4 tips to help you perfect your pasta

Save some of the pasta cooking water to thin out sauces. PHOTO: STACY ZARIN GOLDBERG FOR THE WASHINGTON POST
Save some of the pasta cooking water to thin out sauces. PHOTO: STACY ZARIN GOLDBERG FOR THE WASHINGTON POST
Look at the cross section of the pasta to determine if it is fully cooked. PHOTO: STACY ZARIN GOLDBERG FOR THE WASHINGTON POST
Look at the cross section of the pasta to determine if it is fully cooked. PHOTO: STACY ZARIN GOLDBERG FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

(THE WASHINGTON POST) - Dried pasta can be the ultimate convenience food. It's shelf-stable. You can make a little or a lot, throw together a quick sauce from the pantry or even pop open something store-bought. Pasta will always be there for you.

Plus, it really is almost as simple as boiling water. Almost. Here are a few tips to make your next pasta dish easier to prepare and more satisfying to eat.

1. You don't need a massive stockpot every time

Sure, you want to boil your pasta in enough water to give it room to expand and prevent it from sticking together. But do you have to haul out the giant pot? Not always.

Chef Matt Adler, executive chef for Italian concepts at Schlow Restaurant Group (Alta Strada, Casolare, etc.), says if he's making pasta at home to eat with his wife, he often chooses his 4-quart(3.8-litre) saucepan. He suggests keeping the pasta covered by at least an inch or two of water - in a skillet, for example, keep an eye on how much liquid evaporates. If you're looking for more specific guidance, America's Test Kitchen says 2 quarts of water will suffice for up to 1/2 pound (226g) of pasta, 4 quarts for 1/2 pound to 1 pound, and 6 quarts for 1 to 2 pounds.

2. Know when to salt the water

There are two main problems with salting the water first. One, salt won't dissolve well in cold water. Two, when the undissolved salt comes in contact with stainless steel, it can cause the surface to pit - more of a cosmetic than functional problem, but preventable. Adding the salt as the water comes to a boil resolves both problems. But how much salt do you add?

This is a key step to ensuring your dish doesn't taste underseasoned. Look around, and it seems there are as many answers as fish in the salty sea. Adler recommends 1 teaspoon of kosher salt per quart of water; America's Test Kitchen, 1 tablespoon of table salt per quart; and Serious Eats culinary director Daniel Gritzer suggests a range depending on what type of salt you're using and what level of salinity you're after. Start in the middle ground and begin to understand your taste preferences, which may vary depending on what you're putting on the pasta.

3. Don't overcook it

Look at the cross section of the pasta to determine if it is fully cooked. PHOTO: STACY ZARIN GOLDBERG FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

We've all heard that pasta should be cooked until it's al dente, but what does that mean? There should still be a little firm bite, in other words.

Adler says you can judge this by removing a piece of pasta from the water using tongs or a slotted spoon and running it under cold water (do this only for the test bite, not the rest of your pasta). Take a bite - you'll feel a bit of resistance but not a lot. (Adler's mother taught him that if it sticks to your teeth, it's not ready.)

Then take a look at the inside of the pasta. For shapes such as spaghetti or linguine, you'll see a small dot in the centre where the pasta's not yet fully cooked, since it cooks from the outside in. With shapes such as penne or rigatoni, you'll see a thin ring around the centre.

You've reached the right level of doneness when the ratio is roughly 90 per cent cooked to 10 per cent uncooked, Adler says. The pasta will finish cooking when you put it back in the pan and toss with your sauce or toppings.

4. Save a bit of that water

Save some of the pasta cooking water to thin out sauces. PHOTO: STACY ZARIN GOLDBERG FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Before you drain the pasta, grab a coffee cup or handy liquid measuring cup to scoop up some of the salty, starchy water. You can use it to thin out a thick sauce, if needed. That way the sauce has an opportunity to evenly cling to all the pasta.

Adler has one more tip for bringing your dish together: a little extra fat. Now that you know how to cook it well, a knob of butter or a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil is the last step to a polished plate of pasta.