How to Cook Pasta al Dente, Like an Italian

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Cooking pasta al dente is as simple as tying shoes. Tie your laces wrong and you can fall.

I am Italian American, but my grandparents were Italian immigrants. Pasta was a constant in our home. However, when I went ot Italy and ate several different pasta dishes, I was surprised by the texture, and understood what al dente meant.

How to Cook Spaghetti Like an Italian

Pasta al dente has a bite to it

When pasta is cooked al dente, it means it has a tooth to it or a bite to it. It resists slightly.  This takes longer to digest and avoids a spike in blood sugar.

The first time I ever ate a pasta cooked correctly was a Pasta Carbonara dish in Rome. It was so delicious and satisfying and it felt almost as if the center wasn’t cooked. I learned that we Americans are doing it all wrong!

We tend to overcook pasta to a mushy, gummy mess, doing stupid things like adding in olive oil and then rinsing in cold water. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Trust me on this.

First of all there is a difference in cooking times and sauce preferences between homemade and factory made dried pasta. If you buy a quality dried pasta, and it is cooked properly, it’s often better than pasta made from scratch at home.

While homemade pasta is wonderful, factory pasta is suited more to most Italian dishes.  For example, spaghetti, rigatoni, penne pasta, and bucatini are factory pastas we all adore. These pastas are made from water and semolina flour, a golden yellow hard wheat flour, which gives the pasta its structure. There are no eggs used, and the pasta is very firm.

Factory pasta is best suited to olive oil sauces and can be used with butter sauces.  This zucchini basil  pasta dish is so delicious and a wonderful summer dish.

Cook Pasta like an Italian

No matter whether the pasta is homemade or store-bought,  the rules for how to cook pasta are the same.

Spaghetti is the most overcooked pasta on earth. It should resist and have a bite to it. It’s easier to digest that way too!

You don’t always need to have a ton of pasta to make a wonderful dish. This is simply olive oil, garlic and crushed red pepper with broccoli.

How to Cook Pasta like an Italian, Al Dente from Spinach Tiger

How Much Pasta Per Person

However, if pasta is the main course (spaghetti and meatballs), make sure you cook enough for a crowd. You will want to cook 4 ounces per person to be on the safe side, even though two ounces is a portion. This is the dish you’ll want to have leftovers.

spaghetti and meatballs

Classic Genovesa Pesto with Green Beans and Potatoes is a bit of Carb Heaven, but make sure that spaghetti has a bite to it.

How to Cook Pasta like an Italian from Spinach Tiger

Spaghetti with Meatballs and Garden Vegetables Doesn’t Need a Sauce. This is a pasta you absolutely want to cook al dente!

How to Cook Pasta like an Italian from Spinach Tiger

Pasta Carbonara is a delightful classic.

How to Cook Pasta Like an Italian, Al Dente #pasta #Italian #cookpasta #spaghetti

Pasta Water 

Where there’s a sauce involved like a warm pesto, you might want to finish the cooking in the pan to bring more favor to the pasta. Put the pesto in frying pan. Add in pasta, but reserve a little of the pasta water. See Number 8 on tips.

Pasta and Chicken with Pistachio Pesto

Pistachio Pesto can be used on any pasta and is so good. How to Cook Creamy Pesto Chicken Pasta From Spinach Tiger

Factory pasta is best suited to olive oil sauces and can be used with butter sauces. Bread crumbs as a topping often give pasta that little extra something.

Pasta La Fritteda 

This spinach pasta is store-bought from Trader Joe’s and will have a longer cooking time than homemade.

How to Cook Pasta like an Italian from Spinach Tiger

How to Cook Pasta al dente: Here are the rules for factory produced, dried pasta.

  1. Choose the right pasta for the intended sauce.
  2. LOTS OF WATER – I use a 7 quart pot fill it with 6 quarts of water to cook one pound of pasta. WHY? The more water per pasta ratio, the faster the water gets back to boiling and the faster the pasta will cook. The more water per pasta ratio, the more room the pasta has, and this avoids sticking.
  3. Do NOT put oil in your pan. Just use an ample amount of water. The exception to this rule is homemade, filled pasta such as ravioli.
  4. LOTS OF SALT – Once the water begins to boil, add the salt and not before. Wait a few seconds until the water is rapidly boiling and then add pasta.
  5. COOK Al Dente – Only cook the pasta until it is soft, yet still has a chew. Do not overcook. Test the pasta starting at two minutes before suggested cook time.
  6. RESERVE some pasta water. Before you empty the pot into a colander, reserve a cup of pasta water for your sauce
  7. Do NOT rinse pasta with water. The starch on the pasta needs to stay put!
  8. FINISH cooking the pasta in the sauce. Place enough sauce into a large frying pan or dutch oven and finish cooking the pasta. It will absorb some of the sauce and flavor. At this time, add in some of the pasta water. The starch in the water will help to thicken the sauce.
  9. ENJOY!

Pasta with Spicy Eggplant Sauce

How You can Tell if  You have a good pasta

What’s a good pasta? You should be able to tell the difference between a good quality boxed pasta and a so so pasta, because the quality pasta will have more body to it when cooked. It will plump more and have flavor, not be just bland starch.

There are two brands I think are exceptional in the moderate price range.  Alma’s and La Molinari. I’m mentioning these brands because they are only slightly higher in price than the cheaper brands and worth a few extra cents.

I also like the higher priced De Cecco pasta a lot! There are other brands with Italian names that are priced right and get premier space, and while they are not bad, they are not exceptionally good either.

It’s so important to get the pasta right, because a few simple things can make the difference between a great bite of pasta and a dish no one really cares to eat.

How to Cook The Right Pasta for the Right Sauce

A thick bolognese sauce is great with a papparadelle (a wider noodle) , but also memorable with an extra thick spaghetti that is hollowed, called bucatini.  It’s one of our favorite pastas! De Cecco makes a great bucatini.

How to Cook Pasta like an Italian al dente from Spinach Tiger

The Best Pasta for Chicken Soup

I grew up on pastina (affilate) in my chicken soup and now the boys absolutely love and prefer this.

Pastina (affiliate)  is amazing with scrambled eggs and parmesan cheese. It’s the dish my grandmother made for me and a pasta kids can eat with a spoon. As we got older, we started scrambling eggs into spaghetti with olive oil and cheese and it’s my husband’s favorite.

Homemade Papparadelle is perfect for bolognese, but is lovely with chanterelle mushrooms and butter. A homemade egg based pasta will cook very quickly. Homemade pastas are made with eggs and softer wheat flour. They cook quickly and absorb sauces deeply.

pasta dish overhead view

How to Cook Gluten Free Pasta

The same rules apply, but read the directions carefully. Some gluten free pastas have long cooking times. Keep in mind that most gluten free pasta is not good reheated and will fall apart.

Gluten Free Rotini Mexican Style

How to Cook Pasta like an Italian from Spinach Tiger
homemade tomato sauce promo graphic

Pasta is a Perfect Ingredient for a One Dish Dinner

We love one dish pasta dishes, and sometimes we turn to low-carb pasta.

In this case, a low-carb, high protein pasta was used and cooked extra long with the last few minutes cooking in the olive oil mixture to absorb the flavor.

Pasta with Salmon, Olives, Tomatoes, Cauliflower

How to Cook Pasta like an Italian from Spinach Tiger

Low Carb Pasta with Peach Pork Bolognese.

How to Cook Pasta like an Italian from Spinach Tiger

Pasta is one of those dishes the whole world loves and makes in so many different ways. Eaten in moderation, it’s a great part of life. Properly cooked, it’s easier to digest and enjoy!

Here’s my latest pasta dish. Stuffed Shells and How to Stuff Pasta, great for a crowd.

Stuffed Shells Recipe
Print Recipe
5 from 5 votes

How to Cook Pasta Like an Italian (al dente) and Which Pasta to Use

How to Cook Pasta Properly.
Prep Time5 mins
Cook Time10 mins
Total Time15 mins
Course: Pasta
Cuisine: Italian
Servings: 4
Author: Angela Roberts

Ingredients

  • 1 pound of pasta or as desired.
  • 6 quarts water
  • 2 tablespoons salt

Instructions

  • How to Cook Pasta: Here are the rules for factory produced, dried pasta.
  • Choose the right pasta for the intended sauce.
  • LOTS OF WATER – I use a 7 quart pot fill it with 6 quarts of water to cook one pound of pasta. WHY? The more water per pasta ratio, the faster the water gets back to boiling and the faster the pasta will cook. The more water per pasta ratio, the more room the pasta has, and this avoids sticking.
  • Do NOT put oil in your pan. Just use an ample amount of water. The exception to this rule is homemade, filled pasta such as ravioli.
  • LOTS OF SALT – Once the water begins to boil, add the salt and not before. Wait a few seconds until the water is rapidly boiling and then add pasta.
  • COOK Al Dente – Only cook the pasta until it is soft, yet still has a chew. Do not overcook. Test the pasta starting at two minutes before suggested cook time.
  • RESERVE some pasta water. Before you empty the pot into a colander, reserve a cup of pasta water for your sauce
  • Do NOT rinse pasta with water. The starch on the pasta needs to stay put!
  • FINISH cooking the pasta in the sauce. Place enough sauce into a large frying pan or dutch oven and finish cooking the pasta. It will absorb some of the sauce and flavor. At this time, add in some of the pasta water. The starch in the water will help to thicken the sauce.
  • ENJOY!

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If you love this recipe, please give it five stars. It means a lot. xoxo

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8 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    Thanks for this GREAT tutorial – I just learned more in one read than I’d known in about 60 years of cooking pasta! 🤫 And these are such doable tips. Thank you! 💯

  2. 5 stars
    I have been searching for authentic pasta receipe. glad i landed on your blog. thanks for sharing this recipe.

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