If you're like most people, you learned how to cook pasta sometime in your tweens. But are you doing it right? Here are my basic must-knows, plus some ideas for how to level-up your game and cook your pasta better, faster, and tastier.


1. You don't have to pull out the big pot

You need 5 to 6 quarts of rolling boiling water to cook one pound of pasta. But there are also dishes for which you cook the pasta in very little water, as you would risotto. Drunken spaghetti is a specialty of mine, and you make it in a deep pan. I cook the pasta partially in water, drain it, and cook it the rest of the way in red wine. 

2. Dried is just fine

I do occasionally make homemade gnocchi or cavatelli, like when I'm in Italy. But I don't tend to buy it fresh or frozen because I actually prefer the bite of dried pasta. That's what I work with. 

3. Hold the salt (for a second)

One of my very few food rules: Yes, you want to liberally salt your water—but not until it's boiling. Otherwise, it basically gives your pot acne by falling to the bottom of the pot and making pits in it. 


4. Undercook it

The most essential trick to cooking the perfect al dente pasta is to take the instructions on the dry pasta package and subtract 1 to 2 minutes. If it says 8 minutes, cook it 6. Pasta companies think Americans want mush, but they're wrong. We know better. Al dente always! If you're not sure if it's done, don't throw the spaghetti against the fridge. Taste some! 


5. Save some of that water

Reserve one good fat cup of hot, salty, starchy water before you drain your cooked pasta. (I have a particular mug I like to use—put one out when you start boiling the water so you don't forget!) That salty, starchy liquid is perfect for marrying the pasta to the sauce. And as you're tossing the pasta with the sauce and water, the pasta continues to cook (it's called carry-over cooking), so remember to undercook your pasta by about 1 to 2 minutes. 


6. Make it rich and creamy

To achieve that creamy, sit-on-your-tongue experience, often pasta dishes are finished with fatty, fruity EVOO; tabs of butter; and/or grated pecorino, that salty delicious stuff made from sheep's milk, or Parmigiano-Reggiano, the king of all cheeses. All these things join with the pasta to make it so rich and creamy it leaves you tongue-tied. 

7. Try toasting! 

If you're making a simple pasta and want to take it to the next level, toast the dry pasta before you add liquid. Just do a few swirls of EVOO in the pan, add a few pats of butter, and once it's foaming, add your pasta. Get it good and brown, which brings out a toasty, nutty flavor, then add a quart of water to cook it through. Throw on some cheese before all the water is absorbed and you've got a delicious nutty, cheesy pasta! 


8. Leftovers? Forget the microwave. 

You want to reheat your pasta in the skillet. Even if it already has sauce, it has soaked up all that sauce and now you can toast it in the skillet with whatever's handy for a whole new meal. And why wait for dinner? Whip up some carbonara—basically bacon, egg, and cheese pasta—and you've got the breakfast of champions! 

9. Rules shmules

In traditional Italian kitchens, seafood is never served with cheese—just toasted breadcrumbs. Who cares? You want cheese on your spaghetti with anchovies? Nobody's going to knock on your door and give you a ticket. Most people believe the thinner the pasta, the thinner the sauce should be, and the sturdier the pasta, the sturdier the sauce. I've never found a reason to doubt this, but the best rule for pasta or any other dish: Eat it how you like it. 


10. Homemade pappardelle

When you're ready to try your own pasta, this is where you begin. Start with just three ingredients and get kneady. Working the dough (kneading and rolling) develops gluten, giving pasta that al dente texture you dig. 

homemade pappardelle with peas and ricotta
Credit: Photography by Lucy Schaeffer