HOW TO BOIL PASTA
“The only trick to making great pasta is to cook it in 6 quarts of well salted water for each pound of pasta; I add 2 tablespoons of sea salt to that water, and I don’t subscribe to the idea of adding oil or anything else. I cook the pasta about a minute short of the package instructions, quickly drain it, and then toss it immediately into the pan with the sauce and cook them together for a minute or two. If at this point the dish seems a little dry, I splash a little of the pasta cooking water into the pan to loosen it a bit and continue the process. Then I add any cheese or herbs, remove the pan from the heat, add a little extra-virgin olive oil, and serve it. This is the only way I do it.” Mario Batali, Molto Italiano
Here is the conventional wisdom on how to boil perfect pasta:
- For one pound of dried pasta, bring a 6 to 8 quart pot of water to a rolling boil. Make sure there is ample water because the pasta must have room to move as it boils or it will become gummy. Some brands of pasta are more inclined to clump than others; Barilla is probably the most popular pasta in Italy for a reason.
- When the water is at a rapid, rolling boil, add a tablespoon of salt for every pound of pasta. Increase that to 1-1/2 tablespoons if the sauce you are preparing is mild. Don’t shortchange the salt or your pasta will be bland.
- One pound of dried pasta should produce 4 to 6 servings, depending on what else is on the menu.
- Add the pasta all at once after the water is at a rapid boil and salted. (Some recipes may tell you to break spaghetti in half, but that’s not necessary. Submerge it with a spoon as it softens and bends in the hot water. Note that just as Italians would not break spaghetti, Chinese would not break lo mein, which they consider symbolic of long life.)
- Stir the pasta (Italian cooking expert Marcella Hazan says you must use only a wooden spoon) immediately and thoroughly to separate the strands and prevent them from clumping (do not add oil to the water or it will coat the pasta and prevent the sauce from adhering later).
- Cover the pot and return the water to a boil as quickly as possible. Once the water has returned to a boil, uncover the pot, start timing and cook pasta at a rapid boil until al dente (“to the tooth”, tender but still firm to the bite).
- Start checking (remove a strand and taste it) after 3 minutes for capellini, 6 minutes for spaghettini or linguine fini, and after 9 minutes for spaghetti or linguine. Fettucine will take a couple of minutes longer than spaghetti and thicker shapes, like penne, will take 11 minutes or more. Cooking times will vary with different brands of pasta (these are for Barilla), so check the instructions on the box if you are in doubt.
- Reserve a cup of the pasta cooking liquid in a glass measuring cup in case you need to thin the sauce later (the cooking liquid is hot and more flavorful than plain water). Drain the pasta immediately in a colander, giving it several good shakes to eliminate as much water as possible (never rinse it, except for cold pasta dishes).
- Have the sauce waiting and toss it with the pasta right away. (If you have made the sauce in a large skillet, this toss should be over heat. Some add the pasta to the sauce a minute or two before it is done and allow it to finish cooking in the sauce). Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and serve promptly.
- Follow the same procedure for fresh pasta as for dried pasta, but be careful to stir the pasta (with a wooden spoon!) immediately after dropping it into the boiling water to prevent clumping. Fresh egg pasta cooks much faster than dried. Flat pasta may be al dente only ten seconds after the water returns to a boil. Taste frequently to avoid overcooking.
Capellini, very thin, long strands of Italian pasta (with a diameter of between 0.85mm and 0.92mm), have been popular in Italy since at least the 14th century. Capellini d’angelo (angel’s hair pasta) is a form of capellini that is thinner still (with a diameter of between 0.78mm and 0.88mm). Often used a ministre (in soups), it also can be served asciutta (with a light sauce). It is al dente within 4 to 5 minutes, so you must pay attention when you add it to boiling water.