Pasta 101 – A Comprehensive Guide for How to Cook Pasta Like a Pro!
If you’ve been around PWWB for a while, you know that my truest culinary love in life is pasta. I looooooove pasta. I love to cook with pasta, I love to order pasta at restaurants, I love to develop pasta recipes to share here on PWWB, & I especially love to eat pasta. In fact, I love pasta so much that Chris & I served a dedicated pasta course at our wedding dinner. (It was kiiinda over the top, but I still stand by that decision 100%!)
& the really fun thing? You seem to love them just as much as I do! Italian pasta dishes like my Best-Ever Bolognese, Braised Lamb Ragu, & Creamy Marsala Pasta are not only some of my personal favorite recipes here on PWWB, but they’re also some of the most popular, well-loved recipes within the PWWB community.
At its surface, this passion for pasta may seem silly but, to me, a pasta dish is more than just a meal. Pasta is inherently comforting & communal – that’s what food & cooking is all about! & the cool thing about pasta specifically? With a good understanding of what constitutes a properly cooked pasta dish, anyone can cook damn good, restaurant-quality pasta at home.
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How to Cook Pasta Perfectly Highlights
This post provides a deep dive into all of the hows & whys of creating the best pasta dishes at home, including (click below for shortcuts within this post)…
- The Key Principle of Cooking Pasta
- How to Choose the Best Pasta for a Recipe
- How to Cook Pasta Properly
- Tips for Tossing Together A Restaurant-Quality Pasta Dish
With a few smart tips, making a restaurant-worthy pasta dish at home has never been easier! ♡ Read on to learn more about How to Cook Pasta Perfectly, or jump straight to the recipe & get cooking!
The Key Principle of Cooking Pasta – Cohesion!
Understanding the characteristics of a well-executed pasta dish is an absolute game-changer when it comes to learning how to cook pasta perfectly. There’s a simple underlying principle that informs just about every decision you make & every step you take in cooking a pasta dish properly – cohesion.
The end goal of executing a properly cooked pasta dish is creating a single, cohesive dish. Think about your favorite pasta dish to order at an Italian restaurant. I’d be willing to bet that when it’s set down in front of you, the pasta & the sauce are already combined, creating a single, cohesive dish.
The #1 mistake I see home chefs make when they serve a pasta dish is treating its two key elements separately. Rather than aiming for creating a single, cohesive dish, they cook the pasta entirely separately from the sauce, only bringing them together during serving by plopping the prepared sauce atop a pile of pasta.
With an overarching goal of creating cohesion in mind, you’ll learn to prepare a killer pasta dish effortlessly every single time.
How to Choose the Right Pasta for Your Pasta Recipe:
You may think there’s no wrong type or shape of pasta for a particular pasta dish, but it’s a little more nuanced than that. It’s easy to assume that all pasta tastes the same – at the surface there’s definitely some truth to that assumption! However, a pasta’s weight, texture, & shape all have an impact on how it interacts with the sauce. Choosing the right pasta for a particular recipe will only enhance your pasta dish further!
Choosing the Right Pasta Shape for Your Pasta Recipe:
When choosing what shape to use in a pasta dish, think about the nature of the sauce & choose pasta that will complement it. As general rule of thumb, the heartier the sauce, the heartier the pasta:
- Fine pasta is great to pair with light sauces. For texturally lighter pasta dishes like a simple pomodoro, aglio olio, pesto, or something with a light cream sauce, you can get away with using really delicate pasta like capellini, linguine, or casarecce.
- Short pasta is great to pair with chunky or extra creamy sauces since its nooks & crannies capture the sauce, making each bite of pasta more flavorful. For dishes like mac & cheese, marsala pasta with mushrooms, or classic sausage & peppers pasta, choose shapes that will really capture everything in the sauce. Examples include rigatoni, shellbows, cavatappi, or oreccheitte.
- Wide, hearty pasta is great to pair with rich, hearty sauces since its weight can really stand up to the weight & richness of the sauce. For dishes like bolognese or ragu, choose hearty pasta like bucatini, fettuccine, or pappardelle.
Fresh Pasta vs Dried Pasta:
To add a little more complexity to this conversation, there are also a few important differences between fresh pasta vs dried pasta. It’s easy to assume that fresh is always best, but in reality each has its pros & cons depending on the pasta dish. Here too, it’s best to choose pasta that complements the nature of the overall pasta dish. Some things to consider:
Why choose fresh pasta? ⇢ Fresh pasta is most commonly made with egg, resulting in a pasta that’s generally more richly flavored & tender than dried pasta. Because of its tender texture, fresh pasta typically pairs best with lighter sauces, often creamy or dairy-based. (The one exception? Bolognese or ragu, which pairs beautifully with a wide-cut pappardelle!) As a bonus, since it’s not dehydrated, fresh pasta also cooks up very quickly, in just a couple of minutes or less.
Making fresh pasta at home is a great kitchen project – it’s a lot easier than you likely think it is! Earlier this year we shared our go-to Fresh Pasta recipe – think of it as a comprehensive guide to making homemade pasta for beginners.
If you’re a pasta lover, I especially suggest checking it out & trying your hand at making homemade pasta sometime soon! One of the advantages of making it yourself is that you have complete control of the pasta’s texture, flavor, & shape from the very start. You can use different flours to create very delicate pasta or super hearty pasta. You can add in extra fat for extra flavor & richness. Or, add in other ingredients, like herbs or spinach, to introduce a new flavor.
While I love treating myself to fresh pasta every now & then, if I’m being completely honest with you, you’ll typically find me reaching for my favorite dried pasta on pasta night.
Why choose dried pasta? ⇢ Dried pasta is typically made with just 2 main ingredients – flour & water. This results in a pasta dough with much firmer structure, ideal for creating a perfect al dente bite. This hearty, firm texture makes dried pasta a great pairing for heavier sauces or heartier pasta dishes that have several ingredients in the mix. Dried pasta takes much less time & effort to whip up than fresh (with no kneading or fancy equipment required!). Plus, we’re fortunate to live in times in which an abundance of amazing dried pasta is readily available to us, in just about every shape imaginable!
Key characteristics to look for in high-quality dried pasta:
- Quality ingredients: Great pasta starts with high-quality ingredients. Look for a minimal ingredients list – durum wheat flour, water, & mayyybe salt. Durum, a special variety of wheat indigenous to Italy, is often used in dried pasta. Its high gluten & protein content creates pasta with beautiful, hearty texture.
- Traditional Italian craftsmanship – bronze-cut pasta: Dry pasta is typically formed by extruding the pasta dough through a die to create the shapes that we all know & love – rigatoni, penne, orecchiette, etc. Traditionally, these molds or dies are made of bronze. While it’s a little more expensive & slower than modern technology, bronze die extrusion results in a truly superior pasta – this isn’t just gimmicky marketing! Here’s why ⇢ Bronze die extrusion gives the pasta a rougher texture & creates a built-in porous surface on the pasta. With cohesion in mind, these are both really good things – the pasta’s rough texture gives the sauce something to cling to & its porous surface soaks up the sauce, creating cohesive, flavorful bites of pasta. Determining whether a dry pasta is bronze-cut or not is pretty easy – bronze extruded pasta has a matte surface with rough texture (vs cheaper pastas that appear smooth & shiny). Additionally, because it creates a superior product, brands will be quick to call this out on their packaging – look for a label that indicates the pasta is “bronze die extruded.”
Because they cover both of these key characteristics (& then some!), my long-time go-to for all things pasta is DeLallo! They offer more than 30 different shapes of pasta, all of which are made with just 2 ingredients – expertly milled Italian wheat & Italian spring water. Their pastas are also all crafted in Italy – in an area near the Amalfi Coast where pasta was born – using artisanal bronze dies. Check, check, check!!! I absolutely love them – you will too!
How to Cook Pasta
While making pasta is a fairly straightforward process, there are a few simple steps that take at-home pasta dishes from good to great. Once you try this easy technique, you’ll never cook pasta another way!
First, Choose Your Vessel Wisely.
Be sure to use a pot that’s large enough to fully submerge the pasta in the boiling water with enough room for it to move around as it cooks to prevent sticking. As a general rule of thumb, you should use 3-4 quarts of water per pound of pasta – keep this in mind when you pick your pot!
To take it a step further, I like to boil pasta in a heavyweight enamel cast iron Dutch oven. While it does take a little bit longer for the water to reach a boil, a heavyweight pot retains its heat much better than a more lightweight pot, meaning the water returns to a boil more quickly once the pasta is added.
My go-to pot for boiling pasta is a 5-quart Dutch oven – Staub’s cocotte Dutch ovens are forever my favorite! – like this one, which has extra tall sides that are great for boiling long pasta, like spaghetti or bucatini.
Always Salt Your Pasta Water!
Have you ever heard that pasta water should taste like the ocean? You should always cook your pasta in generously salted water! Why do you add salt to pasta water? ⇢ Salting the water is the only opportunity you have to season the pasta itself. Well-seasoned pasta lends to a well-seasoned final pasta dish.
How much salt should you add to pasta water? ⇢ As a general rule of thumb, use 1 – 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt per pound of pasta.
A few tips for salting your pasta water…
- What kind of salt is best for pasta water? While Italian nonnas swear by using coarse sea salt for pasta water, I typically use kosher salt as it’s what I keep on hand in my kitchen – it works just fine!
- Salt your pasta water after it has come to a boil. This will help ensure the salt dissolves completely in the water & will properly season your pasta noodles as they cook.
Stir often to prevent sticking – Do NOT Add Oil!
Once the water reaches a full, rolling boil, it’s pasta time! Add your pasta & let it cook, stirring occasionally as it cooks to prevent sticking & boil-overs. Never oil your pasta water! Why? ⇢ Oil coats the surface of the pasta, preventing the pasta from clinging to the sauce. Again, the end goal is a single, cohesive dish – we want our pasta & sauce to come together beautifully!
Cook to Al Dente.
When it comes to cooking pasta perfectly, timing is everything. Undercooked pasta is crunchy & maybe even a bit chalky, overcooked pasta is mushy & soft, so the goal is a perfect happy medium – al dente.
Al dente is an Italian term translating to “to the tooth” – the texture that’s considered the gold standard for perfectly cooked pasta. How do I know my pasta is al dente? ⇢ Simple, taste it! Al dente pasta has great texture – it’ll be a little firm in the center (not hard or crunchy) & it’ll have beautiful chewiness (not sticky or mushy).
How long do you cook pasta to reach al dente? ⇢ Honestly, it depends! Different types of pasta have different cook times. While the package directions will often provide a good estimate, the best way to check pasta for doneness is to taste it!
That said, here are some general guidelines for how long to cook pasta:
- Dry pasta – On average dry pasta cooks in 8-10 minutes. However, depending on the shape of the pasta & the amount you are making, cook times will vary! Our recommendation? Cook dried pasta according to the packaging directions, checking for doneness a few minutes earlier than the indicated “al dente” cook time.
- Fresh pasta – The nice thing about fresh pasta is that it cooks very quickly! Check for doneness after 1 minute, cooking the pasta no more than 2-3 minutes.
- Stuffed pasta & gnocchi – Stuffed pasta, like ravioli or tortellini, or gnocchi are typically prepared fresh, so they have a quick cook time, too. You’ll know they are done when they appear puffy or swollen & they float to the surface of the boiling water.
- Baked pasta – If you’re cooking pasta to use in a baked pasta dish, like creamy mac & cheese, be sure to par-cook it since the pasta will continue to cook in the oven. Aim for 1-2 minutes under al dente.
Always Reserve Pasta Water Prior to Draining!
Once your pasta has reached al dente, you’re almost at the finish line! Just before draining the pasta, carefully dip a liquid measuring cup into the pot, reserving about 1 cup of the starchy pasta water. Why? ⇢ Pasta water is liquid gold! Its starchiness helps us create the single, cohesive dish that we’re after once we combine the cooked pasta with the sauce – more on that in a minute!
Lastly, Do Not Rinse Your Pasta!
Lastly, drain the pasta, but do NOT rinse it! Why? ⇢ Rinsing washes the starchy goodness off the surface of the pasta, preventing it from absorbing & clinging to the pasta sauce.
The only exception to this rule is pasta salad, which is typically tossed with room temperature ingredients & served cold. Rinsing pasta for pasta salad shocks the pasta, preventing it from continuing to cook & wilting the other ingredients in the pasta salad.
Tossing Together Your Restaurant Quality Pasta Dish!
Once the pasta is cooked to al dente perfection, the last step to creating a restaurant-worthy pasta dish at home is finishing the pasta with the sauce. Yes, al dente pasta should always cook with sauce for a couple of minutes on the stovetop.
Remember our overarching goal of cohesion? The #1 mistake I see home chefs make when they serve a pasta dish at home is opting to simply plop the prepared sauce atop a pile of pasta – please don’t do this! By finishing the pasta with the sauce, the two separate components come together as one cohesive dish. If you feel like your pasta never turns out as good as it does in a restaurant, this simple step helps tremendously!
Bring your sauce to simmer on stovetop. Timing is key here – it’s ideal to have your sauce ready & simmering just before you drain the pasta. Add the al dente pasta to the sauce immediately, tossing to combine. Let the pasta & sauce cook for a minute or two, allowing the pasta to meld with & absorb some of the sauce.
During these last few minutes, you can also make micro-adjustments as needed to create the perfect pasta dish:
- If the sauce is too thick, toss in a little of your magic reserved pasta water to thin it out.
- If the sauce is too loose, increase the heat to create a more vigorous simmer or toss in a handful of parmesan to thicken it up.
Voila – the BEST pasta you’ve ever made at home! 🙌🏼
Try it Out! Our Favorite Pasta Dishes to Make at Home:
Are you ready to make your best pasta yet? Be sure to try out this pasta cooking technique with any of our PWWB pasta recipes…
- PWWB Best-Ever Bolognese – A recipe I’ve tweaked & perfected over 10+ years, this is my personal favorite recipe on PWWB. Seriously the best bolognese sauce ever!
- Weeknight Bolognese – A slightly easier & quicker bolognese sauce recipe.
- Ragu – AKA slowly simmered Italian goodness, ragu is a hearty meat sauce perfect for pairing with fresh pasta. Try my Slowly Braised Lamb Ragu or my Slowly Braised Pork Ragu.
- The Classics – Creamy Marsala Pasta with Sausage, Spicy Italian Sausage and Peppers Pasta, or Pasta all’Amatriciana
- Something New – Seared Scallop Pasta with Kale Pesto or Mascarpone Pasta with Chicken
- All PWWB Pasta Recipes
I can’t wait for you to try these tips & see how your pasta turns out, you won’t believe the difference! If you do give them a try, be sure to let me know! Leave a comment with a star rating below. You can also snap a photo & tag @playswellwithbutter on Instagram. I LOVE hearing about & seeing your PWWB creations! Happy cooking! ♡Print
Whether you’re head-over-heels for all things Italian or you simply love pasta for its quickness, versatility, & affordability, there are a few simple tips & tricks that will take your at-home pasta nights to the next level. Learn how to cook pasta perfectly – every single time! – & be sure to check out the Blog Post, above, for more tips & tricks.
- 8 ounces pasta of choice
- 1/2 – 1 cup pasta sauce of choice
- kosher salt & ground black pepper, to season
- optional: 1/4 cup grated parmesan
- for serving, as desired: grated parmesan or pecorino romano, finely chopped basil or parsley, crushed red pepper flakes, etc.
- Boil the pasta: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Once boiling, generously salt the water. As a general rule of thumb, use 3-4 quarts of water & 1-1 1/2 tablespoons salt per pound of pasta. Add the pasta and cook to al dente according to package directions. Just before draining, reserve 1 cup of the starchy pasta water. Drain the pasta and set aside – do not rinse the pasta.
- Simmer the sauce: Meanwhile, as the pasta boils, heat your pasta sauce of choice in a large skillet – either use your favorite pre-made sauce or follow Recipe Directions of the specific pasta dish you’re making. As a general rule of thumb, use 1 1/2 cups of tomato-based sauces per pound of pasta or 1 cup of oil-based sauces per pound of pasta. Bring the sauce to a simmer, then reduce heat until you’re ready to add the pasta.
- Finish the pasta: Add the drained pasta to the skillet with the sauce. Toss to coat with the simmering pasta sauce. Cook, stirring & tossing occasionally, over medium heat for 1-2 minutes, allowing the pasta to meld with & absorb some of the sauce. Adjust as needed so the pasta sauce evenly coats the pasta – if the mixture is too thick, toss in a little reserved pasta water; if the mixture is too loose, increase the heat or toss in an extra handful of parmesan cheese, etc. Remove from the heat & serve immediately. Enjoy!
Keywords: how to cook pasta, easy pasta recipe, weeknight cooking, Italian, pasta dish, restaurant-worthy, how-to guide
Recipe and Food Styling by Jess Larson, Plays Well With Butter | Photography by Rachel Cook, Half Acre House.