n Italy, overcooking pasta is a sin, period. Al dente, which literally means “to the tooth,” as in, “how does it feel to the tooth,” stands for the correct point of cooking hardness. The opposite of al dente isn’t some version of normal; it’s soft or overdone.
Please put aside (mostly Italo-American) images of spaghetti tossed up against kitchen walls to check its “doneness.” Pasta should be firm yet cooked, and never raw in the middle. Gelatinous or mushy is out.
Like children’s modeling dough and ancient paste, pasta is a mixture of water and flour. Mastering the art of al dente paradoxically means breaking the rules, or ignoring the instructions.
A pasta package usually provides a standard cooking time in minutes, usually circled or highlighted. I was long ago taught to pretend the number wasn’t there.
Instead, I was weaned on testing. Minutes before the pasta is “scheduled” as done, Italians fish out a piece and bite it open. At the center is a chalky, uncooked area that snaps when bitten, and is poetically known as the anima, or the soul of the pasta.
Side note: This is the time to ladle out some of the hot starchy water and put it into a mug. Pasta cooking water is the secret ingredient for perfectly creamy sauces and silky condiments.
You then continue cooking the pasta until the anima barely fades. Al dente fundamentalists adjust their calculations based on such factors as water hardness, altitude and even lunar cycles.
Hard durum wheat flour — which is what’s used for packaged dried pasta — usually requires a longer cooking process than fresh, stuffed or homemade pasta, or gnocchi, which are done 30 seconds after they surface in the boiling water pot.
Cooking time for dried, semolina-based pasta may range from 7-to-16 minutes, according to shape, section thickness and size. Farfalle (bow ties) take the longest time; spaghetti and its thinner forms — spaghettini, vermicelli, bavette, or capellini d’angelo (angel hair) — the shortest.
With the golden al dente rule come other essential principles. Here are some common commandments:
— Generously season cooking water with sea salt. Don’t worry, as it won’t all soak into the pasta. Ample salt will yield more savory, flavorful results.
— Water volume is key. Regardless of the amount of pasta, it’s wise to always boil in a large stewpot that can easily contain one-to-two gallons of water (while still remaining half-empty). Too little water means too little space for pasta to boil and circulate freely. Boiling is all about particles moving. Pasta can expand up to three times its original size, so if there’s too little water, it will stick to the sides of the pot and cluster. The disastrous result is a semi raw, half pulpy mass.
— Never break long pasta to fit the pot: it’s un-Italian, and wrong. The enjoyment of “long goods” is in the twirling. Drop spaghetti into boiling salted water the way you would shanghai sticks, and use a fork to bend and lower the crown as it softens and begins to slide down the sides of the pot. Stirring often also helps un-clump the strands.
— Do not rinse drained pasta in the sieve with running water! Do this only when you’re planning to use the pasta in a cold dish, like pasta salad. In that case, rinse the pasta with cold water to stop the cooking process, and drain well. Otherwise, rinsing removes important surface starch that helps sauces cling to the pasta.
— Same goes for the unwanted habit of adding olive oil into the cooking water, or that of adding it immediately after the pasta is drained, tossing it around to coat each piece. Contrary to popular belief, this will not stop it from sticking together. Instead, it will ensure that any sauce or condiment you make inevitably slips off, ruining your recipe. Provided you drain your pasta al dente, none of these un-Italian procedures will be necessary.
— Remember that pasta continues cooking after it’s drained. Stop cooking thin pastas like vermicelli or angel hair just before reaching the al dente stage (sometimes a matter of seconds, not minutes). The same goes for any kind of pasta that needs additional sautéing, known as mantecatura. Cook that pasta 2-to-3 minutes less than usual, then drain and hurl in saucepan to continue the cooking process (in the sauce) over lively heat. That’s why pasta water is set aside, to dilute the sauce
— Does your tap water smell and taste of chlorine? Add a clean rib of celery to the cooking water and let it boil with the pasta. It will absorb unwanted flavors. Drain and discard the celery, and dress the pasta as you would normally.
Anyone caught flinging pasta will be fined, and maybe even banned from the dinner table.