How to Cook Pasta
So, you're standing in the grocery store looking at an endless display of pasta noodles and you ask yourself, "How do you cook pasta?" The good news is, it's not hard. In fact, it's one of the easiest bits of cooking you can do. Still, there are a few simple tricks to master so your pasta turns out just right. We'll show you how to cook pasta, including how long to cook pasta, and answer some frequently asked questions about how to cook pasta noodles.
How to Cook Pasta
Ingredients and Equipment
- 1 pound pasta
- A large (6- to 8-quart) pot
- Four to six quarts of cold water
- 1-2 tablespoons of salt
- A long-handled heat-proof spoon
- A colander for draining the pasta
1. Bring the water to a full, rolling boil. Before adding the pasta, add salt to the boiling water. If you don't season the cooking water, the pasta may taste flat—no matter how salty the sauce may be. The temperature of the water will drop once you add the pasta, so make sure the water's at a full boil before adding the pasta noodles. Note: Be careful when you add the pasta—sometimes the water
2. Stir gently. Short pasta should be stirred immediately after adding it to water, but let spaghetti and long strands soften for a minute before stirring. Leave the pot uncovered while the pasta cooks.
3. Cook your pasta at a rapid boil until it's tender but slightly firm to the bite. The longer you cook pasta, the mushier it gets. Don't rely on the clock to evaluate doneness; bite a piece instead. If it's done, it will be firm but tender and cooked through. If you're using cooked pasta as an ingredient in a recipe—like baked ziti or lasagna—it can be even firmer; it will absorb liquid and cook more in the oven.
Note: If you're tossing the pasta with a sauce, reserve a cup or two of the cooking water before you drain the pot. The starch in the cooking water can thin a thick sauce and help sauces stick to the noodles.
4. Drain the pasta in a colander. Do not rinse the pasta with water unless your recipe specifically says to. For example, if you're making a cold pasta salad, you would rinse the hot pasta with cool water to stop the cooking. Lasagna is another example of a pasta noodle that can be rinsed after cooking. Otherwise, return the drained pasta to the pot and cover to keep it warm, or toss it with sauce. Here's where the reserved pasta water comes in handy to help thicken or thin the sauce, depending on the recipe you use.
5. Serve pasta immediately in warm bowls.
How Long to Cook Pasta
The time it takes to boil pasta noodles will depend on the size and shape of your pasta, and whether your pasta is fresh or dried. Most dry pasta will cook in 8 to 12 minutes; fresh pasta can cook as quickly as 1 to 5 minutes. Small pasta like elbow macaroni can take a shorter time to cook, and large pasta like lasagna noodles can take up to 15 minutes or so. If you're boiling dried pasta, start testing for doneness after about 5 minutes of boiling, and keep testing until your pasta is cooked to your liking. If you're boiling pasta that will be used in a baked casserole, undercook the pasta noodles slightly because they will finish cooking in the oven.
How to Cook Pasta in the Microwave
Before you start screaming sacrilege, hear us out. This quick and easy technique might be a great solution if you need to cook just a couple of portions, say, for a kid or just for yourself. Here's how to cook pasta in the microwave:
- Measure out the amount of dry pasta you want to cook into a microwave-safe bowl.
- Cover it with water and cook on high for about 5 minutes.
- Stir the pasta and give one piece a bite to see how cooked it is.
- Continue cooking for about 5 minutes more, but check for doneness every couple of minutes.
- Drain the excess water, top with sauce, and serve.
How to Cook Fresh Pasta
Follow the directions for cooking dried pasta, but check for doneness in as little as 1 to 2 minutes, depending on the size and thickness of the fresh pasta.
How to Cook Pasta: Frequently Asked Questions
Why do I use a large pot for boiling pasta?
Using a large pot for boiling pasta gives the pasta the room it needs to cook evenly while preventing the pasta water from boiling over.
How much water do I use to boil pasta?
Use at least 4 quarts of water per pound of pasta.
Can I start with hot water instead of cold?
You could start with hot water in order to bring it to a boil faster, but the problem with starting with hot water is that it could contain dissolved impurities from your water pipes. To help cold water come to boil faster, cover the pot with a lid.
Does adding salt to the water add extra sodium to the pasta?
No. Most of the salt drains away when you drain the pasta.
Do I add oil to the water before boiling pasta to keep it from sticking?
No need to add oil to the water; you'll just be pouring good olive oil down the drain. To prevent sticking, just use plenty of water and stir occasionally.
Can I boil two kinds of pasta in the same pot at the same time?
Don't combine two types or sizes of pasta in the same pot of water because they will finish cooking at different times.
Should I break spaghetti in half before boiling it?
You can, but you don't have to. In fact, you shouldn't. Why? Because the long noodles are meant to wrap around your fork as you twirl it through your dish of spaghetti noodles, making a neat bundle of noodles to eat. If your spaghetti noodles are extra long, just twirl fewer strands at a time--your fork will fill up quickly.
Can you freeze cooked pasta?
Freezing cooked pasta is easy. If you know ahead of time that you want to freeze pasta, undercook it slightly, drain, toss with a little olive oil, and freeze: Freeze small pasta shapes in a single layer on a lined baking sheet; freeze spaghetti by twirling it into individual nests on a lined baking sheet. When the pasta is frozen, you can transfer it to freezer containers. Reheat in sauce, in boiling water, or in the microwave.
How do I reheat pasta?
You can reheat pasta in a microwave in short 30-second bursts, stirring after every 30 seconds. You also reheat plain pasta by placing it in a colander and pouring hot or boiling water over it.
What does "al dente" mean?
One of the biggest no-no's in pasta preparation is overcooking. Take a cue from the Italians, and boil your pasta until it's al dente, which means "to the tooth." In other words, it should be firm to the bite but still tender.
Can lasagna be put together one day, and cooked the next?
Lasagna is a perfect make-ahead meal. You can certainly make it one day, and bake it the next. Store the lasagna in an airtight container or wrap it tightly with plastic wrap. It also stands up to freezing quite well, so you can make it, freeze it, and bake it at your convenience.
I have a recipe for Alfredo sauce, and though I followed it exactly, the cheeses never melted in the sauce. It was all lumpy and clumpy. What happened?
Temperature is very important for an Alfredo sauce. The sauce should be hot, but not boiling. If the sauce is not hot enough, the cheese may not melt well. A boiling sauce will separate and curdle. To maintain an even temperature, the cheese should be grated very fine and gradually stirred into the sauce in batches, only adding more after the first addition is thoroughly melted and the sauce smooth.
What is Ziti?
Ziti is a slender tubular pasta. It works well with hearty sauces, and is well suited for baked pasta dishes. Any tubular pasta may be substituted for it such as macaroni or penne.
Can I cook pasta ahead of time then reheat it?
You can put your pasta on hold for a few minutes by simply putting the colander (that you drained the noodles in) on top of the pot, then covering with the lid. The residual heat/steam will keep the noodles warm for a few minutes. If you want to pre-cook the pasta, and then reheat later, you can do this by cooking it as usual, but leave it slightly undercooked. Drain and toss with a little oil. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator. Reheat by dropping the noodles into boiling water for a minute or two, until heated through. (Many stock pots come with a pasta strainer basket, and this is a good use for it.) Be sure not to over-cook the pasta.
How do I make homemade pasta?
Making homemade noodles is actually pretty simple. Check out our easy, step-by-step guide to making homemade pasta. And if you want to turn your fresh pasta into ravioli, here's how to make homemade ravioli.
Check out our collection of Pasta Recipes.