The Ten Rules of Cooking Pasta

The Ten Rules of Cooking Pasta

 1. First of all, start with a deep, tall pot. Don’t use a saucepan for cooking your pasta, and there is no need for nonstick cookware unless you happen to only have a nonstick stockpot. I suggest a deep stockpot with a colander insert; this will make draining the pasta and reserving some of the pasta cooking water much easier later (no more running to the sink with a boiling pot of water to find a colander; plus, this sort of pot comes in handy when making pasta that is cooked along with vegetables). 

2. Bring 4 cups of water to a boil for every 4 ounces of pasta you intend to cook. The water should be at a rolling boil when you add the pasta, or the pasta won’t cook through evenly. 

3. Add at least 1 teaspoon of salt per quart of water after the water comes to a boil (if you add it earlier, it will raise the boiling temperature of the water and make the water come to a boil more slowly). The water should be very salty; not all of the salt will penetrate the pasta, but rather it will flavor the water, so the pasta will not be too salty once drained. 

4. Never add oil to the cooking water! The pasta won’t stick together unless you forget to stir it often as it cooks. (Adding oil to the water will create a slippery surface on the pasta; the sauce will adhere poorly to the pasta when it’s time to combine the two.) 

5. Add the pasta to the boiling water all at once, and stir with a long-handled spoon that will allow you to reach all the way to the bottom of the pot. If you are making long pasta, keep stirring until it becomes supple, loses rigidity, and is entirely submerged in the water. If you aren’t careful when cooking long pasta, you may end up leaving parts of it hanging out of the water for minutes, resulting in unevenly cooked pasta; take the time to push all of the pasta strands into the boiling water, and do it as quickly as possible so the pasta cooks evenly.

 6. Keep the water boiling the whole time as the pasta cooks: if the water does not return to a rolling boil quickly, cover the pot with a lid after adding the pasta to the boiling water. If the pasta water is not boiling, the outside of the pasta will be overcooked by the time the inside is al dente. The only case where you don’t want water at a rolling boil is when cooking filled pastas such as ravioli or tortellini, as the filling may leak out; in this case, keep the water at a low boil. 

7. Stir the pasta every 30 seconds or so. This is crucial to prevent sticking and to ensure even cooking. And don’t forget to reach all the way to the bottom of the pot when stirring. 

8. Taste often to see if the pasta is almost fully cooked, and drain it when it’s al dente (meaning “to the tooth,” because it should offer a little bite when it’s drained): there should still be a tiny white dot at the center. Fresh pasta may cook very quickly (in as little as 1 minute for delicate, thin pasta), so never walk out of the kitchen when cooking pasta. Dried pasta takes anywhere from 8 to 14 minutes, depending on the thickness and shape (except angel hair pasta, which cooks in a minute or two); start tasting the pasta about 2 minutes prior to the suggested cooking time on the box. You can always cook pasta longer, but you can’t “uncook” pasta that is overcooked. When cooking angel hair pasta, taste for doneness 30 seconds after it has been added to the boiling water. 

9. Reserve about 2 cups of the pasta cooking water before you drain the pasta. Use as much of this reserved pasta cooking water as needed to thin out your sauce (this allows you to cut down on olive oil or butter). Also, because the pasta cooking water is so rich in starch, it helps the sauce bind to the pasta, making for a lovely, velvety quality. And the residual heat in the reserved pasta cooking water will help your pasta stay hot longer.

 10. Never rinse pasta after you drain it, even if you plan to serve the pasta cold: rinsing pasta will wash out the starch and much of the flavor. (To cool drained pasta for use in cold dishes, toss it with a touch of olive oil and spread it out on a large tray until it reaches room temperature, about 15 minutes.)


Creamy Fontina Sauce with Crushed Walnuts and White Truffle Oil 

Fonduta con Noci al Tartufo This sauce is usually served over polenta or with bread in Val d’Aosta. A sumptuous take on fondue, it features milk, cream, Fontina, and butter and is finished with egg yolks and truffle oil; shaved white truffles over the top would be a lovely indulgence. SERVES 4 

Ingredient notes: Walnuts (like all nuts and whole grains) are susceptible to rancidity due to their high fat content. Store them in the freezer until ready to use. 

Ingredients For the pasta

  •  2 tablespoons salt 
  • 1 pound potato gnocchi, fresh egg tagliatelle, or penne rigate

Ingredients For the sauce

  •  ½ cup whole or 2% milk 
  • 1¼ cups heavy cream 
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  •  ½ pound Fontina from Val d’Aosta, rind removed, coarsely grated 
  • ¾ cup (3 ounces) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano 
  • ⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  •  ⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 
  • 2 large egg yolks 
  • ½ cup plus 
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped walnuts 
  • 2 tablespoons white truffle oil 


Make the pasta: Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil. Add the salt and the pasta. Cook until the pasta is al dente, then drain, reserving 2 cups of the pasta cooking water. 

Meanwhile, make the sauce: In a heavy-bottomed saucepan large enough to accommodate the pasta, combine the milk and the cream. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat. Stir in the butter, and when it melts, start adding the Fontina in small handfuls while you stir constantly with a wire whisk; it is important to add the Fontina little by little, or it will curdle in the sauce. When all of the Fontina has been incorporated and is fully melted, add the Parmigiano in small handfuls, also whisking all the while, until it also melts into the sauce. Stir in the nutmeg, salt, and pepper. (The sauce can be made up to this point 2 days in advance; refrigerate until needed, then warm gently before proceeding.) Whisk in the egg yolks, beating vigorously to prevent scrambling, and remove from the heat until you are ready to serve. You can let the sauce sit at this point for about 2 hours at room temperature. When you are ready to serve, warm very gently over low heat and stir in the walnuts; taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Be sure to warm over low heat to prevent scorching the sauce. 

To serve: Toss the drained pasta into the sauce. Sauté over low heat for 1 minute to meld the flavors, thinning out the sauce as needed with some of the reserved pasta cooking water; the texture of the sauce should be that of heavy cream. (If using gnocchi, do not sauté the gnocchi with the sauce on the stove, as they may fall apart; spoon the sauce into a large bowl and, using a rubber spatula, fold in the gnocchi and enough of the reserved pasta cooking water to thin out the sauce as needed.) Adjust the seasoning, drizzle with the truffle oil, and serve hot. 


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