How To: Boil Pasta
I don't care how many Italian grandmothers you have, there's enough myths about boiling pasta to fill a phone app, albeit not a useful one. Tossing pasta into hot water works perfectly for a talented few, but even so, there's a reason they're so lucky.
Most important is to start with the right stuff. I'll take a New York pizza over a Roman pie any day, but Italians make better pasta. De Cecco is easily the best pasta you can find in a regular supermarket, and if you can't find it on the shelf, then you may wish to settle for...nevermind, just leave the store and find De Cecco somewhere else. It's reasonably priced now, since the Euro took a dive.
Water--you can use a gallon per pound of pasta, which is preferable, but not necessary. The idea is to dilute the starches so the pasta doesn't stick together, but stirring the pasta at the right time does a better job of it. I only use enough water to cover the pasta by an inch.
Olive Oil--it's unnecessary in the boiling water. It floats on top, so it's not going to do a fabulous job of keeping the pasta from sticking. My Italian friend Paola told me oil keeps the water from boiling over, but that's not necessary either, as we'll see.
Salt--a tablespoon of it will deter the stickiness of the starches, and the pasta will absorb some of it for seasoning. Don't toss it into boiling water before the pasta, as salt causes the water to well up dangerously.
Pasta--after the water boils, reduce the heat to medium (so your hand doesn't get steamed) then toss in the pasta. If it's straight noodles, I twist my hand back and forth, and drop it in a radial pattern to keep it from sticking. Turn the heat back up until the water boils again.
Stir immediately after dropping the pasta in. That's when sticky starches are released, at the beginning of the cooking. This is a good time to stir in the salt. Stir after one minute, as this is when more sticky starches are released, and stir again after two minutes, for the same reason.
At this point, you could turn off the water, and the pasta will have enough heat to cook. I still don't believe it, so I keep the water at a minimum boil, uncovered.
You may need extra minutes, as much as an additional half as much time for De Cecco, because the listed times on the box are for al dente, which is not to some American tastes (including mine).
When time's up, save a half-cup of the starchy water if you need it for your pasta dish. Pour out as much water as you can before the pasta starts to spill out of the pot, then add an inch of cold water to dilute the starches without making the pasta cold, then drain completely. Any residual water will evaporate. Do not run cold water over the pasta, as this will make it cold and slippery and wash away lots of flavor.
Italians usually add a sauce right away, but if you are serving the pasta later, stir in a small pat of butter or a spoon of olive oil to further ensure it won't stick together. Pasta keeps from three to five days in the refrigerator.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.