Sure, there are times when I'm in the mood to spend all day on a pasta dish, be it a slow-cooked tomato sauce or a cheese- and meat-heavy lasagna Napoletana. But more often, pasta is my go-to for a quick weeknight dinner. Fortunately for me, it's just as at home in a 15-minute recipe as it is in a six-hour one, and in dishes both sophisticated (like sumac-spiced fusilli with Swiss chard) and humble (that suburban gem, tuna noodle casserole—though our version is a little lighter and fresher). Whatever you're craving, you'll be able to find the pasta that suits your pantry contents and your schedule among the list of 17 recipes below, all of which can be made in 30 minutes or less.
A note on technique: Conventional wisdom has it that you ought to cook pasta in a large pot of water at a roaring boil. Our tests have shown that that's not necessarily the best route. We prefer using a skillet with just enough water to cover the pasta—which is not only more efficient, but also furnishes you with extra-starchy cooking liquid to help emulsify your sauce. And, if you presoak your pasta, you can cook it without any boiling water at all.
Spaghetti Aglio e Olio
Pasta aglio e olio—made with garlic, olive oil, and often a pinch of red pepper flakes—is about as simple as Italian cooking gets. Start by slowly cooking thinly sliced garlic and optional crushed red pepper in oil. Then add pasta that's just shy of al dente, along with a little cooking liquid, and stir rapidly to emulsify the water and oil. Finish with a little more good-quality olive oil, and you're ready to eat.
Cacio e Pepe (Spaghetti With Black Pepper and Pecorino Romano)
Cacio e pepe seems deceptively straightforward, but, in fact, a few tricks are required to keep the cheese from clumping up. To get a perfectly creamy, well-emulsified sauce, grate your Pecorino Romano very finely using a Microplane, which will enable it to melt more quickly and evenly. Another tip: Ditch the one-pot cooking method and instead cook your pasta in a skillet before transferring it to another pan and adding the cheese.
Spaghetti With Carbonara Sauce
The richness of carbonara is due in part to egg yolks, which means that you're in danger of ending up with scrambled eggs instead of a creamy sauce. The intrepid can try cooking the eggs, cheese, and pork (use pancetta, guanciale, or bacon, whichever you prefer) in a hot skillet with the pasta, stirring constantly. However, we recommend playing it safe by replacing the skillet with a double boiler.
Though named after the nearby town of Amatrice, amatriciana is for all intents and purposes a Roman sauce, made with cured pork and tomatoes. Cooking the sauce quickly preserves the bright, fruity flavor of the tomatoes, which serve as a nice foil to the fattiness of the pork. You have options for the meat—high-quality guanciale will give the sauce the best possible texture, but choose good pancetta if you can't find good guanciale.
Penne With Hot-As-You-Dare Arrabbiata Sauce
When making penne arrabbiata, you really have just two decisions to make: what kind of tomatoes to use, and how spicy to make it. If you have access to great summer tomatoes, use 'em, but canned whole tomatoes will beat out bad fresh ones every time. As for the heat level, we suggest that you embrace this sauce's "angry" moniker and push the spice to as much as you can tolerate by adding plenty of red pepper flakes, or, if you prefer, minced fresh red chilies.
Spaghetti Puttanesca (Spaghetti With Capers, Olives, and Anchovies)
Ideas abound as to why this dish was named "spaghetti in the style of prostitutes," but no one theory has ever been confirmed. Focus instead on the deliciousness of this intensely briny, pungent sauce of garlic, anchovies, capers, and olives. Finely chop or slice your garlic by hand, rather than using a garlic press or Microplane—pressed or grated garlic will burn before it can properly infuse the cooking oil. To make the pasta a little heartier, stir in some good olive oil–packed tuna at the end.
Pesto Pasta With Potatoes and Green Beans
You're already sold on how to make perfect pesto, right? Good—this recipe will show you how best to serve it. Heating pesto dampens its bright, fresh flavors, so we treat it differently from other sauces, adding it to the pasta off-heat. To make it an especially Ligurian dish, cook the pasta with green beans and potatoes and toss all the ingredients together—the potatoes carry the benefit of adding extra starch.
Ricotta Gnocchi With Asparagus and Prosciutto
This spring-appropriate pasta dish is made with fresh asparagus shoots, prosciutto, cream, and Parmigiano Reggiano, lightened up with a little lemon. Once the gnocchi are made, the dish comes together in just 20 minutes. And, if you're willing to spend another half hour or so, you'll be glad to know that making ricotta gnocchi from scratch is super easy.
Lighter Fettuccine Alfredo
As much as I do love a bowl of creamy pasta, most fettuccine Alfredo is too much of a gut bomb for my tastes. For an Alfredo-inspired dish that's rich but not overly heavy, we omit most of the cream and instead thicken the sauce with starchy pasta water, a dash of cornstarch, and a whole egg. The result is a cleaner flavor in which the Parmigiano Reggiano really comes through—so be sure to use the good stuff.
Penne With Melted Vegetable Sauce
"Pasta with overcooked vegetables" isn't a particularly appealing description, but it's a fairly accurate representation of this rustic Italian dish. By cutting potatoes and other vegetables into small pieces, boiling them until they're fall-apart soft, and blending them with olive oil, garlic, and fresh parsley, you'll get a chunky, purée-like sauce to toss with pasta and grated Parmigiano Reggiano. You'll be amazed by how delicious it turns out.
Easy One-Pot, No-Knife, Lighter Tuna Noodle Casserole
If the phrase "tuna noodle casserole" frightens you, be reassured that this fresh take requires absolutely no canned soup whatsoever. But that doesn't mean it's not easy—it's done in 15 minutes, and you won't need to chop a single thing. Crème fraîche, cornstarch, and an egg make a creamy yet light sauce to coat the egg noodles; a little lemon juice provides a dose of acidity to balance out the richness.
One-Skillet Orecchiette With Shrimp, Spinach, and Mushrooms
Call me lazy, but the idea of having to use a separate vessel for cooking pasta just irks me. This is a recipe that understands my laziness—here, the orecchiette cook right in the sauce. We brown mushrooms first, then remove them to keep them from getting soggy. Plump, tender shrimp and wilted spinach added to the pasta and mushrooms complete the meal.
Skillet Pasta With Mushrooms, Pancetta, and Wilted Greens
Another one-pot dish, this recipe pairs fusilli with flavorful shiitakes and pancetta, plus wilted greens. The sauce is surprisingly creamy considering it's dairy-free (other than the Parmesan grated on top)—thanks in large part to the rendered fat from the pancetta, which emulsifies with the stock used as cooking liquid.
Vegetarian Citrus Pasta With Swiss Chard
A simple, fresh-tasting vegetarian pasta, this dish gets its tart flavor from sumac. It's a Middle Eastern spice that isn't widely used in the US, so you may have to go to a specialty store (or at least the international section of your local supermarket) to find it. Hearty Swiss chard leaves and stems round out the whole wheat fusilli.
Pasta With Mushrooms, Brussels Sprouts, and Parmesan
The best sauces for a cup-shaped pasta like orecchiette are rich and packed with little bits of flavorful ingredients, which coat the ridges and get caught in the hollows of the ears. Here, we build just such a sauce from mushrooms, Brussels sprout leaves, shallots, garlic, and thyme, plus butter and chicken stock.
Easy Skillet Baked Ziti With Sausage and Ricotta
Our No-Boil Baked Ziti is a fairly time-intensive undertaking, requiring half an hour of soaking for the pasta before it's baked for an hour. This skillet version is much quicker and just about as satisfying. Cubed low-moisture mozzarella melts well on the stovetop, yielding pockets of gooey cheese, while dollops of ricotta on top give it a fresh, creamy finish.
Crispy Baked Pasta With Mushrooms, Sausage, and Parmesan Cream Sauce
If you want the crisped, golden top of a baked pasta, but you want it fast, this is the recipe you need. The sauce gets tremendous flavor from Italian sausage and mixed mushrooms sautéed in the rendered sausage fat. A generous layer of seasoned bread crumbs on top, and using the broiler instead of baking, results in tons of crisp browned bits.