An innocent error can lead to a disappointing dish. We’re staging an intervention: this quick fix will work wonders.
Cooking pasta with the just-right al dente texture—meaning firm-yet-tender without a hint of mushiness—takes technique. Practice makes perfect, but this could mean a lifetime of overcooked ziti before you nail it like nonna could.
In hopes of speeding things up, we’re here to share the one easily avoidable (yet extremely common) mistake many home cooks make with pasta: boiling your noodles in a pot that’s too small.
Why it’s bad
For starters, if you use long noodles, they might not fit unless you break them first. But regardless of the pasta’s shape or size, it will end up sticky and gummy when cooked in an undersized pot.
“When you add pasta to a small amount of water, it lowers the temperature of the water substantially more than if you added it to a large amount of water, so the water will take longer to return to a boil. In the meantime, the pasta will sit at the bottom of the pot and start to clump up and become mushy unless you are vigilant about stirring,” says chef Michael Symon, the owner of five restaurants in Cleveland and an Iron Chef on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America. Also, your ratio of pasta starch to water will be too high: another cause of sticking.
Do this instead
Unless you’re cooking a single serving of pasta (in which case you can get away with a smaller pot), do as Italian grandmothers do: Fill a large 5- or 6-quart pot with water and let it come to a rapid boil. Then add 2 tablespoons of salt (and don’t be shy—professional chefs say pasta water should taste as salty as the sea). Finally, add your pasta and stir it occasionally until it’s al dente.