Lots of questions come up when we're cooking pasta. How much salt should I add? Should I add a glug of olive oil? Do I really have to reserve some pasta water before draining? We answer all carbohydrate quandaries today with the help of the editors at America's Test Kitchen in our master pasta edition of Do I Really Have to Do That?
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DO use more water than you think you need.
For every pound of pasta, you'll need four quarts of water. "This amount of water may seem excessive to some, but pasta contains tons of starch, and if cooked in too little liquid, the noodles will stick together." Ever had a pot of pasta foam up and boil over? That's a sure sign you didn't use enough water.
DO add salt.
Add 1 tablespoon of table salt or 2 tablespoons kosher salt to the boiling water. Some cooks say it should be as salty as sea water. "It really enhances the flavor of the pasta, making it taste fuller and wheatier."
DON'T add olive oil.
"Contrary to popular belief, adding oil to boiling water does not prevent sticking." The oil will just float to the surface and then be drained off with the cooking water. And there go a few dollars down the drain, to boot.
DON'T follow the package timing.
If you want al dente pasta, the suggested cooking times on the pasta box will likely lead you astray. Instead, "about 3 minutes shy of the package time, simply lift a piece of pasta and taste it." (You DON'T need to throw it on the wall.) Remember that like eggs and meat, the pasta will continue to cook as it's drained and sauced. "In the test kitchen, we compensate for this by pulling the pot off the heat and draining the pasta when it’s just shy of al dente."
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DO reserve some of the pasta cooking liquid.
"Before draining, reserve some of the cooking water—about a ½ cup or so. A splash of this starchy water can adjust the consistency of a pasta sauce that’s become too stodgy or thick." To help yourself remember this step, place your colander in the sink while the pasta is cooking with a measuring cup inside as a visual reminder. If you still forget, "mix ¼ teaspoon of cornstarch with 1 cup of water and microwave for 1 to 2 minutes until hot. Just a splash or two of the slightly thickened liquid creates a sauce with just the right consistency."
DON'T shake pasta dry.
"A little water clinging to the pasta is desirable because it helps the sauce combine with and coat the pasta." Besides, if you've ever refrigerated leftover spaghetti, you know what happens as pasta dries: the strands stick together in a tangled glob. Try this method instead. "Just pour the pasta into a colander, and let the pasta drain of its own accord for 30 seconds or so—resist the urge to vigorously shake the colander (although one or two gentle shakes won’t hurt)."
DON'T rinse pasta.
Unless you're headed to a picnic with your signature pasta salad, don't rinse. It cools down the pasta––not what we want if it's a hot dinner we're after––"but it also washes away all of that beautiful starch that helps the sauce cling."
DO pair your pasta shape with the right sauce.
Cook's Illustrated senior editor Dan Souza explains how the ideal marriage between pasta and sauce offers a taste of both in every single bite. Thin pasta like angel hair and spaghetti goes best with a smooth, light sauce, like pesto or olive oil and garlic. Thicker strands like tagliatelle, fettucine, and linguine are better matches for a slightly chunkier sauce with ground meat, like a bolognese, or a creamy sauce like alfredo. Larger tube shapes like rigatoni or shells are best with a really chunky sauce that will get stuck in its crevices, like pasta alla norma. Smaller tube-shaped pasta like penne and fusilli are at their best with a lightly chunky tomato sauce.
RECIPE: Pasta with Leeks, Peas and Prosciutto
Spring into summer with this seasonal twist on a spaghetti supper. Just boil, toss, and top with shavings of cheese.
Coarse salt and ground pepper
12 ounces spaghetti
4 tablespoons butter
2 medium leeks (6 to 8 ounces each), white and light-green parts only, halved lengthwise and cut into 2-inch pieces, well rinsed
1 package (10 ounces) frozen peas
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 ounces (about 1/4 cup) thinly sliced prosciutto cut into thin strips
2 ounces (about 1/3 cup) ricotta salata or Parmesan cheese shaved with a vegetable peeler
1. In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook pasta until al dente, according to package instructions. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water; drain pasta, and return to pot.
2. While pasta is cooking, heat 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet over medium. Add leeks; season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Add peas; cook, stirring, until warmed through, 2 to 3 minutes.
3. To drained pasta, add leek mixture, remaining 3 tablespoons butter, lemon juice, and prosciutto; season with salt and pepper. Add reserved pasta water a little at a time, tossing, until a thin sauce coats pasta. (You may not need all the water.) Serve, sprinkled with ricotta salata.
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