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Six Pasta Rules


Let's have a review of pasta rules, shall we?  I still hear far too many people ask whether they should rinse their cooked pasta or not.  Really?  Haven't we settled this long ago?  I guess some myths still remain. So let's just touch on some helpful rules of cooking pasta:


Six Rules of Pasta

1.  Weigh your pasta.  Over the years, I got tired of making way too much pasta or trying to eyeball how much to cook.  Now, I just weigh my pasta.  It's accurate and easy.  Get yourself a nice little scale - you will use it for a hundred tasks in the kitchen - and weigh your pasta.  Determine how much pasta you eat for a main dish or a side dish.  We usually eat 2 ounces each as a main dish.  It's so much better to just weigh it and know exactly how much you are cooking. 

to weigh spaghetti, I use a corn-on-the-cob holder

2.  Salt your water.  In Italy, they salt the water for pasta heavily - they say it should taste like the ocean.  Use kosher salt or even better, sea salt.  The pasta will absorb this seasoning in a way that is not the same as adding salt after it's cooked. And it's not necessary to add any oil into the water. 


3.  Be wary of pasta package directions - the cooking times are usually too long for al dente pasta.  For instance, Barilla thin spaghetti's directions say to cook it for 6 minutes.  I cook mine exactly 4 minutes. 

4.  Don't pour out your pasta water.  This is the way most Americans cook their pasta - they carry the pot over to the sink and dump it all out in a colander and let all that great pasta water go down the drain.  The pasta water actually contains a lot of starch and it will help the pasta cling to the sauce.  Do not rinse your pasta! Pasta water also helps if your pasta is sticking together - a couple of tablespoons of pasta water and the pasta magically separates itself.  The only time I drain my pasta is when I don't want the any water to dilute a sauce like a thick bolognese sauce. Otherwise, most sauces for pasta I make on the stove right beside the pasta pot and use the pasta water as part of the sauce.

5.  Don't oversauce your pasta.  This is a pet peeve of mine when I go out to eat and order pasta - a lot of places put way too much sauce on the pasta.  The sauce should just coat the pasta, not drown it. 

6.   Let the sauce and pasta cook together for a couple of minutes. When your pasta has almost finished cooking, toss it in the skillet first with your sauce, let it cook for a minute and allow the sauce to come together with the pasta and then transfer it to the serving dish.  I like to set my skillet or pot that has my sauce right up against the pasta pot on the stove. Then I just take tongs or a handle strainer and lift the pasta out and place it right into my skillet - I like the pasta water that is still clinging to the pasta to go right into the pot, as I do in this pasta recipe.  The pasta water can thin out a too thick sauce.  Your pasta should be thoroughly and completely coated with the sauce before you serve it - don't serve a pile of pasta with a ladeful of sauce just sitting on top.


These are the most important rules of cooking pasta that I think you should keep in mind.  What are your pasta rules? 


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Reader Comments (37)

Always add the pasta to the sauce , not the sauce to the pasta.

September 24, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoan

I do a Haiku of the Week on my blog and this week it's on pasta. Thought you might like it
Strands of dough boiling
Al dente is the end goal
Pasta mush is gross

As you can see my rule is to never, ever over cook pasta!

( I didn't post my blog name because I wasn't sure if it was proper to do so, although I would love to if you o.k. it)

September 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTracy

From The Italian Dish:

Joan: Agree! That's pasta rule #6.

Tracy: Hey - post your blog name. That's fine! Love your haiku!

September 24, 2013 | Registered Commenter[Elaine]

You covered them all! Perfect list and great info...

September 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLaney (Ortensia Blu)

Thanks Elaine,
My blog is Fearless Home Cook ( ) I've only had it about 2 months and it is so fun but, so much work. I really love your blog and it has really inspired me, thank you

September 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTracy

Great post, Elaine! I still see so many people cook and serve pasta incorrectly and it's such a shame!

September 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFlavia

Hi! I am italian and is really rare to eat a well done pasta dish, out of my country.
Is funny to italians, when are abroad, to see some fake italian recipes like "spaghetti alla bolognese" ...this dish does not exist in Italy.
When I went to Cupertino (California) for a month, I saw put ketchup on pasta!!! This ruined my meal. There are many legends on italian cousine: we do not use so many aromatic herbs (especially into bolognase sauce: no herbs!), so much garlic, we use oreganon only on pizza. I use to salt boiling water for pasta, about a table spoon for 3 lites of water.

This post is really interesting. I want to encourage you to go on like this.
Apologize me, please, for my bad english.

Bye, Violetta.

September 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVioletta

One note to add to rule no. 2: Always bring your pasta water to a full rolling boil first before adding the salt. Salt water has a higher boiling temperature than unsalted water so it takes longer to boil. Despite that, when you add salt to boiling water, it continues to boil, so there's no worry that it will stop the boiling process. This helps not only the book in terms of shorter waiting times, but saves energy, too!

September 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSiobhan

Wonderful post Elaine and thanks for the idea of weighing the pasta!

Violetta: I want to tell you how much your comment made me smile. Never apologize for what you've written. The message was clear and concise. And, you're right...Elaine's blog is always right on! She would make my Sicilian grandmother proud!

September 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVickie

Buongiorno, Violetta. I live in Cupertino and have never ever seen anyone put catsup on pasta. Posting this just so you will know it's not typical here! :-)

September 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCabet

I completely agree with all five of these points. Pasta seems like it should be an easy to cook item, but I hate overcooked pasta or tasteless pasta!

September 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

Hi Elaine,
Thank you for the wonderful tips, always useful. I have to take out my scale and weigh the pasta before cooking. Yes, I always cook too little and had too much sauce and my husband would cook too much pasta and not enough sauce. Then he grate too much cheese on his red sauce and I don't and we argue about it. I don't go out to eat any kind of pasta anymore, they are okay but not great, I like my own sauce better, oven dried field Roma tomatoes, salt & pepper & herbs de Provence. I read what Violetta says, but I was thinking of Babette's Feast, and remembering how the old people of that village smile with twinkles in their eyes when they had the bread soup. I do like the aroma of herbs, so, I am not Italian, so what do I know :)

September 24, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterfaye

Oh yes, I used to live in Los Angeles, California in the early 60s, in the Fairfax district many times I saw friends place catsup on spaghetti and meatballs, this wasn't due to laziness but because of their penchant for sweet and sour flavors brought over from Eastern Europe. Sometimes the catsup sauce was basic (just catsup, nothing else), sometimes gussied up with other ingredients, usually vegetables. If done with the proverbial gourmet eye sometimes some fine results can happen.

September 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGian Banchero

I learned to cook in self defense of a great woman who was the only one I ever met who could burn water,my mother, and thus cooked my first turkey at 5 yrs of age. That was when Nonna, a neighbor, took me under her wing and taught me to prep , garden , and cook. Perhaps her cooking was not authentic, I have no way to know, However she did use aromatics in her cooking...I was responesibile for the garden and knowing when in the day or lunar cycle, to cut them. Her children opened several successful restaurants in my home town and still have them ,last I checked.
I am opening my own blog soon and it will have begun with the Love, thrift and wisdom I was taught by an Italian grandmother many years ago.
This blog is authentic, creative, and my favorite...hope to meet the creator of this someday.

September 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWes

My goodness, people still rinse their pasta? Here in Greece people can be heavy handed on the oil, and many still add it either to the water or to the drained pasta. I will add oil or butter to cooked pasta only if I am planning to use it later. Especially when making cold macaroni salads. Thanks for a great post!

September 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEleni @ On Top Of Spaghetti

I'm pretty good at all the rules except the last one. I'll work on it. Great post.

September 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara @ Barbara Bakes

Hi Elaine,
It's clear you have Italian roots...This is absolutely the way to prepare a good pasta dish! Great post and very helpful for those who didn't know how to prepare a real Italian pasta dish :D

September 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLetizia

I've tried both not draining the pasta and adding a ladle full of the water to my sauce and I just don't like it. Even if the sauce is really thick I just don't like the way the pasta water dilutes the flavors.
I know it's not "correct" but I eat what I like!

September 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRosie

Using a corn cob dish to weigh spaghetti - GENIUS! I have been hanging on to an old, cracked plastic vessel that came with a long-gone Weight Watchers scale because it was the only thing I had with a spout-like edge that the spaghetti could nestle in. Thanks to you I can toss it. Finally!

Rules I'd add to your stellar list: matching pasta shapes and sauces (although I am not a total stickler about this.) For instance, don't pair bolognese with angel hair.

Never, ever cut pasta with a knife and fork!

Never throw the pasta in until everything else is ready to serve. Make sure everybody has washed their hands and is ready to sit down. Pasta waits for no one!

September 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNina

From The Italian Dish:

Nina: thanks for the additional tips - they are all right on!

September 28, 2013 | Registered Commenter[Elaine]

I find it hard to reconcile the "make the water a salty as the sea" and "save the water and put it in the sauce." It's to easy to over salt your sauce.

September 30, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdarren

Excellent post Darren, however as i do not salt my sauce and add only enough pasta water to thin a little and add some starch to make it stick better I've not had that problem. Perhaps a rule of thumb percentage might be in order....also keep in mind that your percentage of sauce to pasta may be greater than mine, and increase the "salt per bite". My real problem with salting pasta water is what to do with it afterwards. on a septic tank rules out the sink and what plants in my yard can tolerate a brine bath ?

September 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWes

I was remiss by not pointing out my "solution".
I reuse my brine to prepare my "proteins " to brine my poultry or other solid [not ground] meats...I even poach fish and seafood with added herbs in it .
Also for bean soaking, steaming vegetables or most any where I would add water to a recipe, just always taste as you proceed.
By the time that I'm done with my weekly pasta water it is ready to sit in the sun , evaporate to a crust which I can deal with.I normally do most of my prep on the weekend and have had no food safety issues with this approach.
I'm sure Elaine will have other input, but this have been successful for me.

September 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWes

Please, you must be joking!!! 4 minutes for thin spaghetti barilla??? I EAT BARILLA SINCE I WAS BORN AND 4 MINUTES IS NOT AL DENTE, IS SIMPLY RAW!!!
@Violetta, I think you don't know what's Bolognese sauce if you think there are no herbs inside! How about bay leaves? Cloves?
Oh my god!!!

October 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGiordo83

From The Italian Dish:

Giordo: Maybe you are thinking of the regular spaghetti, but the thin spaghetti I cook exactly 4 minutes. Yes. And it is not raw at all.

October 3, 2013 | Registered Commenter[Elaine]

To the Greek person,"my goodness" Italian-American who grew up with many Greeks here in California I am very familiar with an abundant use of olive oil which I enjoy very much probably owing to the fact that my Piemontese grandmother born in 1889 cooked in the ancient Italian style of using much olive oil as the ancients did, olive oil during Nonna's youth was looked upon as an needed nutritional asset to the diet of the poor. A reason why I like the Greek kitchen so much is because many of the dishes are extremely similar to my Sicilian mother's repertoire, especially with the use of lemon. As for the American penchant for ketchup on pasta, while living in the Jewish Fairfax of Los Angeles I encountered ketchup pasta several times, this wasn't due to a lack of knowledge about true pasta sauce but because of the eastern European enjoyment of sweet and sour flavors, no big sin in doing so. In In the homes in Italy I've seen no set rules when it comes to saucing, though a minimum of salsa is the general rule. One rule I just can't abide by is using stemmed glasses for wine, with my family both in Italy and in the States all use small 4 - 5 ounce glasses or sometimes 16 ounce tumblers. Also I've seen folks on both sides of the Atlantic dilute rough wines with 7-up ("instant lambrusco"), in Italy the "7-Up" is Gassosa(sp?).

October 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGian Banchero

@ Giordo83 - First of all drink a big jug of chamomile tea and keep calm.
Are you italian? Because I am, from Bologna, the place where was invented that sauce. I want to assure you that in the original recipe there is no trace of bay leaves or cloves.
I used one garlic clove, because I like it, but is a customization.
In Italy we consider Barilla pasta, a medium quality, not high grade. We have better kinds, like De Cecco, Garofalo, Verrigni.
Barilla is only super known by commercials.

The Bolognese sauce, out of Bologna is different from family to family, and this is normal.
But in the original, no aromatic herbs. If you like to add other aromas, do it, but do not raise your voice, like the Bolognese sauce messiah.

October 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVioletta

For those who read the Italian language, here a link of Italian Academy of Cuisine, cultural institution of the Italian Republic: how to make real italian Bolognese sauce (we call it Rag├╣), without aromatic herbs.

October 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVioletta

I am new to the world of Culinary & I would like to thank everyone here for the insight you have given on how to cook great pasta & improve upon it. Rule# 4 is brilliant I never thought about actually using the pasta water.

October 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKevDaCook

Some fantastic tips here, both in the article and in the messages. I am a bit confused by points 5 and 6 though as they seem to contradict each other i.e. pasta should not be drenched in sauce versus the next point which suggests putting the pasta into the pot of sauce which would surely drench it.

October 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLynne

Hello everyone!

Great blog and I truly enjoyed the article. I am Italian-American and had the great advantage of growing up with a fine appreciation of real Italian cooking. My parents were very particular about our truly understanding our heritage (despite my first name) and that includes food rules. Everything you wrote I just took for granted with the exception of weighing the pasta. I grew up with 3 sibling and always many family and friends to enjoy our meals so excess food just didn't seem possible.

Violetta, I agree with you on your definition of Bolognese sauce. That is exactly as I know the recipe, even though my family hails from the south. I think some may have misunderstood the herb v. no herb idea. There are surely sauces that use parsley, sage or basil, but the real testament to a good cook is using the best quality of ingredients so that they can truly be tasted and enjoyed, too much of anything distracts from the enjoyment of the star of the dish being served. I am often shocked at how often my compatriots add dried basil (awful!) or oregano to everything thinking it makes it "Italian." And I assure you ketchup is something for hamburgers or french fries ONLY in our family. But like many things that make their way into America, they become mixed up, jumbled up and something completely new. It's a shame because the freshness, the wonderfully flavored and the simple cuisine that is Italian can be so much more than what is served in pizzerie!

Buona domenica!

October 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

I and it is new to the world of cooking that I would like to thank everyone here for the insight you provide information on how you can improve the cooking and it a great pasta. Rule # 4 is a great never thought about how I use the water of pasta actually.

October 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEitan Herman

A great discussion---just like AMERICA, A "melange" of ideas that make the conversation wonderfully enlightening, entertaining, & informed.

Thank you EVERYONE! I now want to learn to make my very own pasta!

November 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara Macey

When the Italians occupied Ethiopia, they brought their cuisine with them.
When they left, they left behind a wonderful heritage of pastry, breads, and "pasta Bolognese"
Which is the salvation of many tourists who tire of the constant Ethiopian space blend.
It is available in nearly every restaurant in most Ethiopian cities, and has adopted some of the
Deliciousness of the local chefs!

November 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBob

I always say, "Never let the pasta wait for the sauce"

May 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Ambrosino

Ciao, I originally come from a multicultural northern African country before migrating to Australia when I was only 4 years of age....I'm now a Nonna myself and being part Italian and part Greek my cuisine is mostly meditteranean, however I enjoy Many other cuisines. When I prepare my own pasta with ragu or bolognese sauce I use my own bottled tomatoe sauce which had already been seasoned with fresh basil and salt.......I do prepare a "soffritto" with garlic and olive oil before good quality meat (ground or pieces) before adding my already seasoned tomatoe sauce and let simmer...voila, however in saying that what are the restrictions from adding oregano, red wine and sugar, salt/ freshly ground black pepper. Have never had any complaints from my large family or friends....mmmm, I can smell the aroma now....yummy! Ps....pasta Always al dente ! Buon appetito!

July 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterToni

This is great for someone like me who is new to cooking. Thanks for the tips!

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