Al Dente Pasta, Explained

Published Categorized as Cooking Tips
A serving of spaghetti with tomato sauce on a white plateAnton Matyukha /Depositphotos

A pot of water, a pinch or two of salt, great Italian pasta, and less time than you think. Let’s talk about al dente pasta!

If you flip through the pages about pasta in a much-thumbed Italian cookbook in the library, it won’t be long before you notice that all the recipes ask you to “cook the pasta al dente.”

For the beginner cook who’s just getting into the art and craft of Italian cooking, this instruction can be least to say confusing. Try to translate this term literally, and all you will learn is that you have to cook the pasta to the tooth.

What does this mean, exactly? And what’s the big deal with it, anyway? We will answer these questions—and more—in today’s cooking question, so read on.

“Al dente” is a term that Italian chefs use to describe properly cooked pasta. Pasta that’s cooked al dente is pasta that’s boiled for slightly less than the recommended time on the back of the package. It’s tender on the inside, but it still has a little bit of a bite on the outside.

The time to cook pasta to al dente varies from box to box and pot to pot. The only reliable way to tell if you’re there is to start tasting the pasta when you suspect that it’s right about done. As a rule of thumb, this time is usually 1-3 minutes less than the time indicated in the instructions on the package.

Some say it’s called “al dente” because the pasta is tough and chewy. Much like a rustic loaf of bread made of strong, glutenous flour, it sticks to your teeth when you bite into it.

In a way, al dente pasta is pasta that’s cooked neither too short (undercooked pasta is chalky and crunchy) nor too long (overcooked pasta is soft and mushy). It’s pasta with a mouthfeel that’s just right, which is why everyone who knows this or that about Italian food is so obsessed with mastering it!

How to Cook Your Pasta Al Dente

Bring a pot filled with generously salted water to a vigorous rolling boil. Use plenty of water, about a gallon per pound, and keep the heat on high.

Add the pasta to the pot, give it a swirl to keep it from sticking, and let it cook without interruption. As soon as the pasta starts to soften, start tasting it. You’re looking for the moment when the center of the noodle is still slightly white and offers a little resistance when bitten into.

Once the pasta is cooked al dente, act quickly. Drain the pasta, but don’t rinse it. Put it in a large bowl, toss it with the sauce, and serve it on the dining table, with or without grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese on top.

(If your recipe calls for the pasta to be drained and cooked in the pan with the sauce for another minute or two, you need to account for carryover cooking. So take it out 1-2 minutes earlier than you’d normally do for al dente, while it’s still a little stiff and only slightly crackly.)

Notice that, before and after the cooking, we don’t do two things:

We don’t rinse the pasta before or after the cooking. Rinsing the pasta washes away the surface starches from the flour, and the surface starches are what hold the sauce.

We don’t add olive oil (or butter) to the cooking water. Contrary to what some people think, you don’t have to add oil to the cooking water to keep the pasta from sticking. The oil just coats the pasta and prevents the sauce from sticking to it.

Pasta is one of those meals that lose heat quickly and taste their best when they are still hot. So it should be eaten as soon as it’s served.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.