Pasta plus water equals dinner, right? Like most things in home cooking, the simplest dishes are often the hardest to make. When all you have is a stove top, a saucepan, a pack of pasta noodles, a can of tomatoes, and some garlic, getting your pasta dish wrong is just as easy as getting it right.
Many home cooks get frustrated with cooking pasta because their pasta dishes end up bland. “No matter what I do and what I try, my family and I agree my pasta doesn’t taste like anything,” one person says on Yahoo! Answers. “Can anyone tell me why my pasta came out tasting so bland,” another one asks on Reddit.
Happily, it doesn’t have to be that way. Apply the tips and tricks that I’m going to share with you below, and you’ll always make tasty pasta for you and your family, no matter what the recipe.
Pasta dishes turn out tasting bland because the pasta noodles were cooked in unsalted water, olive oil (or butter) was added to the pasta water, the noodles were rinsed after cooking, or because the sauce wasn’t seasoned enough.
Here’s how to get each of these steps right and make perfect pasta dishes every single time.
Pasta Water Should Taste Like the Sea
Some people will tell you that adding salt to pasta water helps raise the water’s boiling point, which cooks the noodles faster. This isn’t entirely true. Though salt does raise the boiling point of water, the difference in a large pot at home wouldn’t be significant. At best, you’re going to bring up the boiling point 0.5 degrees higher than 212°F (100°C).
Add salt to your pasta water before putting the noodles in. The salt will dissolve in the water and season the noodles as they absorb it. There’s a saying among professional chefs that “pasta water should taste like the sea.” As a rule of thumb, use at least 1 ½ tablespoons of salt for every pound of pasta.
I use Mediterranean sea salt to flavor pasta for two reasons.
First, it’s an authentic ingredient because Italy is a Mediterranean country and Italians traditionally use Mediterranean sea salt, which is harvested along the coast of Sicily.
Second, because sea salt crystals are large and I can easily tell the right amount of salt (usually a big pinch) to make the pasta water taste like the sea.
Don’t Add Olive Oil or Butter to Pasta Water
Another piece of advice that’s wrong, but that you’ll hear from TV chefs and YouTube personalities often, is to add olive oil or butter to your pasta water.
Contrary to popular belief, adding oil or butter to pasta water won’t prevent the noodles from sticking together.
When you add olive oil (or butter) to pasta water, it will coat the noodles with a layer that prevents the sauce from clinging to them later on. In case you’ve ever wondered, this is why ducks can float freely on water. They have a special gland at the base of their tails that oils their feathers, which protects them from absorbing water.
What allows ducks to float isn’t that great for making tasty pasta. So cook your pasta in salted water and skip the olive oil or butter altogether.
Cook Pasta Noodles Al Dente
There’s one more thing to know about cooking tasty pasta before the sauce comes into play.
Even if you made the pasta water salty like the sea and you skipped the olive oil altogether, you can still end up with bland pasta if you overcook the noodles.
This is probably the #1 mistake home cooks make when cooking pasta, no matter what the method and recipe. Pasta was never meant to be cooked to mush.
Italians say that pasta should be cooked al dente, which translates to “to the tooth.” When you chew into al dente pasta, the noodles should be cooked just enough to not be white on the inside and crunchy on the outside, but should still feel firm to the bite. Al dente pasta, simply said, gives you resistance as you bite into it because it hasn’t been overcooked.
Making al dente pasta is all about the cooking time. Read the recommended cooking time on the pasta package before adding the noodles to boiling water. About 2-3 minutes before that time, start checking your pasta for readiness by fishing out a noodle and tasting it. The moment when the crunch disappears but the noodle still has good resistance to it, it’s done.
As I shared in “This Is How to Tell When Pasta Is Cooked,” here’s my tried-and-tested al dente cooking times for some of the most popular pasta varieties sold in grocery stores:
|Pasta Size||Pasta Varieties||Avg. Cooking Time|
|Very long and thin pasta noodles ( ≈ 1.5 mm diameter)||Spaghettini||6-7 minutes|
|Long and thin pasta noodles ( ≈ 2-3 mm diameter)||Spaghetti, Spaghettoni||8-9 minutes|
|Small to medium-sized short pasta noodles||Farfalle, Ditali, Conchiglie, Fusilli, Spiralini||8-10 minutes|
|Large short pasta noodles||Rigatoni, Elicoidali, Lumaconi, Manicotti||10-12 minutes|
Start tasting your pasta noodles at the lower end of the cooking time. Strain them (but don’t rinse them) immediately after.
Don’t Rinse Pasta Noodles When They’re Done Cooking
If you rinse pasta noodles when they’re done cooking, you will wash away the saltiness and creaminess from the pasta water. This is a mistake that most home cooks make, which results in bland pasta noodles with little-to-no flavor.
Italian chefs actually preserve some of the pasta water — and use 2-3 tablespoons of it to flavor their pasta sauce. Many Italian pasta recipes ask you to continue cooking the pasta in the sauce for 1-2 minutes. Since I discovered this from a YouTube channel called Italia Squisita, it has become my favorite technique for making pasta.
Make your pasta sauce while the pasta noodles are cooking in boiling water. Depending on the pasta variety, you’re going to have 6-10 minutes until the noodles are cooked al dente. This is just enough time to cook up a thick and chunky tomato sauce with extra-virgin olive oil, a pinch of sea salt, and 2-3 cloves of garlic.
When the noodles are done cooking, transfer them to the saucepan and continue cooking the pasta in the sauce, stirring every now and then, for 1-2 minutes. The pasta is going to absorb the taste and aroma of the sauce, and the small chunks of tomato are going to bind to the surface or hide in the small nooks and crannies of the noodles.
After 1-2 minutes, transfer to a plate and grate cow’s-milk Parmigiano-Reggiano or sheep’s-milk Pecorino Romano cheese on top. Serve with a couple of fresh basil leaves on top.
Make Your Own Tomato Sauce
This is really important, folks. MAKE YOUR OWN PASTA SAUCE. Store-bought pasta sauce has everything you want — and everything you don’t want — in it.
Making your own pasta sauce is cheap. You only need 1 tablespoon of olive oil, a can of tomatoes, 2-3 cloves of garlic, and salt to taste.
It doesn’t take you more time (only a little bit of extra effort). You can make the sauce in a preheated saucepan while you’re cooking the pasta noodles in a pot.
It’s made to your taste and it’s always delicious. You decide:
- What brand of canned and/or what variety of fresh tomatoes to use. You can make it chunky or nice and smooth if you put the canned tomatoes in the blender;
- If you want to cook it just enough, so that you feel the freshness of the tomatoes. Or to simmer and reduce it down for longer for that cooked pasta sauce taste;
- How acidic and spicy you want to make it, and what seasoning like basil, oregano, and/or black pepper to add.
Have I managed to convince you yet that making your own pasta sauce is the only way to go? If yes, here’s how I make mine.
Step 1. Pour just enough extra-virgin olive oil to cover the surface of a saucepan. Then, preheat it for about 5 minutes on medium high. Remember, olive oil doesn’t have a very high smoke point, so you don’t want to use it and cook on the highest setting on your stove top.
Step 2. Peel and mince 2-3 cloves of garlic. Not too coarse, not too fine; imperfect is perfect in the kitchen. Add the garlic to the pan and sauté it, stirring every now and then, for 1-2 minutes.
One thing I’m really careful about here is to not let the garlic brown. You’re only sautéing garlic to release some of its perfume and flavor to the olive oil, which will elevate the aroma and taste of my tomato sauce.
Step 3. Open a can of peeled whole tomatoes, crush the tomatoes into small but meaty chunks with my hands, and pour it into the saucepan. Add sea salt and black pepper to taste, stirring every now and then.
Cook the sauce for 7-8 minutes. That way, the sauce has enough time to simmer and reduce down to a consistent texture and homogenous taste.
Step 4. When the pasta noodles are cooked, add them in, along with a tablespoon or two of salty and creamy pasta water, and cook for 1-2 minutes.
Now you know how to make tasty pasta dishes that taste great. No more bland and flavorless pasta, people!
Just remember to cook the noodles in salted water that tastes like the sea, start tasting them for al-dentiness 2-3 minutes before the recommended cooking time on the instructions, and not rinse the noodles when they’re done cooking.
Make your own sauce and cook the pasta in the sauce for 1-2 minutes before serving… and your pasta dishes will taste like what Italians get when visiting granny in the countryside.
Try these tips and tricks out. Let me know how they worked out for you in the comments.