The Seven Sins of Cooking Pasta

Posted on Nov 16, 2014

Since I grew up in a home with a strong Italian background, pasta was a big part of my life. There was always a reason to eat pasta. Not feeling well? Here, have some pastina in chicken broth. Traveling tomorrow? Here, eat some angel hair with parmesan cheese.  Just got back from a long trip? Here, Grandma left a lasagna in the refrigerator.

Cooking pasta is something I’ve just always known how to do. I don’t remember being taught how to cook pasta. I just grew up helping my mom. What to do, and not to do, with pasta has always been common sense to me. As I’ve grown older, though, and met people from different backgrounds, I’ve come to realize that what I’ve always thought was common sense is really not common knowledge for many people.

And so here is a list of the common mistakes people make when cooking pasta. I like to refer to this list as the Seven Sins of Cooking Pasta.

  1. Using too small of a pot. Pasta is really starchy, and it expands while it cooks. It needs space to boil, otherwise you’ll end up with a gummy mess. You should use a pot around 6 quarts, even if you’re only doing half a pound of pasta.
  2. Not salting the water. This is your chance to flavor the pasta. If you don’t generously salt the water, your pasta will come out bland. To prevent salt from staining your precious pasta pot (yes, I used the word precious), wait until the water comes to a boil and then add the salt (just don’t forget!). How much salt? I don’t measure, of course, but I would say probably around 1 1/2  or 2 tablespoons.
  3. Adding oil to the water. I guess the thought behind this is that if you add oil, the pasta won’t stick together as it boils. Here’s the problem, though. Since oil floats on top of water, when you dump your pasta out, you’ll have pasta coated in oil and it won’t adhere to your sauce. Instead of adding oil to the water, just stir the pasta during the first few minutes of cooking and the pasta should be fine.
  4. Dumping all of the pasta water down the drain. I’ll admit that I didn’t learn this one until I was older. That salty, starchy pasta water is an excellent way to get sauces to adhere to your pasta. Even if you add just a small amount, the pasta and sauce will be so much happier together. Better yet, depending on the type of sauce you’re using, you can take the pasta out of the pot a few minutes early and let if finish cooking in the sauce and a bit of pasta water. I find this method particularly useful when doing very simple sauces, such as mushroom, wine and garlic. Just scoop the pasta and some water right into the skillet with the wine and mushrooms and everything will be quite delicious. If you wait until the pasta is done to toss it with the sauce, that’s okay too. Just be sure to do it in a large bowl off of the stove (so it doesn’t overcook) and toss immediately.
  5. Overcooking the pasta. Pasta should have a bite to it. Not crunchy but a nice bite. No one likes mushy pasta, except maybe babies and toddlers. To avoid overcooked pasta, look at the time recommended on the box and set your timer for a minute or two below that time. When the timer goes off, taste the pasta and keep tasting until it’s al dante. It will continue to cook a little out of the water, so get it out before it’s too late.
  6. Rinsing the cooked pasta. Sigh. That wonderful salt flavor just got rinsed down the drain. And the starch that will help the pasta stick to the sauce? Bye bye. Don’t rinse the pasta! The only, and I mean only, exception to this rule is if you’re preparing a cold pasta dish, such as a pasta salad, and you want to serve it immediately. Otherwise, resist the temptation to rinse your pasta.
  7. Putting too much on your pasta. Not everyone will agree with me on this one. In fact, I don’t even completely agree with myself on this one. Sometimes I do love a ton of sauce on my spaghetti. Most of the time, though, I like to keep my pasta simple. Nothing tastes better than pasta right out of the water, and so I hate to see that delicious pasta flavor covered up by too much. Some of my favorite pasta dishes will have a light sauce, such as a wine sauce or even just olive oil, a bit of cheese, and cracked pepper.

Every pasta shape tastes different to me, and every time I go into a specialty Italian store (such as Carfagna’s), I notice a shape I haven’t tried yet. Be adventurous with your pasta shapes and flavors. Also, think about the sauce you’re using. Pasta with ridges is ideal for heavier sauces, whereas something delicate, such as angel hair, is best with a very light sauce. Experiment with whole wheat vs white pasta. I find that whole wheat has a nuttier flavor and pairs well with pestos and wine sauces. Try egg pasta, if you haven’t before. Be bold. Think outside the spaghetti box.