Making perfect pasta is just as easy as making mediocre pasta — it just takes a little attention to detail and a little monitoring. With any pasta recipe, the big takeaways are to use lots of water, salt the water generously, stir often, don’t overcook it, and finish cooking the pasta in the sauce if appropriate. But read on for more about cooking your pasta to perfection!
Types of Pasta
Here are some of the most popular types of dried pasta, grouped into short and chunky shapes vs. longer strands. There are some sauce suggestions for each type of pasta, but these are just suggestions — it’s all really a matter of personal preference.
Short and Chunky Pasta Shapes
In general, these are good with chunkier, heavier sauces and also very good for pasta salads and baked pasta dishes:
- Elbows – Small curved tubes that are also called elbow macaroni.
- Rigatoni – A wide tubular pasta that may or may not have ridges (rigate).
- Ziti – A slightly smaller tube-shaped pasta cut straight across like rigatoni which may or may not have ridges (rigate).
- Penne – Penne can also be rigate or smooth; another tube-shaped pasta, this one diagonally cut on the edges.
- Cavatappi – These look like long corkscrew macaroni.
- Farfalle – This cut of pasta looks like little bowties. Great for chunkier sauces and also for pasta salads.
- Rotelle – These look like little wagon wheels and stand up to very chunky sauces as they have lots of crevices for veggies or meat to nestle.
- Orcheiette – The name means “little ears” in Italian, and these small cup-shaped pastas do have a resemblance!
- Shells – These can come in various sizes, from small to large, and are usually stuffed and baked.
- Rotini – These look like fat corkscrews.
Long and Skinny Pastas
Depending on the thickness of the noodles, the long skinny pastas are good for sauces ranging from light to medium-bodied — but of course, they are also great with meatballs!
- Capellini or Angel Hair – Very delicate and thin; best used with very light sauces.
- Spaghetti – Pairs well with simple sauces that aren’t too chunky or heavy.
- Linguine – Long flat noodles that can go with medium to more full-bodied sauces.
- Fettucine – The name means “little ribbons.” This noodle is a bit thicker and wider than linguine and often is paired with heavier sauces, as well as cream-based ones.
- Fusilli – These are corkscrew-shaped long strands of pasta, and lots of fun to eat.
- Perciatelli or Bucatini – This pasta looks like fat pasta, but it actually has a hollow that runs down the length of the noodle, which can catch even more of your sauce.
- Spaghettini – A skinnier spaghetti, but not as thin as angel hair.
How to Cook Pasta: Simple tips and techniques for getting to perfect pasta every time.
Pasta Cooking Tips
A few essential tips will help you cook any pasta perfectly! As for how long to cook pasta, it’s best to follow package directions. Obviously, different sizes, shapes, and thicknesses will take different amounts of time, with thicker pasta taking longer. And even within the different shapes, it will differ from brand to brand.
Cook pasta in a large pot with a lot of water.
Aim for 6 quarts of water for every pound of pasta, and make sure your pot is large and deep enough to allow the water to boil with the pasta cooking.
Salt the water generously. Many chefs say that the water should taste like the ocean; that’s how salty it should be. When the pasta cooks, it softens by absorbing the hot water, and only if the water is well-salted will the pasta have its best flavor. Otherwise, the only salt will be in the sauce, not the pasta itself.
Stir the pasta frequently.
Remember to stir the pasta often as it cooks to prevent sticking and clumping. Stir very often at the beginning of the cooking process.
Don’t rinse pasta after cooking it.
Only rinse cooked pasta if the recipe specifically directs you to do so. Rinsing pasta removes the starch, which adds flavor to the pasta and also encourages the sauce to adhere to it. The only time I rinse pasta is when I am using it for pasta salad, as the starch might make the salad gummy; without rinsing it, the pasta will stick together as it cools and possibly overcook in its own heat.
Reserve some of the pasta cooking water.
This is one of the simplest and most effective ways to up your pasta game, and every Italian cook knows it! The pasta cooking water is salted, and once the pasta is cooked, the water has a nice amount of flavor and starch in it from the noodles. Adding some pasta cooking water to the pasta sauce will help thin it out a bit, and coat the pasta with the sauce. The starch encourages the sauce to adhere to the pasta.
Never add olive oil to the pasta cooking water.
Somewhere along the line, it became popular belief that this was an old Italian grandma cooking trick, but in fact, it defeats the purpose of bringing the starch out and putting it to work. Also, never add olive oil to the cooked pasta before you add the sauce unless the recipe is for an olive oil-based sauce. The olive oil will prevent the sauce from sticking to the pasta.
Drain the pasta as soon as it’s al dente.
Al dente means “to the tooth” in Italian and refers to the fact that the pasta still has a bit of chew to it, and hasn’t become too soft or overcooked. Don’t let it cook to a mushy stage. It should be drained when it is just cooked, and still a bit firm in the center. The noodles will continue to cook for a few minutes after they are drained, and if you add them to the sauce to finish cooking, you want to make sure to allow for that extra cooking time. Taste the pasta towards the end of the suggested cooking time (check package directions) and drain it when it is just done to your liking.
Finish the pasta in the sauce.
Many recipes benefit from adding the just barely al dente pasta to the sauce and finishing cooking the pasta in the sauce. Drain the pasta just before its done to your liking. You can combine the pasta with the sauce in the pan you cooked the sauce in, or if it is not big enough, you can return the pasta to the big pot after draining, pour in the sauce, and finish cooking the pasta with the sauce. This will allow the pasta to absorb some of the flavors of the sauce better than if you just tossed the two together at the end.
Sauce pasta while it’s hot.
However you sauce the pasta, do it while the pasta is hot. The hotter the pasta, the better it will absorb the sauce. Don’t oversauce — you want to taste your perfectly cooked pasta!
Cooking Pasta for Baked Pastas
If you are planning to use your pasta in a baked pasta dish after cooking it, make sure to stop when it is just al dente, or even a bit before if your baked pasta dish has a generous amount of sauce in it. This will allow the pasta to heat through in the casserole without overcooking and also absorb some of the sauce as it all bakes.
Delicious Pasta Recipes to Try
Pasta Aglio e Olio
Pancetta Pasta with Tomatoes
Vegetarian Greek Pasta
Also, explore summer pasta recipes.
What to Serve With Pasta
I almost always serve my pasta dishes with some sort of salad, and sometimes a simple cooked vegetable as well. Here are a few of my go-to salad pairings for pastas: