Cooking Pasta Perfectly

Lasagna, spaghetti, rotini, penne, fettuccine-the names are delicious in themselves. Unfortunately, incorrect preparation of pasta can render it less than delicious. In fact, gummy or tough pasta can ruin an otherwise perfectly prepared dish. The most wonderful sauce cannot make up for pasta that is hard or too mushy.

So how can you produce the perfect pasta every time? The three basic properties of pasta preparation are dry or fresh pasta, water and heat. Understanding how these three relate can make your efforts a success.

Pasta Choices
Stand facing the pasta section at your grocery market and you will soon see that you have a variety of choices to make when it comes to choosing the pasta for your next meal. You can choose between shapes, colors, enriched and even dry and fresh.

  • Dry or fresh. Dry pasta is the variety that you will commonly find on the shelves of the local supermarket. Fresh pasta usually can be found in the refrigerated or freezer section as it has a limited shelf life. Many say there is no comparison between the taste of fresh pasta and its dry relative, others love that it cooks much faster and retains more vitamins. Fresh pasta can also be made at home with a pasta maker, allowing you to add your own grains and additives.
  • Colorful pasta. The addition of carrots, tomatoes or spinach to pasta gives it a distinctive color. This adds flavor and interest to the pasta, but don't count on it adding many real vegetable nutrients. The most common of these is spiral macaroni.
  • Enriched pasta. American-made products are enriched with vitamins, especially folic acid, when whole wheat is not used. Most grocery stores now carry a good selection of whole-wheat or wheat-blend pasta that once was found only in health-food shops.
  • Semolina. Semolina pasta, a great choice, is considered the best nutritionally and the easiest to learn to cook well. Semolina is the milled product of durum wheat that is more coarsely ground than other wheat flours.

Shape is Important
The shape of the pasta is important to the dish you are preparing. Particular styles are made to mix well and hold sauces and cheeses to the best advantage. Size, shape and thickness make all the difference in the world. Lasagna would not work with elbow macaroni or vermicelli replacing the wide, thick noodles.

The Best Pasta for the Job

  • Lasagna noodles are flat and thick to keep the layers of filling and meat separate.
  • Elbow macaroni is hollow and allows cheese and sauce to run inside, so it is best for macaroni and cheese, soups and pasta salads.
  • Shells are good in pasta salads also.
  • Penne, cannelloni and other tubular pastas are larger, striated and hollow to be stuffed with meat, cheese or spinach and covered with sauces in casseroles.
  • Spaghetti, long and thin, can be spun on a fork and eaten with sauce and meatballs.
  • Egg noodles are best in casseroles because of their flat surfaces and thickness.
  • Ravioli and tortellini are square pockets with crimped edges to hold spinach, meats or cheeses inside.
  • Others are shaped for fun, like wagon-wheel macaroni and alphabet noodles.

Cooking the Pasta

  • How much will you need to cook? As a general rule, one pound of dry pasta will serve four people as a main course, six as an appetizer.
  • Choose the right pasta pot. Cooking pasta requires the use of a tall boiler, pasta pan or stockpot-one capable of holding 8 to 12 quarts of water.
  • Use plenty of water for diluting starch. You will need one quart of water for every ¼ lb. of pasta. Use enough water so that pasta can move and boil freely. Using too little water will cause the resulting starch in the water not to dilute properly. This starch will adhere to the pasta, making it heavy and gummy.
  • Cooking the pasta. Bring the water in your pan to a rolling boil. Adding the pasta before the water is boiling hard or allowing the water temperature to drop and pasta to simmer will result in a mushy product. Add salt to taste, if desired, about 1 tablespoon for eight quarts of water.

Once you are at a rolling boil, a boil that cannot be interrupted when stirred, slowly add the pasta. Do not break pasta, but gently bend it into the hot water with a spoon. Stir gently to separate the pieces.

Cook pasta uncovered, stirring occasionally, boiling rapidly for the prescribed time.

Cooking Times

  • Fresh pasta, such as fettuccini, lasagna and tagliatelle, needs 3 to 5 minutes.
  • Thin, dry pasta, such as shells, rotini, elbows and fine spaghetti, needs 6 to 9 minutes to cook.
  • Thick, dry pasta-penne, ziti and spaghetti-needs 8 to 10 minutes.

When cooking pasta for a casserole that will be baked, consider that the pasta will cook more during the baking process, so do not fully cook it before adding it to the casserole.

Test Doneness
Test about one minute before pasta is scheduled to be ready. Take out one or two pieces and test them by cutting them open. If there are any white spots inside the piece, cook for a couple more minutes. The inside should be yellow and translucent when ready. When you judge that the pasta is "al dente," just retaining a slight firmness, remove it from the heat. Take care not to overcook the pasta.

Strain excess cooking water through a colander. Do not strain off completely, as some moisture is needed to keep from clumping.

Don't rinse! Many cooks rinse pasta thinking it is the proper procedure. For lasagna and salad pasta, rinsing will help you to separate the pieces and work with them. Otherwise, the little starch that stays on the pasta helps sauces stick and so makes a better dish.

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