12 Mistakes You’re Making When Cooking Pasta
These expert tips will not only help you turn out perfect pasta dishes every time, but they'll also answer that age-old question: Should you throw a strand of pasta up against the wall to see if it's done?
Pasta may just be the ultimate comfort food, except when it comes time to prepare it. Salt the water? Rinse the cooked noodles? The controversy abounds, so we’ve turned to Taste of Home and two major names in the world of pasta: Chef Carmine Di Giovanni of New York’s Aunt Jake’s, and Glenn Rolnick, executive chef at Carmine’s. Their pasta palaces dot the culinary landscape from New York to Las Vegas, and they reveal, once and for all, the right way to prepare your noodles.
You don’t salt the water
Chef Di Giovanni, Aunt Jake’s: Absolutely yes, you should salt the water.
Chef Rolnick, Carmine’s: Yes, salt it—about one tablespoon of salt per gallon of water.
Salt is added to the water to improve the taste of the pasta, but if someone at the table is on a low-sodium diet, you can leave it out and let each person salt their own serving. Learn how to avoid the top mistake home chefs make when cooking pasta.
You add a splash of olive oil to the water
Chef Di Giovanni, Aunt Jake’s: Oil is not necessary.
Chef Rolnick, Carmine’s: No oil—it will make the pasta gummy.
Despite what almost everyone thinks, this is a major no-no, and nearly all famous pasta chefs agree.
You completely drain the cooked pasta
Chef Di Giovanni, Aunt Jake’s: No, the pasta water will add a silky texture to your sauce.
Chef Rolnick, Carmine’s: Just drain through a colander.
You rinse the cooked pasta
Chef Di Giovanni, Aunt Jake’s: That’s a definite NO. I get this question all the time. It’s a huge mistake to rinse it. The starch adds a smooth velvet-like richness to your sauce.
Chef Rolnick, Carmine’s: No
The issue is that by rinsing pasta, you remove starch that helps sauces cling to the cooked pasta.
You set aside some pasta water for the sauce
Chef Di Giovanni, Aunt Jake’s: If your sauce is too thick then, yes. Otherwise, the strained pasta will retain some water on it, which should be enough for the sauce.
Chef Rolnick, Carmine’s: No. Sauce should be flavorful without needing to dilute.
Some chefs feel that adding some of the drained off water to a sauce will help it to bond with pasta—try it both ways and make your own call. Check out these other 10 cooking tricks that are only taught in culinary schools.
You only use dried pasta
Chef Di Giovanni, Aunt Jake’s: Boxed pasta (dry) works well for pasta salads, otherwise always try to use fresh. It’s a night and day difference.
Chef Rolnick, Carmine’s: You can use fresh when it’s available, but serve immediately after draining. Dried pastas will sit a little better.
For something different, try these healthy pasta alternatives that won’t make you miss the carbs.
You freeze your leftovers
Chef Di Giovanni, Aunt Jake’s: Fresh pasta freezes very well, but never defrost it to cook it. If cooked directly from frozen into hot water, you would never know the difference. But once defrosted after being frozen, just throw it away. The water crystals in the dough cause it to get soggy, or as Aunt Jake would say, “mooshsda.”
Chef Rolnick, Carmine’s: As for freezing a finished dish: Don’t do that!
You throw a strand of cooked pasta against a wall to see if it’s done
Chef Di Giovanni, Aunt Jake’s: Not unless you like cleaning it up afterward.
Chef Rolnick, Carmine’s: No. Better to taste and look for a little bite or texture.
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You make too much (or not enough)
Pasta expands when it’s cooking, so it can be hard to gauge how much you’re actually making. Try these hacks from Taste of Home: Tightly pack long noodles (think spaghetti and angel hair) in the opening of an empty, clean soda bottle to measure one portion. For smaller pastas like macaroni, filling a closed fist with dry noodles will give you about one cup cooked. Use these other 25 brilliant cooking shortcuts you’ll wish you knew sooner.
You let it boil too long
Ideally, your pasta should be cooked al dente so that it’s firm, not mushy. If you’ve overcooked yours, Taste of Home knows a clever trick that will save dinner: Strain your pasta and rinse it with cold water (this is the only time we’ll excuse rinsing). Fry it on the stove for a bit in a bit of olive oil to help it crisp up. Here’s how to fix 17 other common cooking disasters.
Your pasta and sauce don’t match
The texture of certain sauces work better with particular pasta shapes, so plan yours accordingly. Taste of Home has a guide to help you choose right. Wide, flat fettuccine works well with creamy sauces, while thinner capellini (angel hair) lends itself to a lighter sauce; crevices of farfalle (bowties) and fusilli catch chunky sauces, but ravioli should go with a simple sauce to help the filling shine.
You don’t stir your pasta
Pasta is easy—just toss it in a pot and forget about it for ten minutes, right? Yes, it’s easy, but it’s not 100 percent hands-off. Without stirring your pasta, the noodles will end up clumping together. Give it a stir as soon as you toss the pasta in the boiling water (that’s the moment when noodles sink to the bottom and start sticking), then swirl it again a minute or so later.
Chef Rolnick’s step-by-step advice is:
- Start with cold water and a lot of it! You should have one gallon of water for every pound of pasta.
- Bring the water to a full rolling boil and then add salt, about a tablespoon per gallon.
- Add the pasta but keep it uncovered—never cover pasta while it cooks.
- Cook the pasta until it’s al dente, the pasta must maintain a little bite and texture.
- Drain the pasta into a colander but don’t rinse it. Serve immediately—freshly boiled pasta should never sit!
- For dressing the pasta, don’t overpower it with too much sauce—you should still be able to taste the pasta once it’s sauced.
Make sure you know how to avoid these other 25 cooking mistakes that ruin your food.