Pasta Social Club is a column by Meryl Feinstein, Food52's Resident Pasta Maker, community builder, and pastaia extraordinaire. Meryl will teach us about everything from semolina to spaghetti to sauce (and all the tools you'll need for each) — and will show us how pasta is a great way to make great friends and have lots of fun.
A box of pasta is a beautiful thing. It has your back when there's nothing left in the kitchen but an old tube of tomato paste and a few cloves of garlic. It's perfect for when you're short on time, but it's also best friends with the Sunday sauce that's been simmering on the stove for hours. And nothing beats that al dente bite.
If you've come across any of my recipes, you probably know about my deep love of fresh pasta. So I wouldn't blame you for thinking I don't have any interest in the dried stuff. But that couldn't be further from the truth. I love fresh pasta because the process of making it is therapeutic and brings people together. And I love dried pasta because it's quick, versatile, and best suited to some of my favorite classic dishes (looking at you, cacio e pepe). Both are spectacularly delicious. They're just very different.
I could talk endlessly about the dried pasta shapes I love most (bucatini, paccheri), or the boxed brands that fill my cupboards (mostly De Cecco, some Pastificio G. Di Martino and Rustichella D'Abruzzo for special occasions). But I'll spare you that spiel. Instead I want to share the tips I live by for cooking a perfect pot of pasta.
Let's talk about salt
You've no doubt heard the phrase "salt your pasta water like the sea." Here's the truth: sea water is gross. I've salted my pasta water like the sea plenty of times, and even I (with a high salt tolerance) couldn't get past the second bite. So, like Chef Evan Funke, I'll revise that mantra to "season your pasta water like a soup."
Adding salt to your cooking water is the only time you're seasoning the pasta itself, so this step is especially important for a well-rounded dish. There are plenty of resources that tell you exactly how much salt to add to various amounts of water. I can never be bothered to measure my water (who has the time?), so I eyeball it. It's something like a palmful — those little salt grinders aren't going to cut it. Just know that different types of salt have different levels of saltiness; for example, your two tablespoons of Morton's will be far saltier than my two tablespoons of Diamond Crystal.
The best test? When you taste your pasta during the cooking process to see if it's done, it should taste pleasantly salty. It's sort of like the Goldilocks approach: if the pasta tastes bland, add some more salt; if it actually tastes like the ocean, dilute it with a bit of water and hold back some salt from your sauce. If it tastes like a piece of pasta with a little salt sprinkled on top, then you've nailed it. It takes some trial and error, but it makes all the difference.
Oh, and one more thing: Add your salt right before you drop the pasta into the water. If you add it earlier than this, it'll concentrate as water evaporates, leaving you with a result far saltier than anticipated.
Skip the olive oil
I know I'm not the only one who grew up adding a splash of olive oil to their pasta water. I was told this prevented the noodles from sticking together, and also gave them a little extra flavor. But drizzling oil into the cooking water actually works against you when you're finishing your dish.
As pasta cooks, it releases starch. The starchy water you're left with is a perfect thickener for sauces, and it's also a sort of glue that helps the sauce and pasta stick together (more on that below). If there's olive oil in the mix, you'll be left with a slick coating on the surface of the pasta. And your delicious sauce won't hug each noodle like it should — instead, it'll slide right off.
To keep things from clumping together, simply stir the pasta for a few seconds once you've added it to the pot, and again every so often throughout the cooking process.
Finding al dente
To determine its proper seasoning (see above) and doneness, always taste your pasta as it cooks. For dried pastas, the goal is generally "al dente," which means "to the tooth." Simply put, al dente pasta bites back. It has a satisfying texture and resistance; it's not mushy or gummy.
The number of minutes it takes to get to al dente varies. For small and thin pastas, that time will be shorter than large and dense shapes. Plus, not all brands of pasta are processed the same way, and those production methods also impact the pasta's cook time. I've had Trader Joe's penne that cooks in half the time it takes for a box of Rustichella D'Abruzzo.
The recommended cooking time on the box can also be unreliable. So here's what I do: A few minutes into the cooking process, pull out a piece of pasta and bite into it to see how far along it is. Repeat this with a new piece every minute or so. You'll see a white line on the inside where the pasta is still raw. Al dente pasta will still have a little bit of that line when it's done. (It's often several minutes before the package says it will be.) Personally, I prefer my pasta verging on undercooked — even before al dente — because it means I can finish cooking it for a minute or two in the sauce to bring everything together.
Save the water
We all know that pasta water isn't just for boiling noodles. It's also an ingredient unto itself, and it's essential when making some of Italy's best-loved dishes. Cacio e pepe, easily my favorite classic pasta dish (did I mention that already?), relies on that starchy water to transform a pile of cheese and pepper into the world's most luxurious sauce. What's more, a few spoonfuls of pasta water will help emulsify any sauce, from brown butter to bolognese, into glossy perfection. You'll never find me without it.
I used to reserve the amount of pasta water a recipe would suggest, and then drain my pasta. But I kept finding myself running out of that precious liquid far too soon. Now I skip the colander altogether and use either tongs or a large slotted spoon to transfer my pasta directly from water to sauce. (You can also grab an Italian pasta pot with the colander built right in!) I've never had a shortage since.
The same advice goes for rinsing: Don't do it! Splashing cold water on your cooked pasta will wash away that beautiful starch, which won't do your sauce any favors.
The marriage of pasta and sauce
One of the chefs I worked for in New York waxed poetic about the marriage of pasta and sauce. It's easy to see why. When the two work together, this simple combination assumes its highest form.
First, a little recap: Season and save your water, skip the olive oil (and the rinsing!), and aim for al dente. Then it's time to make that marriage happen. Shortly before the pasta's ready, vigorously stir a few spoonfuls of starchy pasta water into your sauce until it becomes glossy and slightly thickened. When the pasta is just shy of al dente, add it directly to the sauce and finish cooking it for a minute or two so it can soak up all those delicious flavors.
You'll wonder how you cooked pasta any other way.