12 Pasta Myths Debunked

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5. Pasta cooking water should be as salty as the sea.

A light sprinkling of salt in the pot isn’t nearly enough to bring out the flavor of the noodles. But how much salt does it take to taste like the ocean? Italian cooking authorities vary on their proportions of salt to water. And they’re not always specific about the type of salt, either, which can make a difference: A tablespoon of kosher salt is less than the equivalent volume of table salt because the larger crystals of kosher salt take up more space in a measuring spoon. In general, 2 to 3 tablespoons of regular table salt for 6 quarts of water seems to be the optimum.

6. Your pasta will stick together unless you put a little oil in the cooking water.

Italian food authorities may not agree on a lot of things, but they do concur on this: Putting a bit of olive oil in the pasta water is worthless. It doesn’t keep pasta from sticking, and it’s a waste of a precious ingredient. Plenty of boiling water, they’ll tell you, is all that’s needed to keep the pasta strands separate. What the authorities don’t agree on is how much water qualifies as plenty: Recommendations can vary from 4 to 6 quarts of water for every pound of dried or fresh pasta. (An important reminder, less obvious than it sounds: If you want to use 6 quarts of water, you’ll need an 8-quart pot to hold both the water and the pasta.)

7. Pasta should be cooked in an uncovered pot.

The water should be at a rolling—if not roiling—boil when you add the pasta, and the fastest way to get the water to that point is to cover the pot. Once the pasta goes in, give it several good stirs, but then you want to get that water back to a strong boil as fast as possible. No less an authority than Italy’s cooking bible, The Silver Spoon, recommends that you cover the pot to speed up the process. I like to leave the lid slightly ajar, just enough so that I can see into the pot and know when it’s back up at a furious boil. At that point, the lid comes off for good; continue to stir occasionally.

8. The package directions tell you all about cooking time.

Don’t rely on the timing printed on the packages of pasta you buy—dried or fresh. Instead, finishing the cooking in an open pot makes it easy to dip in and taste-test the noodles yourself for doneness. Al dente is the Italian expression that describes properly cooked pasta—meaning there’s a pleasant toothsome chew to the noodle. Yet to truly bring your pasta dish to the next level, stop a few minutes short of al dente and do like the cognoscenti: See myth #11.

9. Using a colander is the best way to drain your pasta.

If you’re using what the experts call “plenty” of boiling water (4 to 6 quarts) to cook your pasta, draining it in a colander takes skill, even luck. First you need muscles to lift a heavy, hot pot and carry it to the sink. Then you’ve got to tilt the pot just right, aiming the cascading water so the pasta lands in the colander. This tricky step is further complicated by billowing steam that clouds your vision, foggy glasses or not. Add a couple of curious toddlers to the mix, or a slick spot on the floor, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. What’s more, you’re dumping down the drain a precious resource for finishing your sauce: the pasta water itself. More on that in myth #12.

For all these reasons, many cooks swear by pasta pots with a strainer insert. The removable inner liner is deep and perforated with colander-like holes. The only thing you need to lift is the liner, and up comes the pasta with it, leaving the water behind.

The cheapest solution is to keep a pair of tongs and a wire-mesh skimmer handy, to scoop the pasta directly into a skillet or serving bowl that you position right next to the pot. (When that’s done, push the pot of hot water to the back of the stove. By the time dinner’s over, the water will have cooled off and the danger will be past.)

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