How to Cook Pasta Like a Pro

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Do you want to learn how to cook pasta with restaurant-quality results? The method may seem straightforward, but doing these simple steps ensures the perfect al dente texture.

How to cook pasta the right way.

Recipe Science

  • Adding pasta to boiling water sets surface starches quickly, preventing mushiness and maintaining texture and structure.
  • Stirring the pasta initially and occasionally keeps them separate and helps them cook uniformly by distributing heat evenly.
  • Reserving pasta water for sauces adds starch that helps thicken and bind the sauce to the noodles.

Why It Works

Pasta is a staple ingredient that pairs well with just about any sauce, vegetable, or protein you can name. There are so many possibilities: carbonara, spaghetti and meatballs, macaroni and cheese, or a cool pasta salad. It’s no wonder so many side dishes and weeknight dinners start with noodles.

But for how simple it is, made of nothing more than eggs, flour, and sometimes water, there is an art to cooking it. For example, adjusting how much salt you add is a game-changer. You can certainly boil water and throw in the noodles without another thought. However, a few simple tweaks will take your homemade pasta dishes to the restaurant’s quality level.

How to Cook Pasta

Pouring salt into a boiling pot of water.

Step 1: Boil the Water

Use an extra-deep pot like a Dutch oven to boil pasta. It ensures that long types of pasta, like spaghetti, can be fully submerged. Bring the water to a rolling boil over high heat. Have your cooking salt handy; I prefer sea salt or kosher salt. Add the salt to the boiling water — and not a second before it boils.

Salt increases the boiling point of water, making it take slightly longer to reach a boil. The boiling process is your opportunity to add flavor from the cooking water to the noodles themselves. Without it, you rely solely on the ingredients mixed into your pasta dish to bring the flavor.

Tips for Perfect Execution: My rule of thumb is to add 1 tablespoon of salt for every 4 quarts of water (16 cups), which is enough for 1 pound of pasta. When cooked in this salted water, the pasta absorbs just ¼ teaspoon of sodium per pound, totaling around 575 milligrams.

Pouring pasta noodles into a boiling pot of water.

Step 2: Stir the Pasta

Once you add the pasta to the pot, the water temperature will drop slightly. As long as it reaches a full boil before, it should quickly heat back up to a boil before your noodles are in danger of getting mushy. However, because some of those surface starches from the pasta will begin to release immediately, they can stick together and to the sides of the pot if you don’t stir them.

Ingredient Chemistry: Adding pasta to boiling water matters. When pasta hits cold water, its surface starches hydrate prematurely, leading to a mushy texture. Boiling water cooks the surface quickly, allowing it to set and preventing the noodles from becoming overly soft. This ensures a well-textured noodle that maintains its structure throughout cooking.

Stirring pasta noodles cooking in a large pot.

Step 3: Cook the Pasta

Plan on cooking dry noodles for 8 to 10 minutes, depending on the pasta type. Start checking them after four minutes because the time can vary depending on their size. If you’ve made a fresh homemade pasta recipe, it may take 2 to 10 minutes.

Expert Tip: If adding pasta to a pan for a casserole that will continue cooking in the oven, like a meat lasagna recipe, stop cooking when it’s al dente. If making a cold pasta dish, like an Italian pasta salad, cook until just past al dente to soak up more of the dressing.

Pasta noodles being drained in a colander.

Step 4: Drain, then Serve

Drain the pasta in a colander in the sink. Don’t let it sit too long, or they will begin to stick together due to the pasta starches released in the water. I like to reserve some of the starchy pasta water water to thicken and season the pasta sauce. I do this with my chicken alfredo recipe or when I make a light sauce for my kid’s favorite butter and parmesan pasta.

Pro Tip: If making a cold pasta salad, rinse the drained hot pasta with cool water to stop the cooking process. If not used right away, tossing the pasta in a small amount of olive oil can reduce sticking.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a serving size of pasta?

As a baseline, 2 ounces of dried pasta is half a cup, which will turn into 1 cup cooked. This can vary based on the pasta shape. It can range up to ¾ cup for larger short-cut pasta. For long strands like spaghetti, when held together in a bundle, the bottom diameter is about ¾ inch or the size of a dime. Dried pasta about doubles in size when cooked.

What is al dente?

The perfect al dente pasta should be mostly chewy but with a little resistance and a slightly firm center. If you cut it in half, you might see that the center is less hydrated. That’s a good sign that it’s time to stop cooking. After all, al dente means “to the tooth” in Italian. Most pasta packages will provide cooking times for cooking al dente noodles. If not, turn off the heat about two or three minutes before the cooking duration it does provide.

How long to cook pasta?

It depends on the brand type of pasta you’re using. Start by following the instructions on the package. Typically, most dried pasta cooks in about 8 to 12 minutes in boiling water. Thinner pasta, like angel hair, takes half the time. Short-cut penne takes 9 to 11 minutes. Taste to ensure it’s cooked to your desired doneness. Al dente is the way to go for that perfect bite!

How long to cook fresh pasta?

Fresh pasta cooks much quicker than dried pasta, usually in just 1 to 3 minutes, or up to 10 minutes for thicker pasta once it’s added to boiling water. The key is to keep an eye on it and taste it for that perfect al dente texture. Fresh pasta cooks fast, so be ready to drain it as soon as it’s done to prevent overcooking.

Why should you reserve the pasta cooking water?

Reserve a few cups of pasta water before you drain. The starch in the noodles will help thicken any sauce. It will also be a little salty, adding flavor to homemade sauces.

What are other ways to cook pasta?

Instead of boiling pasta traditionally, it can also be microwaved, steamed, or cooked in an Instant Pot. To use less water and infuse more water into a dish, I like to use smaller volumes of water or broth to make one pot pasta.

More Pasta Recipes

If you tried this method for How to Cook Pasta, please leave a 🌟 star rating and let me know how it went in the 📝 comments below!

How to Cook Pasta

Pasta is such a simple ingredient, pairing well with just about any spice, flavor, or protein, no wonder so many weeknight dinners start with noodles.
4.89 from 76 votes
Prep Time10 minutes
Cook Time15 minutes
Total Time25 minutes
Servings 8 servings
Course Entree
Cuisine Italian


  • 4 quarts water
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 pound dried pasta


  • Boil the Water – In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Stir in the salt until dissolved.
  • Stir the Pasta – Add the pasta to the water and stir a few times to prevent the noodles from sticking together.
  • Cook the Pasta – Cook the pasta according to package directions, stirring occasionally, until al dente or softer depending on the desired texture.
  • To Serve – Drain the pasta. Some recipes call for saving the pasta water to add to the sauce. Toss the pasta with the desired sauce.
    Alternatively, if using the pasta in a salad, add iy to a colander and rinse with cold water for about 1 minute, stirring until cooled down.

Recipe Video

YouTube video


  • Storing: Cool and store in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days. Freeze for up to 3 months.

Nutrition Facts

Serves: 8 servings
Calories 210kcal (11%)Carbohydrates 42g (14%)Protein 7g (14%)Fat 1g (2%)Saturated Fat 1g (5%)Sodium 3mgPotassium 126mg (4%)Fiber 2g (8%)Sugar 2g (2%)Calcium 12mg (1%)Iron 1mg (6%)

Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000-calorie diet. All nutritional information is based on estimated third-party calculations. Each recipe and nutritional value will vary depending on the brands you use, measuring methods, and portion sizes per household.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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18 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Janie Hamilton says

    I’m a 65 year old Canadian lady who can no longer use salt in cooking. Is there a substitute that can be used for it? I cook dishes like two types of spaghetti, dishes with pork and chicken, etc. I’ve not been using salt for over the past three months, and I don’t want to go back.

    Any brainstorms, bright ideas and vague notions will be entertained!


  2. Lars Larson says

    “And don’t worry about the sodium. The noodles absorb the flavor of the salt, not the sodium content.”

    The flavor of sodium salt (NaCl) on the noodles is absolutely from the sodium the noodles absorb. There is nothing else. When you sprinkle salt on your tongue, your saliva dissolves the salt crystals into sodium and chlorine–you taste the ‘salt.’ If you sprinkle potassium salt (KCl) on your tongue it will taste different than the sodium but once again the flavor comes from the potassium. Morton’s Light Salt contains both kinds of salt and is designed to cut down on too much sodium.

  3. Beth says

    The best pasta is started in cold water, bring to boil, give it a stir, cook to desired consistacy. No need to rinse. It never sticks together like it does when started in boiling water and that must be rinsed or it would stick like glue.

  4. Karyl says

    I have seen several chefs saying the pasta can finish cooking in the sauce. I love that concept but I’m not sure how to tell when to add it to the sauce. Pre al dente?

    • Amani says

      I love to cook pasta very much, it is my favorite, and your method of cooking is wonderful. I like to cook it with cheese in a pyrex. I add bechamel cream and kofta to it, and then I roast it a little in the oven and it is very delicious.

    • James says

      Hi Karyl, yes the best way to finish off your pasta is to toss in with the sauce. And also at this point it is important to add a few tablespoons (about 4 or 5) of pasta water. So remember to either reserve a cup of pasta water, or scoop out the pasta with a slotted spoon or spaghetti fork and retain all the water in the pot.

      The pasta water helps the sauce thicken and as a result make it stick to the pasta. So no more frustration of sauce slipping straight off the pasta!!

      Now, since you’ll be finishing cooking off the pasta with sauce, you should cook the pasta about 1 minute or 2 minutes less than the cooking time indicated on the packaging.

      Or, what I do is I taste the pasta and at the point where the pasta is still a firm al-dente, I remove and toss with the sauce. I hope this helps.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      I use high heat, until you see bubbles break the bubbles on the surface, about 200-212 degrees.

  5. Mary E Spierling says

    Many of the cooking TV shows with Italian chefs says that fresh pasta is not always recommended. It depends on the sauce and other ingredients so it’s a misconception that fresh pasta is the better choice.

  6. Maurice Eddy says

    There are some things you take for granted or learn over time. Easy way to check the salt quantity is it should be the same taste as sea water. Just check it before throwing the pasta in and add if necessary. Only give it a stir with a fork when it re-reaches the rolling boiling point to ensure there is none stuck at the bottom and do not stir again.

  7. Susie says

    I just purchased your book, hoping to be a better cook for my husband and family.
    I enjoy your expertise.

  8. Ronald F. Seto says

    Thank you for the most informative description of how to cook pasta. Noodles are one of my most favorite foods. I eat them about 5 times a week, alternating between egg noodles to spaghetti to Asian style noodles. They can be mixed with any other type of food available; it can be meat, chicken seafood, sauce, gravy, soup, etc; a most versatile food. Not only are they tasty, they provide an economical meal. I have used dry noodles and fresh homemade noodles; they are all good. Cooking noodles the proper way is something many people do not know , but you have made it crystal clear. You and Alton Brown are my favorite cooks. Your recipes are strait forward, unlike other cooks like Lagase who seem over complicated. Do you have a cook book I can purchase?

    • Jessica Gavin says

      That’s wonderful that you have embraced all that pasta has to offer, so versatile and affordable as you mentioned. That’s a huge compliment, thank you, Ron! Yes, I do have a cookbook called “Easy Culinary Science”, you can purchase it at Barnes and Noble or on amazon. Thank you for your support!