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How to cook pasta: 9 essential tips, including whether to add salt or oil to the water

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Kayleigh Dray
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How to cook pasta: 7 essential tips, including whether to add salt or oil to the water

Think you know how to cook pasta properly? Think again… 

Updated on 13 May 2020: Robert Pattinson’s wild GQ interview is the talk of the internet, primarily because… well, because he has some very passionate opinions about pasta.  In fact, the Twilight actor blew his microwave while trying to invent a “pasta which you can hold in your hand”… which involved him, yeah, coating soggy penne in a combination of (no word of a lie) sugar and cheese.

Unlike RPattz, however, the majority of us already know not to microwave our pasta. Indeed, if you lived off the stuff during your university years, you’ll be a pro at rustling up simple recipes like spaghetti bolognese or a quick carbonara. Even on a hangover, it isn’t the most testing task.

Why? Well, because this cheap cupboard staple is widely heralded as one of the easiest things to cook – not to mention the perfect crowd-pleaser. Or, y’know, so we’d always thought, anyway.

As it turns out, there’s actually a lot more to cooking spaghetti than tossing it into a pan of water and leaving it to do its thing. In fact, there’s recently been some (read: a lot of) contention over whether or not we should be adding oil and/or salt to our pasta water. And even our beloved Mary Berry has come under fire for sharing a “controversial” bolognese recipe with the masses.

Let’s face facts: if it can happen to the Queen of Cakes, it can happen to us all. Thankfully, though, there’s help at hand.

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Here, we reveal nine failsafe tips for cooking perfect pasta. 

Buon appetito!

DO use a big pan – the bigger the better, in fact.

If there is not enough water, then the pasta will get mushy and sticky and generally disgusting. To quote Nigella Lawson: “The pasta should be able to move around a little in the water so if you are cooking larger quantities of pasta then you will need a large saucepan or stock pot.”

As an easy rule of thumb, 6.8 litres of water is about right for 500g pasta.

DON’T add oil to your pasta water. Ever.

Guido Pedrelli, the founder of Nonna Box, recently blew everyone’s minds when he announced that there’s no point in adding oil to your pasta’s water.

“There is a common myth that oiling the water your pasta is cooking in will prevent it from sticking, but this is untrue,” he tells Metro. “In fact, oil and water do not mix, so it is unlikely that any oil will transfer onto the pasta during the cooking process.”

And the worst part? Well, if any oil were to attach to the pasta, it would be after the cooking process when the pasta is being drained… and it has a detrimental effect.

“It will prevent the sauce from sticking to the pasta,” she says.

DO use dried pasta

To quote the indomitable Gino D’Acampo: “Always buy dry pasta, not fresh. 90% of Italians use dried pasta as it keeps its al dente shape more perfectly when cooked.”

How to cook pasta: DON’T add oil to your water. Ever.
How to cook pasta: DON’T add oil to your water. Ever.

DO add salt.

The Italian word for pasta that lacks salt – “sciocca” – also means “silly”. And, while there’s no scientific reason to add salt to your water (ignore those people who tell you it raises the boiling point: you’d have to add a lot more than a pinch for that to kick in), there is a far better reason. 

Namely, that it makes the pasta taste better.

That’s right: salted water flavours the pasta from the inside out as the pasta absorbs the water, leading to tastier pasta. So don’t be a silly goose and make sure you add at least a pinch of salt to your water when you’re cooking up your next spaghetti feast.

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DO boil the water before adding your pasta

You want it bubbling like a witch’s cauldron (think Macbeth: you need a pan of big, noisy bubbles) before you even think about adding your spaghetti. Only once it’s reached boiling point should you add your pasta

Make sure you do so slowly, as this will keep it from forming a large clump at the bottom.

DON’T just leave your pasta to chance

You should stir the pasta once it is added to the water to keep it from sticking together. This will also make sure that it cooks evenly.

How to cook pasta: DON’T just leave your pasta to chance
How to cook pasta: DON’T just leave your pasta to chance

DO use a timer

When in doubt, follow this rule from Lawson: “Bring your water to the boil, add salt, then tip in the pasta, stirring well to make sure it’s all in and not clumped together. Once the water comes back to the boil, let the pasta cook for 2 minutes, then turn off the heat, cover the pan with a clean, thin tea towel (not a waffle-textured one) and clamp on a tight-fitting lid. 

“Let the pasta stand like this for as long as the packet tells you to cook it normally (usually seven minutes). When the time is up, drain the pasta, remembering to remove a small cupful of cooking water before doing so.”

DON’T rinse your pasta after cooking

According to Giada de Laurentiis (via her cookbook Everyday Pasta), “the starch on the surface contributes flavour and helps the sauce adhere.” 

So don’t you dare even think about washing away that starch.

And DON’T panic

Why? Because it’s just not the Italian way.

“People panic in the kitchen and they don’t need to,” says D’Acampo. “The first thing to do is to open a nice bottle of wine and relax. There’s no rush. If it’s going to be late, it’s going to be a little late. Enjoy the moment.”

Fancy learning a lot more about pasta? Check out these traditional recipes by the ‘Pasta Grannies’, aka the Italian nonnas taking YouTube by storm

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This article was originally reported in March 2020, but has been updated throughout.

Images: Bruna Branco/Klara Kulikova/Heather Gill/Unsplash

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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