To stop the pasta from sticking, you gotta stick to the pasta-cooking basics. Find out what they are.
Eventually, every home cook has to face the great, unanswerable question: “Why is my pasta sticky?”
Ergh… okay, there’s no easy way for me to say this. I lied. It’s a great question, but it’s definitely not unanswerable. In fact, this pasta-cooking mishap is more common than you think.
The good news is that it’s caused by two completely avoidable mistakes. Learn what they are, and you can say, “Pasta la vista!” to sticky and slimy spaghetti, or whatever it is you’ve got going on in the pot.
Are you super curious by now, or what? Let’s not keep you waiting.
Pasta comes out sticky or slimy when cooked in too little water, overcooked, or left to sit on the table too long.
There you have it.
Your pasta is sticky because you went scrooge on the water, cooked it to mush, and/or didn’t eat it fast enough.
And this isn’t just a mouthfeel issue. As food journalist Kimberly Lord Stewart explains in her 2007 book, Eating Between the Lines: A Guide to Food Labels, overcooked pasta has a higher glycemic index than pasta cooked to tender but still firm (al dente).
In plain English, this means that sticky, slimy, and mushy pasta gets absorbed more quickly by the body, so it spikes blood sugar levels and gives a short-lasting energy boost. You know, the sugar high followed by the sugar whip.
Having said all that, I also need to tell you not to worry. It’s fine to eat pasta if it comes out of the pot sticky and slimy. But be aware that you’ll feel sluggish shortly after eating it.
Now that you know, how can you prevent something like this from ever happening again?
Use a Large Pot
The saucepan you boil eggs in probably isn’t big enough to make proper pasta. But the wide pot you cook soups in, or the bright-colored enameled Dutch oven you got handed down from granny, is.
If you’re serious about cooking pasta, get a pasta pentola. This is a tall, sturdy pot that’s deep enough to… you guessed it, cook dried spaghetti without having to break the noodles in half.
But hey, whatever cooking vessel you’ve got sitting in the kitchen counter will work as long as it’s big enough to hold at least 3-4 liquid quarts / 3-4 liters of water.
Fill It With Enough Water
The textbook ratio for the volume of water to the weight of your pasta, as reported by Kemp Minifie for Epicurious, is 10 to 1. Fill the pot with ten times the volume of water as the weight of the pasta.
This means that if you’re cooking half a package of dried pasta — 7.9 oz / 225 grams, give or take — you need to do so in no less than 2.5 liquid quarts / 2.25 liters of water.
Don’t panic if you don’t have pots with embossed measurements or measuring cups. It’s okay if you cook the pasta in more water than the golden ratio for pasta prescribes, as long as you don’t cook it in too little water.
Season the Water With Salt, Not Oil
Never add oil to pasta water, even if the recipe says to do so.
Oil and water don’t mix, so the oil will end up rising to the top of the water and floating in blobs. What a waste of otherwise good cooking oil!
Even worse, some of these blobs will coat the outside of the pasta noodles and make them oily. When they’re done cooking and you toss them with the sauce, it will slide right off the noodles instead of clinging to them like in the food travel shows.
Cook the Pasta in a Full Boil
Pasta cooks best when the pantry-temperature pasta comes into sudden contact with the hot, bubbling, vigorously boiling water.
This gives us a non-negotiable rule for boiling pasta, regardless of its shape: Bring the water to a full boil before plunging the pasta in. So put the pot on the burner, turn the control knob to high, and wait until the water is no longer still in the pot, but bubbling and steaming in wild torrents.
That’s how you know it’s time to dip the pasta.
Don’t Cook It Too Much
Pasta should be cooked to al dente.
“Al dente,” Italian for “to the tooth,” is the level of doneness of pasta when it’s tender and cooked through in the middle, but still somewhat firm and slightly chewy on the outside. It literally sticks to the teeth!
Anything less than that, and the pasta comes out overly crunchy and undercooked. Anything more than that, and it’s mushy, in a way where it has zero mouthfeel when bitten into.
To cook your pasta al dente, boil it 2 to 3 minutes less than the recommended cooking time in the instructions on the back of the package. It’s scary at first, I know. But trust me, you get used to good things quickly.
Unless you’re making cold pasta salad, pasta is supposed to be served and eaten hot. If you leave the pasta in the plate so long, it cools, the noodles or shapes will stick together and become gummy.
If this is what happened to your pasta, you can counteract it by heating the pasta with the sauce in a pot over medium heat and adding a little water. Heat the pasta until it’s steaming hot and it has absorbed the excess water.
One Last Thing
I nearly forgot! Good thing I reminded myself when I said, “gummy.”
Fresh pasta is always—without exception—gummier in consistency when cooked than dried pasta. That’s just the way it is, and it makes no difference how (or how long) you boil it.
Choose the type you like the most and… well, stick to it!