Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
I’ll never forget the first time I watched my husband boil pasta. He filled a stock pot with just a couple cups of water, set it on the stove, turned the fire on, and immediately dumped an entire box of dried spaghetti right into the still-cold water. Then he set a timer and walked away, leaving his pasta to boil in a half-submerged clump. He didn’t stir it once! It was both incredible and kind of horrifying to witness.
I’m no pasta perfectionist, but certain rookie mistakes aren’t just unusual – they can affect the final outcome of your dish. Small missteps or cooking tweaks can leave you with less flavor, improperly cooked noodles and even runny, unappealing sauce.
If you’re committing any of the following pasta crimes, it’s time to shape up. Find out how to correct common errors and make every saucy, noodle-based dish even better than before.
Not salting your pasta water
You’ve heard it a million times: You have to salt your pasta water! If you’re boiling your pasta in unsalted water, it might seem like no big deal. But failing to add salt at the very first stage of cooking can knee cap the amount of flavor in your finished dish.
It might seem silly to season the water, but adding salt seasons both the water and the pasta itself. You’re going to use your pasta water later (we’ll dive into that in a second), and salt also helps prevent your noodles from getting slimy or extra starchy. Plus, incorporating salt now helps enhance the flavor as you add sauce, veggies and other ingredients later on.
Of course, it’s also easy to make another salty pasta mistake – you might be overdoing it and adding too much salt to your water. If you’re dumping heaping spoonfuls into your pot, you’ve likely noticed that every one of your pasta recipes is too salty.
You want to strike a balance between no salt and a ton of salt. Two to three tablespoons is a good rule of thumb when you’re making a whole box (about 1 pound) of dried pasta. And you always want to add the salt to the water before you add the pasta itself.
Putting pasta in cold water, then boiling
If your pasta-making methods resemble my husband’s, you probably assume that adding your pasta into your pot full of water and boiling the two together is a time-saving hack. However, you’re really just making yourself spend more time standing over the stove.
When you add pasta to cold water and attempt to bring both to a boil together, you’re dramatically increasing the cooking time of your noodles. Remember, your dried pasta needs about 7 to 8 minutes to cook once your water is boiling. If you add it beforehand, it’ll take longer for the water to boil and you’ll still have to wait for the pasta to reach the perfect al dente texture.
According to a series of tests conducted by Serious Eats, you likely won’t notice any change in taste if you’re making this pasta mistake. However, if you’re working with fresh pasta instead of dried or are boiling long, thin noodles (like spaghetti or fettuccine), it can ruin the texture. Starting these types of pasta in cold water can lead to mushy, sticky or disintegrating noodles.
Just wait a few minutes until your water starts to boil, and you’ll be certain your noodles are cooking for the right length of time and achieving the right consistency.
Rinsing your pasta once it’s cooked
If there’s one seriously grave crime against pasta being committed in home kitchens, it’s rinsing pasta. And if you’ve ever run your cooked noodles under the faucet after they’re finished boiling, you’re completely ruining your final dishes.
When you rinse pasta off in the sink, you’re literally washing away all of the starch and seasoning (or salt) that developed as it boiled. Starch is critical because it helps your sauce thicken and stick to noodles, and salt is essential for enhancing flavor. So, you’re basically taking all of the hard work that happened on the stove and sending it down your drain.
After you scoop your pasta into a colander, leave it alone! You can give the colander a little shake to get rid of excess water if you’d like, but otherwise it doesn’t need anything else.
Throwing out all of your pasta water
You’ll notice I didn’t say you should flip your pot over and dump your boiled pasta into a colander when it’s ready to drain. That’s because pouring both your pasta and the water it was cooked in over a colander is a terrible waste – a waste of perfectly salty and starchy water, that is. It’s also an all-too-common major pasta mistake.
You want to reserve a small amount of pasta water, as you’ll likely need to use it in your sauce. Whether you’re making your own sauce from scratch or employing the help of your favorite clean jarred sauce, the starch and salt in your leftover pasta water can help thicken the sauce, enhance its flavor and impart a smoother consistency. It can, for some sauces and recipes, also help the sauce bind to the noodles.
So, the best way to make sure you aren’t throwing any valuable pasta water down the drain is to scoop your pasta out of the water and place it in your colander. Or, if you really want to stick with the dump-it-in-the-sink method, scoop a couple of cups of water out of your pot before you drain the pasta.
Not pairing your pasta shape with the right sauce
If you’ve ever been frustrated by chunky, thick sauces that slide right off your pasta noodles or thin sauces that just don’t seem to completely cover certain kinds of noodle, you’re probably pairing your sauces and pasta shapes incorrectly. That’s right: Certain sauces are meant to be used with certain types of pasta.
While the shape of your pasta isn’t going to change the final taste of your dish, it can alter how well the sauce, veggies, and other ingredients “stick” to the noodles. Long, thin noodles aren’t sturdy enough to carry heavy sauces or chunky sauces. Noodles with plenty of crevices and twists, like fusilli and orecchiette, can hang onto these types better.
Here’s a quick guide to pairing the perfect pasta with the right consistency and type of sauce:
- Noodles with tubes, twists or crevices are best for meat sauces, chunky sauces and any sauces with chopped ingredients
- Long, thin noodles are best for light sauces and oil-based sauces
- Long, wide noodles are best for creamy sauces
While there’s no hard and fast rule to pairing a sauce with a pasta shape, these general guidelines can help you make a decision when you aren’t sure what goes with the pasta you’re cooking.
Pouring room-temperature sauce over cooked pasta
If you’ve ever opened a jar of pasta sauce and poured it right over your pasta, then brought it to the table, I’ve got some bad news. You’re serving slightly undercooked pasta – and your pasta probably isn’t giving you much flavor.
Pouring sauce over pasta and serving immediately is a misstep because you’re skipping an important step: You aren’t cooking your pasta in the sauce. The whole reason you’re supposed to boil your pasta until it’s al dente is because you’re meant to finish it in the sauce. Giving your pasta a few more minutes to soak up the sauce (heated sauce, mind you) will cook it more fully and bring all of the ingredients together for a flavorful final product.
While your pasta boils, you want to heat up your sauce. Once you’ve taken the noodles out of the water, add them to the sauce and keep cooking. You just need about three to six more minutes, depending on the sauce’s thickness and how al dente (or not-so-al-dente) your pasta is. The noodles will absorb the sauce and its flavors, and you’ll be able to thoroughly mix together all of the different components of your meal. And, if needed, you can add in a little of that pasta water to thicken or smooth out the sauce to your liking.
Now that you’ve learned how to correct common pasta mistakes, try out these pasta recipes and put your skills into practice: