For many of us, pasta is the very first meal we make for ourselves. But just because it takes little more than a pot of boiling water doesn't mean the process can't be improved. Over the years, we've tested and tweaked, taken on old wives' tales, and busted plenty of pasta myths. Case in point? Turns out you don't even need boiling water for a perfect bowl of pasta. So leave your assumptions at the door and check out our go-to tips, all compiled in one place for the very first time.
Add Salt, Not Oil, to Your Pasta Water
If you grew up under the impression that olive oil helps prevent boiling pasta from sticking together, you're far from alone. But in truth, oil won't prevent pasta from sticking any more than vinegar. Without intense agitation, even at a full boil, any oil you add to a pot of pasta will just float on top of your water—not much good for the pasta cooking beneath it.
Pasta sticks when surface starches gelatinize and bond together, and this happens during the early stages of cooking. So the only thing you need to do to prevent sticking is give the pasta a few good stirs after the first minute or two. That doesn't mean you should give up on olive oil entirely, though: After the pasta is drained, a quick drizzle and toss will keep drained pasta from a post-cook clump.
Salt, on the other hand, plays a crucial role when it comes to the flavor of your final dish... provided you use it properly. Contrary to common belief, the amount of salt that goes into pasta water won't do anything to lower its boiling point, but it will make your pasta taste more delicious.
Have you heard that your pasta water should be as salty as the sea? So have we, but guess what? Wrong again. Water that is truly as salty as the ocean will produce pasta that is nearly inedible. We tried out a whole range of water-to-salt ratios to bring you the ideal amount of salt by weight—anywhere from .5% (roughly 3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt per quart) to 2% (roughly 1 tablespoon fine sea salt per quart) will do you just fine.
Is there anything explicitly wrong with following the box instructions to the T? Nope, not one bit. But if you're sick of waiting for a big pot of water to come to a boil or looking to reduce your carbon footprint, we've got good news! First of all, you can start cooking your pasta in cold water for all we care—it won't affect the texture one bit. Then again, doing so requires more careful attention to the pot: you'll need to check on your pasta regularly to prevent it from overcooking.
To keep things a little more controlled, we recommend cutting back drastically on the amount of water you actually use: just enough to cover your pasta will do the trick.* It comes to a boil more quickly and results in a much higher starch content in the water, which is great when it comes to sauces (more on that shortly). And here's the kicker: Even though a small pot of boiling water will show a greater temperature drop than a large pot, the small pot of water will actually return to a boil faster than the large pot after you've added your pasta to it. This is because a small pot has a smaller surface area and thus loses energy to the environment more slowly than a large one.
* Obviously, if you're working with spaghetti-like noodles, you'll need to either stick with traditional methods or work in a wide skillet that can accommodate their length.
Of course, all that is purely academic once you realize that you don't even have to boil pasta to cook it. Put your pasta in cold water, bring it to a boil, then cover the pot and turn off the heat. Your cooking time will remain the same and you'll save yourself (and the environment) the energy bill.
Want to get even more crazy efficient? Try soaking pasta in water as your prep your other ingredients. By the time your sauce is ready, you can just add the pasta (along with some of its soaking liquid) to the pan and, with a minute or so of cooking, your meal will be ready to go. One less pot to clean and a pretty satisfying magic trick to boot. Still skeptical? Here's the science to back it all up. The one exception here is fresh pasta—because it contains eggs, it needs to cook in boiling water to set properly.
Save Your Pasta Water!
Pasta doesn't need more than a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper to make a meal. But even in its most pared down iterations, it benefits from a splash of pasta water: thanks to its high starch content (especially if you're using our low-volume method), the water acts as a wonderful thickener and emulsifier for sauces, even if that sauce is nothing more than butter or oil. To harness its maximum powers of cohesion, we recommend removing your pasta from its water just as it hits al dente and finishing it in a pan with your sauce of choice and a ladelful of starchy water. As the water and sauce mixture reduces, you'll find that it clings evenly to the pasta; even oil and starchy pasta water will bind together almost perfectly. If you're using a pre-made or store-bought sauce, you don't even need an extra pan: just reserve some pasta water and return it to the pot once your noodles are drained, along with your sauce of choice. Then, stir it with your pasta of choice over moderate heat until the sauce hits your preferred consistency.
Finishing your pasta in its sauce offers another advantage as well: because most sauces are acidic, they'll actually inhibit the rate at which pasta cooks. By pulling your pasta out of its water early and adding it to the sauce, you're buying yourself a much larger window of time between when the pasta is perfectly cooked, and when it's over-cooked. Say good-bye to mushy pasta.
Revisit Pasta Salad
If you love mayonnaise-slathered pasta salad, all the power to you. But if you want something a little less, well, goopy, just hold the mayo altogether. Our favorite pasta salads don't strive to be salads, so much as great pasta dishes that happen to taste just as delicious even after they've cooled down. With that spirit in mind, we have a few simple rules. For starters, think sauces rather than dressings; forget the raw vegetables and go for cooked ingredients that can actually be integrated into that sauce; overcook your pasta for superior texture; drop the cheese; and let it come to room temperature before you dig in—this is pasta salad you actually want to taste.
Try Making it From Scratch!
If you're a fiend for fresh pasta, then make it from scratch. In fact, if you have flour and eggs in your kitchen, you can whip up a batch right now. We have simple step-by-step instructions for the best fresh pasta, along with recipes for homemade ravioli, tortellini, and even a stunning plate of uovo in raviolo.
But even if rolling out pasta dough sounds like your worst nightmare, there's no reason to shy away. Try a batch of fresh potato gnocchi, light-as-air Parisian-style pâte à choux gnocchi, or these ricotta gnocchi that, no joke, take less time than it does to make dried pasta from start to finish.