How to Cook Pasta Like a Pro

4.83 from 76 votes
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Everyone thinks they know how to cook pasta. And no one here is doubting you. It is pretty straightforward. But you might be missing out on some cooking secrets that can sweeten the deal.

How to cook pasta the right way

Carbonara. Spaghetti and meatballs. Macaroni and cheese. Pasta salad. These are just a few pasta dish hall-of-famers. Pasta is such a simple ingredient, pairing well with just about any spice, flavor, or protein you can name. There are so many possibilities; it’s no wonder so many 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, but a few simple tweaks could take your at-home pasta dishes to restaurant quality in a pinch.

Choose your vessel

You can cook it in just about anything. Small pot, large pot, dutch oven ⁠— it all depends on what you’re making and how much of it. Many chefs prefer an extra deep pot to boil pasta. It ensures long, thin noodles like spaghetti can submerge fully right away. But remember, the more water you have, the more salt you’ll need.

Salt the water

Pouring salt into a boiling pot of water

Have your salt handy. Add it to the boiling water — and not a second before it boils because salted water takes longer to reach a boil. Then get ready to add the noodles. The boiling process is your first and only opportunity to add flavor to the noodles themselves. Without it, you rely solely on the ingredients mixed into your pasta dish to bring the flavor.

And don’t worry about the sodium. The noodles absorb the flavor of the salt, not the sodium content. My starting rule of thumb is to add 1 tablespoon of salt for every 4 quarts (16 cups) of water. That’s for 1 pound of pasta.

Always bring the water to a complete boil

Pouring pasta noodles into a boiling pot of water

Pasta takes patience. While it seems harmless to add the noodles to the pot before the water reaches a boil, it can lead to mushy noodles. Always resist the urge to add the pasta to the pot too soon.

Why does it matter so much? The starches on the surface of the noodles will begin to fill with water right away. You can’t see it happening, but they’re being rehydrated and will eventually burst into the water.

When the water is boiling, the noodles’ surfaces will cook quicker and allow them to set. When the outside sets, the center of the noodle will absorb the water and rehydrate rather than burst and release like the surface starches. This helps the noodle maintain more structure and not get too soft and mushy.

Stir the water when you first add the noodles

Stirring pasta noodles cooking in a large pot

Once you do add the pasta noodles to your pot, the water temperature will drop slightly. As long it reached a full boil prior, 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 noodles will begin to release immediately, noodles can stick together and to the sides of your pot if you don’t stir them.

Taste the noodles sooner than later

Plan on cooking your dry noodles anywhere from 8 to 10 minutes, depending on the type of pasta. However, start checking it after four minutes because it can vary based on the size of the noodle. If you’ve made fresh pasta noodles, you may only need to boil for a minute or two, sometimes three.

If you’re boiling the noodles to add them to a casserole like a classic lasagna that will continue cooking the oven, stop cooking when they’re al dente. Additionally, if you’re cooling the cooked pasta to make pasta salad, cook the noodle just past al dente status to soak up more of the dressing.

What is al dente?

Pasta noodles being drained in a colander

The perfect al dente noodle should be mostly chewy but with a little resistance and be slightly firm in the center. If you cut it one half, you might see that’s it not as hydrated in the center. 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.

Serving size

Two ounces of dried pasta is about a ½ cup when still dry, but this can vary based on noodle shape. Sometimes it’s more like 2/3 cup and sometimes closer to ¾ cup. Once cooked, this measurement doubles, give or take. Again, it depends on the noodle type. As a baseline: 2 ounces of dried pasta is ½ cup, which will turn into 1 cup cooked.

Now, you’re an expert in boiling pasta. But pasta’s cooking methods are just as versatile as the ingredient itself. It can also be microwaved, steamed, and cooked in the ever-popular Instant Pot. Or, as in this one-pot chicken cacciatore recipe, you’d add the uncooked noodles and water to a deep skillet that you’ve cooked your veggies in, skipping that whole pre-boiling step.

Reserve some water before you drain

Almost always reserve a cup or so of your pasta water before you drain it. All the starch that your noodles released into the water will help thicken any sauce you make to dress the noodles. Plus, it will be a little salty, so it adds flavor to homemade sauces as well.

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.
4.83 from 76 votes
Prep Time10 minutes
Cook Time15 minutes
Total Time25 minutes
Servings 8 servings
Course Entree
Cuisine Italian

Ingredients 
 

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

Instructions 

  • In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Stir in the salt until dissolved.
  • Add the pasta to the water, stir a few times to prevent the noodles from sticking together.
  • Cook according to package directions, stirring occasionally, until al dente or softer depending on desired texture.
  • Drain and toss with desired sauce. If using the pasta in a salad, add to a colander and rinse with cold water for about 1 minute, stirring until cooled down.

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. Ronald F. Seto says

    Thank you for the most informative description of how to cook noodles. 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!

  2. Susie says

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

    Janie.