To salt or not to salt: that is the question, at least when it comes to cooking pasta. For Steve Gonzalez, co-founder of Sfoglini Pasta, a New York state-based, artisanal pasta maker, it is no question at all. One must always salt the pasta pot — and generously — especially for dried pasta. With very little effort and advanced planning, you can achieve perfect pasta every time.
Here Gonzalez shares the nine commandments of cooking pasta to ensure your spaghetti night is the best it can be.
Start with cold water
Cold water is fresh water, free of any build-up that might come from a stagnant hot water tank. Although it takes less time for water to boil if you use hot tap water, the energy savings on the stovetop does not outweigh the energy used to keep water hot in one’s tank (let alone the water wasted from the tap while waiting for water to come to temperature), so just start from cold. It will make your pasta taste better.
Always salt the pasta water
Gonzalez says pasta water should be “salty like the sea.” Salting the water is critical to bring out the delicate nuttiness and richness of plain pasta, or the bolder taste of flavored pasta. Though your sauce will provide intrinsic seasoning, the dish will taste flat and bland if salt hasn’t permeated the pasta. The water-to-salt ratio depends on how much pasta you are planning to cook, but a general guide is, for each quart of water used, add half a tablespoon of kosher salt or one teaspoon of table salt.
A pound of pasta needs between four and six quarts of boiling water to cook so that it has plenty of space to circulate. It is a myth that salt makes the water hotter; the bubbling eruption that happens when you add salt to hot water is simply a chemical reaction. Add the salt once the water begins to simmer, and stir to incorporate it.
Perhaps you grew up in a household that always added a splash of olive oil to the pasta pot, but break that habit now. Because oil and water are insoluble, the oil will simply sit at the top of the pot, but some will get stirred into the pasta while it cooks, keeping it from fully absorbing the salted cooking water and potentially slowing the cooking process. It also makes the pasta slippery, which means those ruffles and grooves are less effective at gathering and holding sauce. If you like the taste of oil with your pasta, opt for a great olive oil or finishing oil to drizzle atop your pasta once it is plated and ready to serve.
Turn the heat down
Cranking up the heat while you bring the water to a boil is fine, but once the pasta is added, turn the heat down a notch. Not only will you run the risk that pasta may stick to the bottom of the pot, but you may have starchy residue to clean up if the pot boils over. Some say placing a wooden spoon across the pot while it boils prevents the water from bubbling over, but nothing can quell a screaming-hot pot. Medium-high heat is suitable for cooking pasta once the water boils, and be sure to occasionally stir your pasta while it cooks as well, especially at the beginning.
Mushy pasta is a waste of all the delicate shapes Sfoglini and others create. Al dente (meaning, “to the tooth,” or firm) is the preferred texture for cooked pasta, as it holds up to even the heaviest sauce and gives each forkful of pasta body and structure. If you have a rich sauce, you can cook pasta slightly below the al dente point and let it finish cooking in the sauce to infuse it with more flavor.
The only true way to know if pasta is done is to taste it, Gonzalez says. Sure, you can waste perfectly good noodles by flinging them against the wall to see if they stick, but fishing a noodle out of the pot and hurriedly slurping it into your mouth to test its salinity and texture is the best way to know if it is done. Much like your hands are great tools for making pasta, your mouth is the best tool for knowing if it is done.
Save some water
Be sure to reserve a few ladles of pasta cooking water before you strain your pasta to stir into your pasta sauce. Cooking pasta inside a strainer basket placed inside of your pot is the easiest method. Not only does the water contain salt and pasta flavor, but it also offers starch from the pasta dough. That starch thins the sauce at first, then helps to bind the pasta and sauce together adding an almost creamy element, so when you get ready to combine the two, add in a few splashes of pasta cooking water. Remember you will be adding some of the salted pasta water to the entrée, so take that into consideration when seasoning your sauce.
By this stage, you’ve salted the water, monitored the boiling and continuously checked the pasta to make sure it was cooked to perfection, so avoid taking two steps back by removing the salty, starchy coating on the outside of the pasta which allows the sauce to adhere. Skip the rinse, save the flavor and quickly add the pasta to its sauce. For cold pasta salads, it’s okay to run cold water over the pasta in a colander. This stops the cooking process and removes the starchy layer, which prevents the salad from turning gummy and keeps noodles separated.
Finish in the pan
Ask any pastaia (the Italian term for a woman who makes pasta): It is a cardinal sin to spoon sauce over the top of plated pasta. For the best result, cook your sauce in a pot large enough to accommodate all of the cooked pasta. Use a large serving spoon or tongs to toss the pasta and sauce together. Taste the finished dish before adding additional seasoning. Buon appetito!