Genius Recipes

Genius Pasta Salad Breaks the #1 Noodle Rule

Abandon al dente.

July 24, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.


Try this: Ask the closest person to you what texture pasta should be. Jeopardy-style, if you like. With Holzhauer-esque speed, they will answer: What is al dente? And they’ll be correct. Mostly.

Thanks to the teachings of Italian cuisine’s patron saint Marcella Hazan seeping into every food magazine and TV show over the past several decades, it’s hard to find a home cook who won’t feel that their pasta’s been ruined if it doesn’t bite back, a faint line of raw white starch snaking through every noodle (1). (Quick pep talk to anxious pasta overcookers: Nobody will mind if it’s a little soft—don’t worry about it!)

Photo by Rocky Luten

So it’s no wonder that this certified Genius Recipe for Italian Pasta Salad—which asks you to deliberately cook your pasta to borderline mush—shocked me and will shock you, too. Unless, that is, you’d picked up the September 2018 issue of Cook’s Illustrated and read Associate Editor Anne Petito’s (2) fascinating explanation for exactly why, when making pasta for salad, you should cruise a good three minutes past al dente to whatever the Italian words are for biteless and flabby (3).

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Top Comment:
“I love the soft feel of "overdone" pasta in salad. Now, I'll add even more time cooking it to get that. Thanks again. ”
— Nan G.
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As Petito explains, it’s all because of a process called retrogradation that does a lot of good (and sometimes not-so-good) things for some of your favorite foods. Retrogradation helps the crumb in home-baked bread set (and then … stale). It makes day-old rice dry, discrete, and perfect for frying (and inedibly crunchy while cold). We see its work in crispy potatoes and airy waffles and tender Japanese milk bread, and—in other fun facts—paper.

Photo by Rocky Luten

Here’s how retrogradation works, in a nutshell: The starch molecules that swell with water and gelatinize as pasta cooks become rigid and force water out as it cools, forming crunchy crystals—making perfectly cooked al dente pasta turn stiff and chewy in the fridge. Only by overshooting al dente will the pasta retrograde back to a buttery just-right texture we didn’t know cold pasta could have.

“I made retrogradation work to my advantage by boiling the fusilli about three minutes past al dente and then running it under lots of cold water,” Petito wrote in Cook’s Illustrated. “As the pasta cooled it went from almost mushy to just right.”

And because this is my favorite type of Genius Recipe, I get more than just a single convention-defying trick and a few shmancy new buzzwords. There are even more clever moves I can take with me to other cooking adventures. To wit:

  • Infuse the olive oil for the dressing with garlic, anchovies, and red chile flakes in the microwave. Petito has deployed this shortcut in ribs and garlic bread, too.
  • Blend pickle-y fridge-door staples like pepperoncini and capers into a dressing that’s thick enough to cling to every twirly corkscrew without having to emulsify anything or turn to bottled dressing.
  • Instead of vinegar, slosh in some of that pepperoncini brine, which comes with its own heat, salt, and peppery flair.
  • Hit the antipasto section for powerful mix-ins with more personality than raw bits of red pepper and broccoli florets: kalamata olives, fresh mozzarella, hard salami, and sun-dried tomatoes.
  • Make the base ahead, let it retrograde its heart out, then stir in the fresh, fragile ingredients like arugula and basil for crunch and color.

Then spread the word, so people near and far know that now—finally—there’s more than one just-right texture for pasta.

(1) Hazan writes in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking that pasta “should always offer some resistance to the bite. When it does not, pasta becomes leaden, it loses buoyancy and its ability to deliver briskly the flavors of its sauce.”
(2) Fun fact: Annie was one of our first recipe testers here at Food52! And she has a delightful Instagram handle: @appetito611
(3) Senza morso and flaccida, respectively.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps something perfect for beginners? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]—thank you to writer, chef, and Genius supersleuth Caroline Lange for this one!

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I'm an ex-economist, ex-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."

5 Comments

El B. July 27, 2019
Cook Illustrated's role in the world in to be the cooking iconoclast. And, like most iconoclasts, they're wrong more often than they're right. Nothing is worse than a mushy pasta salad. Maybe if you're going to hold it in the fridge for two days or more this is a good idea, but I eat mine freshly made.
 
Alexandra S. July 25, 2019
So good to hear your voice again! This pasta salad sounds so good. Love the idea of using the pepperoncini brine. Yum!
 
Adrienne B. July 24, 2019
It seems to me one time when I "overcooked" pasta for pasta salad, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the dressing I had made for it didn't just get absorbed by the pasta and dry it out and become tasteless. Of course, I went right back to al dente, but now I know that making the "mistake" was what made my salad taste so good.
(Seefood and Bows - https://the-good-plate.com/2018/09/seefood-and-bows-seafood-and-farfalle/) I've kind of resisted other pasta salads, except this one, because of that pasta absorbing business. Now I know better, and I am making THIS very soon.
 
Nan G. July 24, 2019
Welcome back, Kristen.
What a lovely reminder about salad pasta.
When I moved to high altitude Utah I had to re-learn how to boil anything.
212F at sea level is a thing of my past, but with over 50 years basing everything on it, hard to retrain.
Here water boils at 205F.
You really must add 1/4 to 1/3rd more time to pasta on the boil here.
I love the soft feel of "overdone" pasta in salad.
Now, I'll add even more time cooking it to get that.
Thanks again.
 
Caroline S. July 24, 2019
Welcome back, Kristen. It's good to hear your voice again. New words and all