite.
To achieve this pasta perfection, you'll need to master the classic cooking technique.
Over the years, a few pasta pioneers have discovered new ways to cook the favorite Italian dish. Ideas in Food figured out how to cook pasta in just 60 seconds, and The Food Lab realized you don't even need to boil pasta—a simmer will work.
We're all for experimentation, but in our opinion, you just can't beat the classic method. When we're hankering for a big bowl of pasta with mushroom sauce, this is the process we follow.
First, fill a large pot with plenty of water and place it over high heat. Salt it liberally—the water should taste like the ocean. This is the only way you can season the pasta itself.
Once the water boils, add your pasta, and stir it thoroughly for a minute or two. This will keep the noodles from sticking together and ensure an even cook throughout the pot.
Allow the pasta to cook until the texture is al dente. When you take a bite, you should feel a slight resistance, about the same as a fresh stick of gum. If you look closely, you might also be able to see a thin white vein at the center—that's the part of the pasta that hasn't totally cooked.
Often, pasta manufacturers will recommend an al dente cooking time on the packaging. If not, test the pasta two minutes earlier than the specified cooking time.
Last, drain the pasta, reserving a little bit of the cooking liquid for your sauce. Whether you've made a rich tomato sauce from scratch, or just reheated a jarred version, adding a small amount of the pasta water will give it body. A few tablespoons usually does the trick.
Toss your freshly cooked pasta with sauce in a hot pan to thoroughly coat the noodles, and your perfectly al dente pasta is ready to serve!
Photo credit: Paul Delmont