Pasta

5 Foolproof Tricks for Cooking Even Better Pasta

Whether you're working with boxed pasta or fresh, you can count on these expert tips from our Resident Pasta Maker, Meryl Feinstein of Pasta Social Club.

Photo by Meryl Feinstein of Pasta Social Club

Pasta Social Club is a column by Meryl Feinstein, Food52's Resident Pasta Maker, community builder, and pastaia extraordinaire. Meryl will teach us about everything from semolina to spaghetti to sauce (and all the tools you'll need for each)—and will show us how pasta is a great way to make great friends and have lots of fun.


A box of pasta is a beautiful thing. It has your back when there’s nothing left in the kitchen but an old tube of tomato paste and a few cloves of garlic. It’s perfect for when you’re short on time, but it’s also best friends with the Sunday sauce that’s been simmering on the stove for hours. And nothing beats that al dente bite.

If you’ve come across any of my recipes, you probably know about my deep love of fresh pasta. So I wouldn’t blame you for thinking I don’t have any interest in the dried stuff. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. I love fresh pasta because the process of making it is therapeutic and brings people together. And I love dried pasta because it’s quick, versatile, and best suited to some of my favorite classic dishes (looking at you, cacio e pepe). Both are spectacularly delicious. They’re just very different.

I could talk endlessly about the dried pasta shapes I love most (bucatini, paccheri), or the boxed brands that fill my cupboards (mostly De Cecco, some Pastificio G. Di Martino and Rustichella D’Abruzzo for special occasions). But I’ll spare you that spiel. Instead I want to share the tips I live by for cooking a perfect pot of pasta.

Let’s Talk About Salt

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “salt your pasta water like the sea.” However, sea water can be rather unpleasant. I’ve salted my pasta water like the sea plenty of times, and even I (with a high salt tolerance) couldn’t get past the second bite. So, like Chef Evan Funke, I’ll revise that mantra to “season your pasta water like a soup.”

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“You say that "sea water is gross." Whether it makes sense to salt your pasta water so it tastes like the sea depends entirely on which sea you are talking about. In an earlier post on this topic, I added the following, which I am adding here for those who haven't seen it before: Many years ago, I had the lovely good fortune to spend an afternoon swimming in the Adriatic off of Pesaro, just to the south of Cesenatico, where Marcella Hazan spent her summers. I was a competitive long distance swimmer at the time, but was at Pesaro just to relax. I immediately noticed how much less salty the water was there than other ocean water I'd been in. (One floats more easily, the saltier the water. Swimmers notice such things.) Decades later, when reading Hazan's memoirs, I remembered reading before how she recommended making your pasta water taste like the sea. Checking the map, I noticed that Cesenatico is even closer to the freshwater plume from the Po River than Pesaro is. A bit of research confirmed that indeed, the water from the Po does make that part of the Adriatic less saline. In fact, scientific studies based in Cesenatico show that the water there, at the surface (the water one would taste), can have less than half of the average salinity of sea water worldwide - which means that Marcella's rule is probably not far off the mark, when "the sea" refers to the sweet transitional water where she swam as a girl. ;o)”
— AntoniaJames
Comment

Adding salt to your cooking water is the only time you’re seasoning the pasta itself, so this step is especially important for a well-rounded dish. There are plenty of resources that tell you exactly how much salt to add to various amounts of water. I can never be bothered to measure my water (who has the time?), so I eyeball it. It’s something like a palmful—those little salt grinders aren’t going to cut it. Just know that different types of salt have different levels of saltiness; for example, your two tablespoons of Morton’s will be far saltier than my two tablespoons of Diamond Crystal.

The best test? When you taste your pasta during the cooking process to see if it’s done, it should taste pleasantly salty. It’s sort of like the Goldilocks approach: if the pasta tastes bland, add some more salt; if it actually tastes like the ocean, dilute it with a bit of water and hold back some salt from your sauce. If it tastes like a piece of pasta with a little salt sprinkled on top, then you’ve nailed it. It takes some trial and error, but it makes all the difference.

Oh, and one more thing: Add your salt right before you drop the pasta into the water. If you add it earlier than this, it’ll concentrate as water evaporates, leaving you with a result far saltier than anticipated.

Skip the Olive Oil

I know I’m not the only one who grew up adding a splash of olive oil to their pasta water. I was told this prevented the noodles from sticking together, and also gave them a little extra flavor. But drizzling oil into the cooking water actually works against you when you’re finishing your dish.

As pasta cooks, it releases starch. The starchy water you’re left with is a perfect thickener for sauces, and it’s also a sort of glue that helps the sauce and pasta stick together (more on that below). If there’s olive oil in the mix, you’ll be left with a slick coating on the surface of the pasta. And your delicious sauce won’t hug each noodle like it should—instead, it’ll slide right off.

To keep things from clumping together, simply stir the pasta for a few seconds once you’ve added it to the pot, and again every so often throughout the cooking process.

Finding Al Dente

To determine its proper seasoning (see above) and doneness, always taste your pasta as it cooks. For dried pastas, the goal is generally “al dente,” which means “to the tooth.” Simply put, al dente pasta bites back. It has a satisfying texture and resistance; it’s not mushy or gummy.

The number of minutes it takes to get to al dente varies. For small and thin pastas, that time will be shorter than large and dense shapes. Plus, not all brands of pasta are processed the same way, and those production methods also impact the pasta’s cook time. I’ve had Trader Joe’s penne that cooks in half the time it takes for a box of Rustichella D’Abruzzo.

The recommended cooking time on the box can also be unreliable. So here’s what I do: A few minutes into the cooking process, pull out a piece of pasta and bite into it to see how far along it is. Repeat this with a new piece every minute or so. You’ll see a white line on the inside where the pasta is still raw. Al dente pasta will still have a little bit of that line when it’s done. (It’s often several minutes before the package says it will be.) Personally, I prefer my pasta verging on undercooked—even before al dente—because it means I can finish cooking it for a minute or two in the sauce to bring everything together.

Save the Water

We all know that pasta water isn’t just for boiling noodles. It’s also an ingredient unto itself, and it’s essential when making some of Italy’s best-loved dishes. Cacio e pepe, easily my favorite classic pasta dish (did I mention that already?), relies on that starchy water to transform a pile of cheese and pepper into the world’s most luxurious sauce. What’s more, a few spoonfuls of pasta water will help emulsify any sauce, from brown butter to bolognese, into glossy perfection. You’ll never find me without it.

I used to reserve the amount of pasta water a recipe would suggest, and then drain my pasta. But I kept finding myself running out of that precious liquid far too soon. Now I skip the colander altogether and use either tongs or a large slotted spoon to transfer my pasta directly from water to sauce. (You can also grab an Italian pasta pot with the colander built right in!) I’ve never had a shortage since.

The same advice goes for rinsing: Don’t do it! Splashing cold water on your cooked pasta will wash away that beautiful starch, which won’t do your sauce any favors.

The Marriage of Pasta & Sauce

One of the chefs I worked for in New York waxed poetic about the marriage of pasta and sauce. It’s easy to see why. When the two work together, this simple combination assumes its highest form.

First, a little recap: Season and save your water, skip the olive oil (and the rinsing!), and aim for al dente. Then it’s time to make that marriage happen. Shortly before the pasta’s ready, vigorously stir a few spoonfuls of starchy pasta water into your sauce until it becomes glossy and slightly thickened. When the pasta is just shy of al dente, add it directly to the sauce and finish cooking it for a minute or two so it can soak up all those delicious flavors.

You’ll wonder how you cooked pasta any other way.

Do you have any other pasta-cooking tips? Let us know in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Karl W Saur
    Karl W Saur
  • Lauren Edlund
    Lauren Edlund
  • AntoniaJames
    AntoniaJames
  • Smaug
    Smaug
  • Mara Rogers
    Mara Rogers
Meryl Feinstein is a chef and pastaia who left the corporate world for the food industry in 2018. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education, Meryl got her start at the renowned New York establishments Lilia and Misi, where she was part of the pasta production team. During that time, Meryl founded Pasta Social Club, a platform that brings people together over a shared love of food, learning, and making connections both on- and offline. She now lives in Austin, where she hosts virtual pasta-making workshops and develops recipes. Her dishes draw on her travels in Italy, ongoing research into the rich history of traditional pasta-making, and her Jewish heritage.

6 Comments

Karl W. January 14, 2021
6. Serve pasta (unless it's a salad) on warmed dishes. It especially makes a *bit* difference from light sauces like pesto, carbonara, cacio e pepe, alla gricia, et cet., where a tepid or cold plate will cause the sauce to congeal unpleasantly.

Chefs and people who write recipes for a living typically omit this because it's just background assumption for them.
 
Lauren E. January 7, 2021
Since I grew up in Seattle, I do not find sea water "gross". I find heavily salted water, you can describe it as briny if the idea of sea water is gross to you, imparts the perfect amount of seasoning that cannot be achieved by salting at the end.
 
AntoniaJames January 7, 2021
You say that "sea water is gross." Whether it makes sense to salt your pasta water so it tastes like the sea depends entirely on which sea you are talking about. In an earlier post on this topic, I added the following, which I am adding here for those who haven't seen it before:

Many years ago, I had the lovely good fortune to spend an afternoon swimming in the Adriatic off of Pesaro, just to the south of Cesenatico, where Marcella Hazan spent her summers. I was a competitive long distance swimmer at the time, but was at Pesaro just to relax. I immediately noticed how much less salty the water was there than other ocean water I'd been in. (One floats more easily, the saltier the water. Swimmers notice such things.)

Decades later, when reading Hazan's memoirs, I remembered reading before how she recommended making your pasta water taste like the sea. Checking the map, I noticed that Cesenatico is even closer to the freshwater plume from the Po River than Pesaro is.

A bit of research confirmed that indeed, the water from the Po does make that part of the Adriatic less saline. In fact, scientific studies based in Cesenatico show that the water there, at the surface (the water one would taste), can have less than half of the average salinity of sea water worldwide - which means that Marcella's rule is probably not far off the mark, when "the sea" refers to the sweet transitional water where she swam as a girl. ;o)
 
Mara R. January 10, 2021
AJ hits it out of the park again!
Thanks
 
Author Comment
Meryl F. January 11, 2021
Thank you so much for sharing this! Really helpful background and I've amended the language. I wish I had grown up near such sweet-tasting water!
 
Smaug January 7, 2021
As far as I can see, the whole "pasta water" thing is a complete crock. In the first place, if you want to thicken your sauce with starch (which is not an emulsifier- it can serve as a stabilizer, but at least in all of my sauce recipes that purpose is served by the regular ingredients), why do it with water with an uncertain starch and salt content? In the second place, a small amount of starch that has been in a large pot of boiling water will have exhausted it's bonds long ago; it will have no interaction with moisture from the sauce. Thus, unless your pasta water is actually thicker than your sauce there will be no thickening effect. Fortunately, the pasta itself contains quite a bit of starch- if you drain it very thoroughly after cooking (I like to give it a couple of minutes to evaporate too) and cook it briefly in the sauce you have your best chance of having the sauce adhere.