Properly cooking pasta is very important for the successful realization of most Italian first courses. Following the simple steps in this article you will be able to achieve the same results as a professional chef.
Selecting the right pan
To minimize cooking temperature variations and to prevent sticking pasta needs plenty of boiling water. Usually at least 1 l (1 liter or 1 US quart) of water is necessary for each 100g of pasta. When in doubt, just use more. More than the minimum will not affect negatively the results, too little water instead will, in general, produce undesirable side effects.
Select a pot that can comfortably hold the water required according to the amount of pasta. The pot should not be more than 3/4 full.
Make sure to select a burner that can keep the water in the pot boiling even when uncovered.
Salt is necessary to bring out the full flavor of the pasta. Pasta cooked without salt will taste bland regardless of the saltiness of the sauce.
Salt should be added to the water and let it dissolve before adding the pasta.
The amount of salt should be proportional to the amount of water (not the pasta).
Never add oil to the water.
When to use the cover
A cover may be used to shorten the time required to bring the water to a boil. However, to prevent boil overs, the cover should never be used after adding the pasta.
When to add pasta
Pasta should always be server immediately after cooking as the texture and flavor of cooked pasta degrades very quickly.
Based on the cooking time on the pasta package select the time to add the pasta so it will be served immediately. For example make sure the sauce will be ready before the pasta and that the guest have finished the appetizer.
Wait for the water to come to a vigorous boil, then add the pasta.
All good quality pasta will have cooking times printed on the box. Use this as a general guidance. Most good quality pasta will tolerate up to 10% extra cooking time for a softer texture. Italians, however, usually shorten the cooking time by up to 20% to achieve the "al dente" texture.
If you plan to saute' the pasta in the sauce after cooking, boiling time should be shortened even further to compensate for the cooking time in the saute pan.
Extreme caution should be used for fresh pasta (especially if handmade) as this will cook very quickly (2-3 minutes).
During cooking stir the pasta 3 to 4 times to promote even cooking and prevent sticking.
Pasta must be drained immediately after is done cooking. Leaving it in the hot water for even a couple minutes will result in severely overcooked pasta.
When draining always reserve a little (1/4 to 1/2 cup) cooking water. This may be useful if the pasta is too dry after it has been combined with the sauce.
Use a colander or the specially designed cover of a pasta pot to drain the water. Pasta should be slightly moist but no water drops should be seen.
Never wash the pasta with cold water unless instructed by a specific recipe.
Adding the sauce
Pasta will continue cooking even after being drained. To ensure the best results it is very important to quickly add the sauce and serve immediately.
For best results, transfer the drained pasta to a saute' pan with the sauce and toss over medium-high heat for 2-3 minutes (this time should roughly match the reduction in boiling time described in the section above).
Alternatively combine the drained pasta and the sauce in a serving bowl or in informal settings directly in the individual plates.