When we’re in need of a 15-minute dinner and don’t have much to work with, pasta is a great go-to. Just make sure to always have a box or two of pasta in your pantry and some vegetables, cheese and (if you want) meat in your fridge. And while the idea of a kitchen-sink pasta dinner using whatever you have around isn’t exactly novel, it’s recently come to our attention that not everybody understands just how simple and delicious this kind of recipe-less dinner can be.
If you’ve never quite mastered how to make a delicious pasta dinner without a recipe, the steps below will help you turn whatever ingredients you have on hand into a legit meal.
Plan to cook 3 ounces of dry pasta per person
A standard serving of dry pasta is 2 ounces, but you don’t need to follow standard serving sizes — we think 3 ounces per person is a better serving size, and if you’re really hungry, cook more.
Boil your pasta in very salty water
This should go without saying, but the first step to a great pasta dinner is properly cooked pasta. Fill a large pot with enough water that your pasta will be covered by at least 5 inches. Add enough salt that it tastes like seawater, which will give your pasta more flavor. Bring that to a boil before you add your pasta, then cook the pasta for the minimum amount of time suggested on the package directions for an al dente texture (so, if the box says to boil it for seven to nine minutes, go with seven).
Reserve at least a cup of pasta water when draining, but don’t rinse it
Once your pasta is al dente, drain it in a colander or mesh strainer, setting aside some of the hot pasta water in a bowl or Pyrex container for later. The water is seasoned with salt and has some starch in it from the pasta, so it’s great for making sauces or just adding a little flavor to your finished dish.
Don’t rinse your pasta after you drain it. You want to keep as much seasoning and starchy coating as possible, and you also don’t want to cool the pasta down.
If you have garlic or onion around, sauté it in olive oil or butter
No matter the ingredients you’re using or the dish you’re trying to make, aromatic vegetables like garlic, onion, celery and carrots will add flavor. Two cloves of garlic and/or two tablespoons of other chopped aromatic vegetables per 3 ounces of dry pasta is the perfect amount, but you can use more or less to taste.
Start by chopping whatever aromatics you have into small pieces, then sautéing them in a large skillet over medium heat in enough olive oil or butter to coat the bottom of the skillet. Season them with salt, pepper and any other spice you have around and want to add to your pasta. This brings out the flavor of both the vegetables and the spices.
Add any other ingredients that need to be cooked
As a rule, we think pasta dishes should be at least two-thirds pasta and one-third other ingredients, but you can adjust the amounts to your taste. Keep this in mind as you’re deciding which ingredients to add and how much.
If you’re adding other vegetables, meat or fish to your pasta, cut them into bite-size pieces and toss them into your skillet. Cutting everything roughly the same size will help it all cook at a similar rate so you don’t end up with some things overcooked and others undercooked.
Cook, stirring occasionally, until your ingredients are cooked through. If things start to burn or stick to the pan before they’re cooked, put that reserved pasta water to use. Add the pasta water a spoonful at a time to your skillet to steam the ingredients a little bit and help them cook more quickly. Don’t add too much water, though, because you want all of it to evaporate.
Add leafy greens & cooked ingredients
If you’re adding already cooked ingredients to your pasta — like leftover cooked meat or veggies — it’s a good idea to cut these into bite-size pieces too. Add them to the skillet along with another spoonful of pasta water, and cook them just long enough to heat everything through.
It’s also a good idea to hold off on adding leafy greens until now since they’re delicate and only need to cook for about a minute to wilt.
Add sauce if you’re using any
No matter what type of sauce you plan to use, don’t add it to the skillet until all your ingredients are cooked. If you’re adding tomato sauce, pour in about a half-cup per every 3 ounces of dry pasta you cooked (but haven’t added to the skillet yet!) and cook it just until it’s heated through.
If you want a simple creamy cheese sauce instead, add two tablespoons of cream (or milk, if you’re OK with a thinner sauce that isn’t as rich), 1-1/2 ounces of grated cheese and two tablespoons of reserved pasta for every 3 ounces of dry pasta and cook it, stirring until the cheese is melted and the sauce is creamy but not too thick. If it does get too thick, add a little extra pasta water to thin it out.
Add your cooked pasta to the skillet
Since your pasta is already cooked and hot, all you need to do is add it to the skillet and toss it with the other ingredients right before you serve. This way, it won’t overcook, get mushy or fall apart.
TL;DR: Here’s what a 4-person tomato-based pasta dinner might look like:
- 12 ounces dry pasta
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 6 ounces raw chicken thighs, cut in bite-size pieces
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
- 2 cups kale, chopped
- 2 cups tomato sauce
- Parmesan cheese (optional)
- Cook the pasta in salted water according to the package directions. Drain, reserving some of the pasta water, and set the pasta aside.
- In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add garlic, season with salt and pepper and cook until soft and starting to brown, about 30 seconds.
- Add chicken thighs and tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring until cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes, adding a spoonful of water if the ingredients start to burn or stick.
- Add the kale and stir just until wilted. Add tomato sauce and cook just until hot. Add the cooked pasta and toss to combine.
- Serve immediately, garnished with a little cheese if desired.
Or here’s a 2-person creamy pasta dinner:
- 6 ounces dry pasta
- 1-1/2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 cup baby spinach
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 3 ounces grated cheddar
- 1/4 cup reserved pasta water
- Cook the pasta in salted water according to the package directions. Drain, reserving some of the pasta water.
- In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the butter. Add the garlic, season with salt and pepper, and cook until soft and starting to brown, about 30 seconds.
- Add baby spinach, season with salt and pepper, and stir just to wilt.
- Add cream, cheddar and pasta water, and cook, stirring until the cheese is melted and a sauce forms.
- Add cooked pasta and toss to combine. Serve immediately.