How to cook perfect pasta: Simple hacks to avoid a soggy mess
Do you add oil to the water? Can you skip the salt? How do you achieve that al dente bite? Pasta pros offer tips to get those restaurant-like results at home.
After the initial giddiness of having your very own kitchen (or access to one) subsides, the first dish that you’re probably scheming on whipping up is pasta.
And for good reason, too. Simply boil up some dried pasta, empty that jar of tomato sauce into a saucepan to heat up, pour over the cooked pasta and you’re done, right?
It’s not as easy peasy as preparing instant noodles once you get down to it – or you wouldn’t be experiencing clumpy, doughy strands or asking, “how firm exactly is al dente?”.
So, we posed some carb-loaded questions to Pasta Table, a digital restaurant created with pasta brand Barilla’s chef Andrea Tranchero and TiffinLabs’ chef Terence Chuah – both of whom have worked in Michelin-starred restaurants around the world.
And if your homecooked pasta turns out irremediable, you can always order up some authentic Italian pasta dishes from them.
CAN I SKIP SALTING THE PASTA WATER?
Japanese chefs don’t salt the water when boiling ramen, so why must you salt the water for boiling pasta? Simply put, it’s for better flavour.
“Pasta dough is made without salt,” said Tranchero. On the other hand, many Asian noodles such as ramen, mee pok and ban mian are made with salt, so there is already that initial layer of seasoning, he said.
Also, Asian noodles are thinner than pasta, which makes them absorb flavours easier when you’re frying with soy sauce or pouring an umami-rich broth over them. That’s why you don’t have to salt the water to pre-season Asian noodles, said Chuah.
How much salt should you use then? Approximately 7g of salt per litre of water for every 100g of pasta, said Tranchero. Or one teaspoon of salt per litre of water.
But with all that salt in the boiling water and more salt in the sauce, wouldn’t you risk ending up with an over-seasoned dish?
Chuah has this tip: Instead of adding salt to the sauce, use the pasta water as seasoning. Then, “give the sauce a taste to see if it's the right seasoning for you. If it is, you can stop there”, he said.
WHAT ABOUT ADDING OIL TO THE WATER?
The consensus is, the olive oil will prevent the pasta from clumping as it cooks.
But many chefs are claiming it’s unnecessary – and a waste of olive oil. Stirring the pasta as it’s cooking is sufficient to prevent the clumping as well as uneven cooking.
MY SAUCE IS MORE SOUP THAN SAUCE
The trick is to use the pasta water, said Chuah. In order for the sauce to coat the pasta well, “you need the starch from the pasta water to create an emulsion that helps bind the pasta and sauce together”.
But if you use regular water instead, it will wash away the starch and you lose that binding effect, he explained.
FOR A CHILLED PASTA DISH, CAN I RUN THE BOILED PASTA UNDER RUNNING WATER TO COOL IT?
Not unless you want to lose the precious starch that helps the sauce stick to the pasta, said Tranchero. Running the pasta under water would do exactly that.
More reasons not to wash your pasta: “The pasta is like a sponge. That’s why when you add salt to the water, it helps to season the pasta.
“If you leave the cooked pasta under running water, it absorbs the water and becomes soggy, losing its flavour.”
To cool down the boiled pasta, Chuah would immediately spread it out onto a sheet pan and drizzle some olive oil to prevent the pasta from sticking.
“Mix in the vinaigrette or dressing only after the pasta has cooled,” he said.
WHY IS MY PASTA ALWAYS SOGGY OR UNDERCOOKED?
Boiling pasta at the wrong temperature would create undercooked pasta, said Chuah. And leaving the noodles in the water for too long (you only need nine minutes) will result in soggy pasta, said Tranchero.
First, make sure the water is on a rolling boil – not simmering – before adding the pasta, emphasised Tranchero. The water temperature would drop after the pasta goes in. But you need to keep the water boiling throughout.
“Start the timer for nine minutes only after the water has returned to a boil after adding the pasta,” he said.
To avoid soggy pasta, take it out of the boiling water immediately after nine minutes and let the pasta cool down, said Tranchero. “Leaving the pasta in the water for too long, even though it is done cooking, would turn the pasta soggy. This is called carry-over cooking.”
What every cook wants is the famed state of al dente when the cooked pasta is still firm and has a little bite. If you examine its cross-section, you’ll see a white dot in the middle, explained Tranchero.
“But, of course, not everyone enjoys the al dente texture. The important thing to remember is to taste the pasta and adjust the cooking time based on each person’s pasta texture preference,” he said.
Texture aside, soggy and overcooked pasta can also raise its glycaemic index. Al dente pasta is healthier as it is digested and absorbed slower than mushy pasta.
HOW DO I KEEP THE COOKED PASTA FROM CLUMPING WHILE THE SAUCE IS STILL COOKING?
“My suggestion is to prepare the sauce first,” said Tranchero. “Then, boil the pasta.” In fact, he recommended preparing the sauce a day or two ahead as it allows “the flavour to develop”.
But if you’ve already gone and boiled the pasta before the sauce is ready, Chuah has this saving grace: Add a little drizzle of olive oil into the pasta to coat it and prevent sticking.
“If the pasta is already clumped up, the only way to separate the pasta is to heat it up and toss it together with the sauce,” he said. “Once the starch molecules are heated up, they become more flexible and this way, you can separate the pasta easily.”
I ALWAYS END UP COOKING TOO MUCH PASTA
First, get a kitchen scale. Next, portion 80g to 90g of dried pasta per serving – regardless of pasta type, said Chuah.
Added Tranchero: “If you are cooking for a family of four to six, simply use an entire box of pasta that usually weighs 500g”.