Alas, nothing seems to be simple these days. For every piece of information available to us, there seems to be a corresponding piece of misinformation. So, I will attempt to debunk some myths about cooking pasta that recipes, package instructions, and even television chefs seemed determined to perpetuate. I also hope to convince you that cooking pasta perfectly every time is really very simple.
First, you need plenty of water. I use about 3 quarts of water for every half-pound of pasta, regardless of the variety.
Next, you need some salt – about 1 teaspoon of kosher or sea salt per quart of water. Pasta tastes best, regardless of the dressing used, if it is slightly salted, and the only way to salt pasta is to add salt to the cooking water. I have more to say about salt, but first let's dismiss three myths.
Myth #1: You can always add salt "to taste" after it's cooked. You can add salt, but all you'll get is salty pasta. This is absolutely the wrong way to season pasta.
Myth #2: You should add olive oil to the water to keep the pasta from sticking together. Adding any oil will only make your pasta oily; and more important, unable to "hold" any dressing (sauce, cheese, etc.). A long wooden spoon is the best tool for keeping pasta from sticking. You just stir the pasta – especially during the first minute or two, and then maybe a quick stir every 2 or 3 minutes thereafter. Pasta clumps are usually the result of too little water.
Myth #3: You should rinse your pasta after draining the pasta water to remove excess starch. No, you shouldn't! Rinsing only cools your pasta. Whatever starch remains after cooking is there for good reasons – texture and taste. There is an important exception to this, however. When the cooked pasta is to be used as part of another dish (manicotti, lasagna, etc.) you should stop the cooking process by rinsing the pasta with cold water (or pouring the pasta into an ice bath).
Most pasta packages include recommended cooking times. Personally, I think these times are underestimates. I use the old-fashion technique my father taught me – and no, you do not fling it against the wall! When you stir uncooked pasta, there is a resistance, or firmness, to the stirring that you can feel through the spoon. As the pasta cooks, this resistance lessens. Believe me, you can actually feel the resistance or firmness change if you stir the pot every minute or two. When the resistance almost disappears (or if you prefer, as you approach the cooking time noted on the package), remove a piece of the pasta, bite into it, and look at the very center of the piece that remains in your hand. If you see a white dot (or a white area), the pasta needs more time. Now check more often – maybe every minute. The moment that white dot or area disappears, the pasta is done. Remove it from the heat and drain it immediately. Don't give it an extra minute "to be sure it's done", and don't let the pasta sit in the hot water.
Some final comments about salt. Most importantly, if you have been counseled by your physician to avoid sodium you should ignore these final paragraphs. I certainly am not suggesting you challenge your doctor's advice. If, however, you are watching and minimizing your sodium intake, as most of us are, let me show you that using salt to cook pasta adds a very reasonable amount of sodium to your diet.
Let's do the math. A pound of dry pasta absorbs about a pound of water as it cooks. A teaspoon of Morton Coarse Kosher Salt contains 1.92 grams of sodium (right off the box). So, my recommendation of one teaspoon of kosher salt per quart of water equates to 0.96 grams of sodium per pound of water, since a quart of water weighs two pounds. A large, but not unusual, portion of pasta (cooked, but not yet sauced) weighs about 6 ounces, half of which is salted water. This means a typical serving of pasta contains about 0.18 grams of sodium (3/16 lbs. x 0.96 grams per lb.), or about 180 milligrams – 8% of the daily sodium amount considered safe (2300 milligrams per day) and 12% of the preferred maximum of 1500 milligrams per day. (If you prefer table salt, which is denser and thus contains about 25% more sodium per teaspoon, I suggest you only use ¾ teaspoons per quart of water to compensate.)
If you're still not convinced, try this. Take two quarter-pound portions of your favorite pasta. Cook one portion in plain water, and the other in salted water. Then taste the two results, side by side, with no added sauce. In fact, you can even add your favorite sauce. It won't help. To me, pasta cooked in plain water tastes bland and paste-like, but you must be the final judge.