Chefs and home cooks in the United States and Canada tend to overcook their pasta until it comes out gluey and mushy. While this is a perfectly valid way to make staple Italian-American pasta dishes, it’s not how pasta noodles are typically cooked in Italy.
Italy is a big and diverse country. Each region has its own traditions and techniques for cooking pasta. For example, the pasta dishes in Italy’s mountainous region of Piedmont are filling and hearty, whereas the recipes of the coastal region of Campania are light and rich in seafood.
When it comes to pasta, no other Italian region can compete with the traditions and techniques of Lazio. Its principal city, Rome, is Italy’s capital—and has been at the heart of human civilization since its founding in the 8th century BC.
If you want to learn about pasta, ask the Romans. And, in Rome, pasta is cooked al dente.
“Al dente” is an Italian term that translates literally as “to the tooth.” It’s used by pasta chefs and home cooks to describe the state of perfectly cooked pasta. Pasta noodles cooked al dente are tender and cooked through on the inside, but firm to the bite and slightly crunchy on the outside.
To cook pasta al dente, bring a pot of water to a rolling boil and season it generously with salt as you’d normally do (ideally, use Mediterranean sea salt). As soon as you’ve brought the pot of water to a boil, add the noodles, giving them an initial stir and leaving them to boil in the pot.
About 2-3 minutes before the recommended time in the cooking instructions on the pasta box, start fishing out single noodles and tasting them every 30 seconds or so for doneness. When the inside of the noodles has turned tender and is no longer starchy white, but the outside feels firm to the bite and still has a slight crunch to it, they’re cooked al dente.
Cook your pasta sauce in a saucepan as you’re boiling the noodles in the pot. Once the noodles are done, take them off the heat, drain them from the water, and transfer them to your hot saucepan. Finish off cooking the noodles with the sauce for 45-60 seconds.
Plate your pasta dish, grate some hard Italian cheese like Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano on top, and serve.
Why Is Al Dente Pasta Better?
Compared to overcooked pasta, al dente pasta has several advantages.
Since the noodles are slightly undercooked, they hold on to their shape well even after they’re sauced. They also have a rougher surface, which allows pasta sauce and bits and pieces of meat or vegetables to cling better to it, resulting in a richer taste in every single bite.
Al dente pasta has a lower glycemic index. It takes your body longer to digest the gluten and starches in it, so it won’t make your blood sugar level rise as much as pasta cooked to mush. Instead of feeling tired after eating it, you’ll have a gradual source of energy in the next few hours.
It’s also the traditional way of cooking pasta that Romans came to after thousands of years of culinary trial and error. Tradition plays an important and often underappreciated role in cooking; it codifies the wisdom of previous generations into simple practices and understandable rules.
The next time you cook pasta at home, take your noodles to the next level by cooking them al dente. You’ll be surprised by the difference in aroma, flavor, and texture that you get. And you might as well turn this technique into your only way of cooking Italian pasta.
What’s the Opposite of Al Dente?
The opposite of al dente pasta is overdone pasta. Your pasta will come out overdone if you cook the noodles for significantly longer than the cooking time recommended in the instructions on the back of the package.
Overdone pasta is excessively soft and unappetizingly mushy. The noodles can’t really hold on to their shape and will easily break apart into shreds when they come in contact with your fork.
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