There’s an interesting paradox that we come across a lot in the kitchen: Sometimes the things that are the simplest require the most intention. A loaf of homemade bread, a poached egg, or steamed salmon, for example, can only be perfect if they’re made just right. The fewer the ingredients, the logic follows, the less places there are to hide flaws, and the technique becomes more important.
This is precisely how it works with pasta. If you’ve ever had sticky, mushy noodles (it’s okay, we’ve all been there) then you know the truth: To make really good pasta, there’s a bit more to it than throwing some pasta in boiling water. There’s no need to over-complicate things, but by following a handful of tried-and-true methods — and tuning into your senses — you can learn the necessary skills to master this skill and elevate your home-cooked dishes.
In Part 1 of this blog, we covered the first few steps to making consistently perfect pasta, starting with the cooking vessel, water, salt, and stirring. We’ll pick up here with what to do once the pasta is done cooking.
Cooking the Pasta
After you’ve added the pasta to the rapidly boiling, well-salted water and given it a few gentle stirs, it’s time to let it cook. You want to keep the water at a high boil for the entire process, with the pot uncovered.
When it comes to how long to cook the pasta, it will depend on a few factors: your preference for al dente versus cooked; the brand of pasta; and the shape of pasta.“
Al dente” is an Italian phrase that means “to the tooth.” This refers to a tiny bit of bite left in the pasta, and is widely considered by Italians (true pasta masters) as the ideal texture for cooked pasta. It’s a bit of an esoteric texture, where the pasta is tender but has just a touch of firmness.
Because pasta keeps cooking for a minute or two even after you drain it, the key to al dente pasta is to drain the pasta even when it doesn’t seem all the way cooked. Most pasta packaging includes instructions for how long to let the pasta cook, but instead of blindly following, start testing samples of the pasta and make your own judgment. About two minutes before the suggested time on the packaging, pull a little piece out, let it cool, and then try it. Do this at 20 or 30 second intervals until the noodles are just shy of al dente.
Different shapes of pasta do cook at different times. For ZENB’s 100% yellow pea pasta, Spaghetti takes 5 to 7 minutes; Rotini and Elbows take 10 to 13 minutes; and Penne requires 12 to 15 minutes. For more al dente pasta, go for the shorter length of time in the range. Pasta Agile, our quickest-cooking pasta, only takes about 3 minutes!
Some recipes call for cooking the pasta in sauce as a final step. If this is the case, drain the pasta about 4 minutes before the suggested cooking time, as it will absorb more heat and sauce as it finishes in the skillet or pot.
You can also reserve a half cup or so of pasta water, which is starchy after boiling the pasta. A few tablespoons of this stirred into sauces, especially creamy ones, can naturally thicken them and help the sauce coat the noodles even better. That’s kitchen upcycling at its finest!
Draining the Pasta
Carefully drain the pasta, using thick kitchen towels or oven mitts, because the handles of the pot will be very hot. Pour the water and noodles through a colander or fine mesh sieve and give it a rinse with water. If you’re using the noodles for a cold or room-temperature dish, like pasta salad, rinse the pasta very thoroughly with cold water. There’s no need to toss pasta with oil at this stage, as if it was properly cooked it shouldn’t be sticky, though some people enjoy the flavor.
That’s it! We hope this has been a helpful how-to on making delicious pasta every time you’re in the mood. For lots of great culinary content, dig into the ZENB blog for articles about everything from farmers market guides to how pasta shapes affect the texture of dishes. Follow ZENB on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest for daily inspiration.