Pasta is one of the greatest foods on earth and a true staple in many households. It’s tasty, filling, and pairs exceptionally well with different Italian and Italian-American sauces like tomato, cream, or pesto sauce.
The thing about pasta is that, even though most pasta dishes have only a few ingredients and require a simple cooking method, sometimes it’s surprisingly tricky to get right.
One of the questions home cooks often ask about pasta is, whether pasta floats when it’s cooked. I got curious and starter researching the topic. Here’s what I found.
Does pasta float when it’s done? Only stuffed pasta like ravioli, tortellini, or mezzelune will float to the surface during cooking. This happens because the air inside them expands when heated, making the pasta noodles less dense than the water. When the noodles float, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re done. To check the noodles for readiness, take one of them out, let it cool down, and taste it.
No matter if you’re boiling the pasta noodles separately or cooking them in the same pan as your sauce as part of a one-pot pasta recipe, the easiest way to tell when pasta is done is to taste it.
When pasta is done, it should be firm and still have a little bite to it. Crunchy pasta is undercooked (let it cook for 20-30 seconds more and taste it again). Soggy and soft pasta is overcooked.
How to Cook Pasta Noodles Perfectly
Many home cooks outside Italy make the mistake of overcooking their pasta till it turns soggy and mushy. There are two reasons why this is not really a good idea. First, pasta was never intended to be overcooked. Second, overcooked pasta is hard to digest — and you will feel tired after eating it.
The correct way to cook pasta is al dente. Al dente is an Italian term that means “to the tooth,” which describes the texture of pasta when it’s cooked just right. The best-cooked pasta noodles are tender but firm. They are easy to chew but still have a tiny bite to them. Usually, this happens 2-3 minutes before the recommended cooking time.
So here’s my two cents for how to cook the perfect pasta:
Before adding the noodles to the pot, add salt to the water and bring it to a boil. As Italian chefs like to say, “the water should taste like the sea.” For me, this usually means a generous pinch of sea salt.
Stir the pasta only for 5-10 seconds after you first add it to the pot, then leave it alone and let it boil. 2-3 minutes before the recommended cooking time on the package’s instructions, start tasting your pasta for doneness.
I wrote about this extensively in a post called “This Is How to Tell When Pasta Is Cooked.” Here are four timings from that post that you can use as a rule of thumb the next time you cook pasta:
- 6 minutes for long and very thin pasta noodles like spaghettini
- 8 minutes for long and thin pasta noodles like spaghetti
- 8 minutes for small pasta noodles like farfalle
- 10 minutes for thick pasta like rigatoni
Now that you know how long to actually cook pasta for and how to tell when it’s done, your friends and family will think you went to a cooking course and forgot to tell them. It makes a big difference!
Is Al Dente Pasta Good for You?
When I give this advice to someone in person, they almost always ask… “But is al dente pasta good for you?”
Eating pasta al dente is actually healthier than eating it undercooked. Boiling water breaks down the molecular bonds in starches. The longer pasta noodles are cooked, the more molecular bonds get broken down, and the faster your body can convert the carbohydrates in pasta into energy.
You don’t want to be giving your body too much energy at the same time (as it happens when you overcook pasta and it turns into an energy bomb of sorts). This will cause your blood sugar levels to suddenly rise, only to crash a couple of minutes later.
Al dente pasta takes more time for your body to digest. When you eat pasta al dente, your body will absorb the energy from the carbohydrates slowly and gradually, giving you a continuous boost of fuel instead of making you feel sluggish and tired.
This is something that my wife and I first discovered on our honeymoon in Italy. We ate the most wonderful pasta dishes for lunch, for dinner — and we never felt as tired as we would do when eating pasta at home.
One day, I chatted up one of our waiters and asked, “What makes Italian pasta different?” Without hesitation, he told me two words: “Al dente.” And went on to serve a couple that just got seated next to us.
How Long to Cook Fresh Pasta
Everything I wrote above applies primarily to dried pasta. Fresh pasta, whether homemade or store-bought, is a world of its own.
Fresh pasta and dried pasta are made the same way. The difference is that fresh pasta is packaged and sold as soon as it’s made, whereas dried pasta goes through a drying process that removes the moisture from it to extend its shelf life.
This is why fresh pasta is good for two or three days, whereas dried pasta can last in your pantry for years. It’s also why dried pasta takes longer to cook. Dried noodles need time to rehydrate.
Fresh pasta can take anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes till it’s cooked. The best way to tell when fresh pasta is done is also to taste it and use your senses.
The Bottom Line
Stuffed pasta noodles will float to the surface during the cooking process. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that their done. As always, the best way to tell if your ravioli or tortellini are done is to fish out a noodle with a spoon, let it cool down for 10-15 seconds, and taste it.
Pasta is done when it’s al dente, or to the tooth. That’s that short moment of time when it’s still firm to the but, but cooked just enough to be easy to chew and very digestible for your body. Usually, that happens 2-3 minutes before the recommended cooking time on the package.
Try this technique out and let me know how it turned out for you in the comments.
If you like what you read, a good post to read next is The Best Italian Pasta Brands in the Grocery Store. There, I share my favorite Italian-import brands that you can buy at Walmart, Kroger, or the nearby deli.