How to make the tastiest, cheesiest, easiest pasta of your life

Feb 22, 2016 at 1:30 p.m. ET
Image: The Food Lab By J. Kenji López-Alt. Copyright © 2015 By J. Kenji López-Alt. With Permission Of The Publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Pasta is supposedly one of the easiest things in the world to cook, and Lord knows we all love it. But to be honest, sometimes our pasta game could be sharper.

So say goodbye to chewy baked mac and cheese, dried-out reheated pasta and sauces that slide right off the noddles. Former Cooks Illustrated recipe tester and author of The Food Lab J. Kenji López-Alt has some tips for cooking the pasta you're truly craving.

1. Cook your pasta in a small pot.

Use a pot just big enough to keep the pasta covered with water. This increases the amount of starch in your cooking water, which in turn improves the consistency of your sauce and helps it stick to the pasta better.

2. You don't have to bring your water to a boil before you add the pasta.

"I put half the water and the noodles in the pot and heat the rest of the water in an electric kettle as the first half heats up," López-Alt writes. "Add the second half ot the first, and you've got boiled water." Then stir, cover, and wait. (This is for dried pasta only, not fresh, by the way.)

More: The bacon-crusted mac and cheese lava cake you have to see to believe

3. Stir that pasta a few times during the first minute or two of cooking.

You don't have to keep your water at a rolling boil once you add the pasta. And you don't have to keep stirring it the entire time it cooks either. Simply stir right after you add the pasta to rinse off any extra starch and to keep pieces from sticking together.

4. The secret to perfectly creamy macaroni and cheese is cornstarch and evaporated milk.

Starch thickens without adding the taste of flour, and evaporated milk adds proteins that help your sauce stay smooth and creamy. Start by tossing the starch with your grated cheese. After you've finished cooking your macaroni, add all your ingredients directly into the pot, and stir until your sauce comes together.

More: 5 Cooking hacks to the fastest spaghetti dinner ever

5. There is a better way to reheat mac and cheese.

What was once creamy goes crumbly when you try to warm up your leftover pasta. That's because the noodles continue to absorb liquid after they've been cooked. López-Alt adds a few tablespoons of milk and stirs while reheating on the stove. The pasta will be mushier, but isn't that how we like our mac and cheese?

6. Use cottage cheese instead of ricotta in lasagna.

López-Alt finds the ricotta traditionally added to lasagna bland and grainy after cooking. The rest of us find it, well, kind of pricey. Either way, cottage cheese, when given a few quick pulses in the food processor, stays more moist and adds a "great tang" to your finished dish.

More: Slow cooker mac & cheese meets chicken Alfredo for dinner decadence

7. Baked mac and cheese is very different from stovetop mac and cheese.

López-Alt uses a pound of cheese per pound of pasta for his stovetop mac and cheese. But for baked mac and cheese, you need more cheese — about twice as much, in fact, if you want to avoid Disappointing Concrete Brick Baked Mac and Cheese Syndrome. I think you know what I'm talking about. His recipe calls for a pound and a half of cheddar and 8 ounces of American cheese, along with eggs and an evaporated milk-based sauce.

Cooks, you are now armed to begin a whole new pasta game in your world. It's going to get easier. It's going to get tastier. And it's going to be more fun. Sorry we can't help you out with the dishes, though. Those are still a hot mess.

Next: López-Alt's recipe for classic baked mac and cheese

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