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Boiled pasta
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Boiled pasta

Boiled pasta is the basis of an enormous variety of pasta dishes. In most of them, the pasta is usually cooked in the same manner, regardless of the sauce and other ingredients that will be added to it. Notable exceptions are soups, gnocchi, and baked dishes like lasagna and manicotti, which are not covered here.

The four key "secrets" for cooking a good pasta are: cook in salted water, add the pasta only after the water is boiling, do not undercook or overcook, and drain and cool promptly. One must also be aware that some sauces or other accessories may take longer to prepare than the pasta itself.

Salted water

On the average, for every 200 grams of pasta, one should use 4 liters of cold water and 2 tablespoons of salt. The salt should be added when the water is still cold; the exact amount may vary a bit, because some brands of salt are "lighter" than others. Some people also add a few drops of vegetable oil to the water, in order to reduce foaming and the risk of spillovers.

The pan should large enough for the water level to be one or two inches below the rim. It must also be wide enough to hold the uncooked pasta entirely submerged in the water; long pasta like spaghetti may have to be broken in half to fit a smaller pan.

When to add the pasta

The salted water should be brought to a boil, stirring until the salt has completely dissolved. Once the water is vigorously boiling, the pasta should be thrown in, all at once. The cooking time should be measured since this moment.

When the cold pasta is added to the water, the latter usually stops boiling for a few moments. The stove's heat should be adjusted so that the water resumes boiling promptly, and stays boiling moderately while the pasta is cooking. The pasta should be kept entirely submerged at all times. (Failure to follow these rules will result in pasta that is partly overcooked and/or partly undercooked.)

Cooking time

Cooking time varies depending on the kind of pasta; usually it is given on the box. Typical times for dry pasta range from 5 minutes for thin spaghettini to 12 minutes or more for some thick varieties. Fresh, egg-based pasta (pasta all'uovo) takes very little time to cook, hardly a minute after the water has returned to the boil; filled pasta like tortellini needs only a few minutes.

The recommended time needs to be increased when cooking pasta at great altitudes, since water will boil at lower temperature. Beware also that the cooking time may depend on the brand as well as on the kind of pasta.

The cooking time can be adjusted to vary the firmness of the pasta. The suggested time will usually produce a chewy pasta al dente, favored by connoisseurs but somewhat heavy to digest; a slightly longer time produces softer pasta, which may be more adequate for children. However care must be taken not to overcook to the point where the pasta turns into a paste.

Testing the pasta

Beginners should probably play it safe and stick to the time given in the box. Eperienced cooks test whether the pasta is ready by "fishing" a sample piece out of the boiling water with a slotted spoon and chewing on it. The pasta is ready when it has lost the "flour" taste of uncooked pasta and has become moist and flexible throughout its thickness, but is still firm enough to need chewing.

Drain and serve

When the pasta is cooked, it should be drained promptly with a strainer or colander, and placed immediately on a large plate, together with the sauce and other accompainments. The pasta should be eaten hot, within a few minutes, unless the recipe says differently.

Storing cooked pasta

When preparing a large portion that cannot be served immediately — e.g., for a buffet-style meal — it is advisable to cool off the pasta a bit, immediately after draining it. Otherwise the heat still remaining in the pasta may cause it to overcook and stick to itself. This can be done by rinsing the pasta quickly in cold water, or spreading it out on a wide bowl or tray, or tossing it up into the air a few times with the colander.

For the same reason, it is better to allow the pasta get cold, and re-heat it before serving, than trying to keep it hot for an expended period. In this case, it should be drained a bit earlier than the optimum point; and each portion can be reheated by placing it in a strainer and plunging it for a few seconds into salted boiling water.

See also