Boiling Water for Beginners (and other pasta cooking tips)

I remember when the hubs and I first got married and realizing I was going to have to cook dinner every day. I watched my mom cook plenty of times, and probably helped her a bunch too – but I definitely did not do enough to be solely responsible for my own and my husband’s meals every night.  (How did I get through college?? I must’ve eaten more dorm & fast food than I thought.)

There I was, a newly blushing bride, utterly uncomfortable in my own kitchen. The few things I did feel comfortable making were frozen pizza, sandwiches, French toast, and I figured I could handle Mac N Cheese or maybe spaghetti (not with homemade sauce, the way my mom made it; but the store-bought stuff I could surely handle).

I remember filling the pot with water and wondering if it was too much or not enough. Should I keep the lid off or put it on? Shouldn’t I put salt in the water or something? I stared at that pot of water waiting for something to happen. I was so scared of messing up that I kept messing with the heat levels. After what seemed like forever, tiny little bubbles appeared on the bottom surface of the pan. Is this it?  I remember thinking. Should I put the macaroni in now? I just didn’t know.

So I called my mom.
You can imagine how that went. Thankfully my mom is an incredibly patient lady!

So to spare a newbie an embarrassing phone call, I figured I’d go back to basics and share a few tips on boiling water and cooking pasta.

To Boil Water:
1. Start by choosing a pot based on the quantity and type of pasta you’re making. Spaghetti or fettucine calls for a large stock pot. Smaller amounts of shape pasta (rotini, macaroni, bow tie, shells, etc) can be cooked in a medium size pot.

2. Now fill that pot with hot water. The hotter the water, the faster it will boil. (If you don’t believe me, you can ask the hubs who was CERTAIN cold water would boil faster. So we did a friendly little experiment and I proved him wrong 🙂 I usually fill my pot to three quarters full. You definitely want enough that when you put the pasta in, all of it is covered completely under water, with an inch or so of water above it.
If you put too little water, the pasta might soak it up and you will end up with dry sticky pasta. You do not want to ‘crowd’ your pasta as it will prevent it from cooking properly.
I don’t believe there is any such thing as too much water – as long as you’re not overflowing your pot. Remember: when you add the pasta, the water level will rise also. 

3. Put 3-4 shakes of table salt from your salt shaker in the water (or, 2 pinches of Kosher salt). The salt not only will flavor the pasta, but there’s a wive’s tale out there that says it helps your water boil faster. Cover pot with a lid (clear lids are preferable so you can see what’s going on in there) and set heat to medium. If you’re brave and impatient you can set it to medium high or even high – but don’t you dare leave it alone!

I can’t give you a time on how long this will take, because there are many factors – how hot your water is; if you have electric or gas; how big your pot and how much water is in there.

First, though, you will notice small clear bubbles forming on the bottom of your pan. This will happen right before the boil. It will probably only be another minute or two (depending on your heat level) to develop into a full boil, which is defined by large clear bubbles rising to the top of the water.

4. This is the time to add your pasta! Measure if your recipe calls for it. You will get better at knowing how much you need for yourself/family/recipes with time. Immediately after you add the pasta, give it a stir with a wooden spoon to prevent sticking. You will have to stir about 2-3 times more before it is time to drain the water.
Do not replace the lid! It will trap the heat and your pot will boil over – creating a nasty mess for you to clean up.

Here is a picture of a ‘rolling boil’:

Usually after you put your pasta into the boiling water, you will see this white filmy looking layer on top. This is caused by the pasta releasing its starches.
Most of the time I leave my water at a medium-heat setting. This allows the pasta to have a big enough boil to cook without overflowing your pot or overcooking your pasta.

5. Cooking times: You can pretty much ALWAYS find the cooking times for your pasta on the box or package it came in. Some guidelines:
*Fresh pasta (refrigerated or homemade) takes the least amount of time to cook – usually only 2-4 minutes.
*Semolina pasta (white pasta) can vary depending on thickness. Angel hair (capellini) takes less than Spaghetti, for example. These usually take anywhere from 6-9 minutes.
*Whole Wheat pasta takes the longest – usually around 10 minutes.

When time is up, drain the pasta by pouring the entire contents of the pot into a colander in the sink. (Or, if you have cool pasta pots like I do, which have holes on the lids, you can drain directly from the pot without a colander. Just be sure to keep a firm grip on the lid and use a potholder to prevent burning.)

Here’s another little trick. If you want your pasta to soak up the flavors of the sauce it is in (you do!), cook it a few minutes less than what it says on the box. Drain early, and add to the sauce. Let it cook for the remainder of the time in the pasta sauce, stirring occasionally.
Regardless if you add sauce after letting cook the entire recommended time, or if you cook it awhile IN the sauce, be sure to add sauce immediately after draining to prevent it from turning into one big pot shaped mold. 😉

A few notes:
Boxed pastas generally hold their shape better than fresh. It is much more difficult to overcook and make them mushy. (Unfortunately I think it has to do with preservatives.)
Also, many times those boxes include a recipe for an accompanying sauce. Take a look next time you’re at the store, and decide if it’s something that looks easy enough for you to make. They are usually pretty basic, but good, recipes.

Trouble shooting:
*I cooked my pasta for the recommended amount of time, but it still came out hard and chewy. You probably got scared of the boil and reduced your heat too low, and the pasta was unable to cook enough. Maybe you turned it down because you had to walk away for a minute (that was smart) but forgot to turn it back up (not so smart). Leave it at a moderate boil (medium heat should do it) and stick nearby next time, until you get the hang of how long it takes.

*My pasta is really soggy and sticking together. Most likely you either forgot to stir your pasta while it was boiling, or you let it cook too long. This can also happen if you leave it alone too long after draining and don’t add a sauce immediately. If your sauce isn’t ready yet, add a few drizzles of olive oil and stir just to keep it from sticking.

So there it is. Hopefully I have spared a few newbies some headache and embarrassment!

And even if I didn’t, the best way to learn how to cook (and in life!) is through your mistakes. Try, Fail, Adjust!

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