We hate to break it to you, but if you're boiling to al dente, you're probably overcooking it.

By Betty Gold
July 22, 2019
Cristina Cassinelli/Getty Images

Fact: pasta is a near-perfect dish. A staple of every pantry, dried pasta—a delectable combination of semolina flour, water, and salt—is a surefire crowd-pleaser, a quintessential comfort food, and the basis of no end of delicious dishes. Fresh pasta, which contains eggs, is more tender than dried and cooks in about half the time. From kids to college students to Tuscans and everyone in between, pasta is always the right answer when someone asks, “What’s for dinner?” 

But cooking pasta with the just-right texture, meaning chewy without a hint of mushiness, takes technique. Practice makes perfect, but this could mean a lifetime of overcooked ziti before you nail it like nonna could.

In hopes of speeding things up, we checked in with Elana Horwich, the Cali-Itali cuisine queen and cookbook author of Meal and a Spiel: How to be a Badass in the Kitchen. She shared her tried and true prep tips for cooking (and eating) pasta with us so you’ll be noodling like a pro in no time.

To begin, it’s al dente or the highway. Al dente is Italian for "to the tooth," which means you're looking for a texture that's firm to the bite; it should be able to hold its shape in whatever sauce you'll be mixing it with. Elana’s three-step secret to perfecting the perfect al dente pasta is as follows:  

1. Use a super large pot of boiling water so you don’t overcrowd your noodles. “It’s important to let your pasta breathe while cooking and the big pot will guarantee that.”

2. Add enough kosher salt to the water. It should actually “taste like the sea.” Give it a good handful.

3. Stop cooking before the noodles have even reached al dente. This is called molto al dente. "I would say, taste your pasta 3 minutes before the package says it will be al dente," Elana says. Pull a piece from the pot and give it a taste—it should have a chalky, very firm interior. You want to see a white ring around the inside of a cross-section of your noodle. We recommend draining your noodles before al dente because you'll be tossing them in a pan with sauce later. Once you overcook your pasta there's no going back, but you can give always your noodles an extra minute or two later if need be. 

RELATED: 40 Perfect Pasta Dishes 

Now that you've nailed the hard part, here are Elana’s other top pasta-cooking tips.

Use the holy trifecta

The secret to so many applaud-worthy (and quick) Italian pasta dishes lies in three essential ingredients which form the foundation for easy everyday sauces: extra virgin olive oil, garlic cloves, and red pepper flakes, known as Aglio Olio Peperoncino. Add to a skillet over medium heat in that order; let the flavors infuse until golden, and then add your main ingredients like cherry tomatoes and basil, mushrooms and thyme, or another veggie you have in your fridge. You have to add salt, too. Once cooked, add your molto al dente pasta to the pan over medium high heat and toss.

Match your pasta to your sauce

A rule of thumb for any real Italian: the pasta should “carry” the weight of the sauce. For example, pair short thick pasta like penne or rigatoni with tomato or veggie-based sauces, long pasta made with egg with meat sauces & seafood with linguine or spaghetti. Angel hair pasta, for example, is too light for meat or heavy tomato sauce.

Serve it hot

As in, immediately. Try these tips with one of these delicious Real Simple recipes!

RELATED: How to Cook Pasta Perfectly Every Time