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Cooking 101: How to make perfect pasta

Patricia Conte has a background in marketing communications and works as an independent writer. In 2010, she was given the opportunity to combine her love of writing and food when she started as a contributing writer for the Food channel...

Twirl it, bake it or toss it!

We’ve all been there at some point -- can opener in one hand and a cheap heat-and-eat pasta meal in the other. Not always the best choice. Crush the memories of canned pasta and break out the sauce! Follow this guide for tips to make perfect pasta at home.

Woman cooking pasta

Pasta is an economical, simple and hearty meal. It comes in many shapes, sizes and flavors and can be served as a baked dish like lasagna, in soups or as a cold salad for picnics. Boiled pasta dishes -- like spaghetti -- can be served with a variety of sauces to keep things interesting. Add a nice bottle of wine, crunchy bread and some fresh vegetables and you'll have the makings of an elegant dinner.

FACT: Pasta isn't only an Italian dish. Many cultures have their own variety of pasta from the Chinese rice-flour noodles to North African couscous to German spaetzle.

Buying and storing pasta

Dried pasta can be found in just about any grocery store, and it comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. These pastas are ready to cook and, to help you along, check the package for cooking instructions, quantities and serving suggestions.

Dried pasta, generally made of semolina flour, water and salt is hearty and lasts for a long time on the shelf. Its heartiness makes it firm and allows it to stand up to a variety of heavy sauces.

Store dried pasta in a dry, dark cupboard, either in its unopened box or in an airtight container. Dried pasta "grows" when it cooks, so a pound of dried pasta serves about four people.

Grocery stores also carry fresh pasta found in the refrigerated section. Fresh pasta is made with eggs and more water than dried pasta.

If you buy fresh pasta, store it in your refrigerator and use it within a few days of opening. Because of its softness, it's best to use more delicate sauces like butter sauces, olive oil sauces or fresh tomato sauces. It takes about half the time to cook as dried pasta and, generally, 1-1/2 pounds will serve four people.

Dried pasta takes anywhere from 8 to 15 minutes to cook. Fresh pasta usually cooks in 2 to 4 minutes.

How to make perfect pasta

Whether you're new to cooking or you've made mounds of spaghetti over the years, pasta is easy to make. Follow these steps for foolproof pasta:

  • Use a large pot to cook your pasta. Rule of thumb: use about five pints of water for each pound of pasta. If you don't use enough water so the pasta can move around while it cooks, you'll end up with sticky pasta.
  • Boil the water before you add the pasta. Add about 1 to 2 tablespoons of salt (once boiling). Make sure the water is at a rolling boil before you gently add the pasta (all at once for even cooking).
  • Bring the water back to a boil. Stir the pasta and cover it tightly with a lid. Keep close tabs on the pasta so the water doesn't boil over. Once the water boils again, remove the lid, turn down the heat and let the water boil without overflowing. Stir the pasta occasionally to keep it from sticking together.
  • When cooked, drain the pasta in a colander and shake to remove excess water. Once drained, add the pasta to a large bowl and pour your sauce over the pasta. Toss it and serve immediately.
Some recipes call for the pasta to be "al dente." The Italian translation for this is "to the tooth," which simply means firm when you bite into it, tender but not soggy. Al dente pasta is achieved toward the end of the cooking time. Test it and, if ready, drain it so it doesn't continue to cook in the hot water.

Put the pasta puzzle together

Italian pasta comes in many shapes and sizes. Each shape is designed to hold the different weights of sauces. Check out some of the more common shapes and suggested sauces: 

  • Cannelloni, manicotti and lasagna -- Sheet pasta is typically baked and used with tomato and cream sauces.
  • Spaghetti and linguini -- Good with pesto sauces, meat sauces, chunky sauces and seafood sauces.
  • Fettuccine (long and flat) -- Good with cream sauces and meat sauces.
  • Angel hair (thin, delicate version of spaghetti) -- Good with olive oil sauces and light tomato sauces.
  • Rotini or fusilli (corkscrews) -- Good with pesto and seafood sauces.
  • Orecchiette ("little ears"), cavatelli (looks like little hot dog buns) and conchiglie ("little shells") -- Good with chunky sauces, meat sauces and cheese or cream sauces. It is used in pasta salads.
  • Farfalle ("bow ties") -- Good with olive oil sauces and butter sauces. It is used in pasta salads.
  • Rigatoni and penne (tube-shaped pasta) -- Good with chunky and cream sauces.

When you perfect your pasta cooking skills, the possibilities of many great meals are endless. Pasta stands the test of time and is one food that is versatile, economical and elegant.

Try these pasta recipes

Broccoli rabe and orecchiette
Curly fusilli pasta with sweet sausage
Farfalle pasta with baby spinach and roasted red peppers
Spinach and mushroom lasagna with béchamel sauce
Bow tie pasta salad

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