9 Mistakes You Might Be Making When Cooking Pasta
Perfectly cooked pasta isn't as simple as dropping noodles into boiling water.
Pasta is an all-around comfort food. Despite years of carb-phobia, pasta remains a constant on restaurant and home menus alike. Pasta is also endlessly versatile, with a multitude of sauces, toppings, and preparation styles. Spaghetti can match classic Bolognese, or it can be used in chicken noodle soup. Elbow macaroni goes from baked macaroni and cheese to Pasta Fazool. Fusilli goes in chilled pasta salad, as well as a creamy pasta bake.
Yet, while it might seem easy to make a batch of pasta (and it is a basic cooking skill most learn early in life), there are a few common mistakes that can mess up your pasta's texture and taste, leading to a disappointing meal. Luckily, we asked experts to share these pitfalls and the solutions to make sure they don't happen again. Here are a few pasta cooking mistakes to avoid so you can dig into your bowl happily.
1. You over- or undercook the noodles.
"The most common mistake is either undercooking or overcooking. When cooking store-bought pasta, use the directions on the box, and test it a minute before the suggested time," says Kevin McAllister, Executive Chef at Cafe Robey in Chicago. Cook it longer than the suggested time if more time is needed, too. The only way to really know is to taste the pasta regularly.
What should the texture of perfectly-cooked pasta be? "Many times, pasta is incorrectly served with a firm dry center or a completely mush texture. Pasta should have a subtle bite to it, which is usually referred to as 'al dente,'" says Chef John Underbrink at The Heritage. To perfectly cook the pasta, taste test it as it along the way and pull it right when it's no longer hard or chewy, he says.
You should also be mindful of where you are. "Cooking at high elevations can change the box directions, too," McAllister adds. "Some mountain towns will need more time."
2. You're not stirring the pasta.
You don't need to stir pasta constantly, but stirring while cooking can help keep the individual strands or noodles separate. This prevents clumpy pasta and helps guarantee each piece is properly cooked.
"A lot of people cooking pasta don't stir it during the cooking process, so they end up with pasta stuck together," says Chef Jose Torres of Italian Village in Chicago. This is especially true for long, thin pasta, such as angel hair or pappardelle.
Think adding oil or butter to the water will prevent sticking? It won't, McAllister says. "You don't need to add more oil to the water. In fact, I rarely add oil to my pasta water," he says. "You just need to stir the pasta more frequently."
But if you forgot to stir and have clumps of noodles, all is not lost. "If you end up with sticky pasta, you can reheat pasta in boiling water prior to using in any recipe that calls for hot pasta," McAllister Adds.
Keep Reading: How to Cook Pasta
3. You don't salt the pasta water, or you salt it too much.
"Boiling pasta in unseasoned water is detrimental to the flavor and texture. When cooking the pasta in salted water, the dough absorbs the salt throughout, rather than having to steal some from the surface sauce or not at all," says Underbrink. "Also, the salt acts as a stabilizer in the gelatin of the pasta starches, yielding a much better texture."
Yet, you don't want to over-salt the pasta water either. Sometimes people will add entirely too much salt, resulting in salty pasta, McAllister says.
"You can fix it if you haven't seasoned your sauce by cooking the salty pasta in a bland sauce, [which] may help in drawing out some of the salt," he says.
4. You don't properly cool the pasta.
When making cold pasta salad or even cooking pasta ahead of time, most cooks will run the pasta under cold water or put it into ice baths to stop the cooking and get the pasta to cool. "This will help cool the pasta down very fast. Yet, by doing this, you will rinse all of the natural starch that loves to hold onto sauce," McAllister says. "It's not wrong, and I have done it before in the past [but] to make a more creamy pasta dish after cooking the pasta, drain it, and cool it on a sheet tray," he advises.
Lightly oil the cooked pasta to prevent sticking, and let cool for 30 minutes before chilling it the rest of the way in your refrigerator. After that, you can use it for pasta salad or cut time when making dinner a day or two later. Remember to wrap the pasta if you're saving it for an extended period of time, he adds.
5. You don't cook the pasta in the sauce.
"A chef once told me to cook my fresh pasta 70 percent in the water and 30 percent in the sauce," Underbrink says. "This is because cooking the pasta in the sauce allows it to absorb the flavors as well as coat itself in the sauce much more nicely." So just before the pasta is finished cooking, quickly drain it, and add it to a pan with the heated sauce. Give it a few more minutes to finish cooking before serving.
Keep Reading: Save 15 Minutes Every Time You Make Pasta
6. You add the pasta to the water before it's boiling.
If you're crunched for time, you may think you can get away with adding dry pasta to water that is just simmering — but you may regret it. "Make sure the water is at a rolling boil before adding the pasta. The rapid bubbles will keep the pasta from sticking or settling, as well as cook the dough quicker and more evenly," says Underbrink. The boiling temperature will also properly set the pasta starches for the right texture, he adds.
7. You don't boil enough water.
The water requirements for cooking pasta ma seem excessive, but don't ignore them. There's a reason you're supposed to have extra water in the past. When the pasta is added to the boiling water, it can lower the temperature of the water, which will stall cooking and may add minutes to your total time or impact your pasta's texture. Make sure you have enough water in your pot so that adding pasta doesn't drastically drop the water's temperature, Underbrink says.
8. You use fresh water to loosen the sauce.
If you cook pasta in a sauce, there is a tendency for it to reduce too far, says Underbrink. If this happens, don't add in water from the tap. "It is important not to use fresh water to rehydrate, which only dilutes the flavor. Instead use the pasta water itself," he says. It has more flavor and seasoning, and the more residual starch will help thicken and bind the sauce to the pasta.
9. You ignore the portion sizes.
"Pasta gets a bad reputation for being too high in carbs, but in fact, it can be part of a balanced diet," says Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "A serving of pasta is two ounces or one cup, which equals about 75 to 100 calories."
Many people eat much more than that and will often also add in French bread and several servings of high-fat meat like ground beef or sausage with cheese, she says. "This can create a high calorie meal that exceeds saturated fat recommendations," she explains. So, keep portions in check to avoid making this health mistake.