How to Know When Pasta Is Done

I threw a piece of pasta against the wall one time to see if it would stick, thinking that was how to know if pasta is done! Yep, I fully admit that. Luckily, those were my high school days, not this afternoon. It turns out that is just how to know if pasta is sticky. To be clear, sticky pasta and tasty, ready-to-eat al dente pasta are not the same thing. So how do you know when pasta is ready and done perfectly? 

When cooking pasta, the goal is to avoid mushy pasta, or pasta that isn't done enough. I'd like to share what I've learned about cooking pasta. Here are some tips that should help you cook the perfect pasta. Don’t worry, it isn’t too difficult to learn, even if you're just striking out on your own and the kitchen is now yours. 

How to know when pasta is done?

Pasta is done when it is al dente. But the real question is “what does al dente mean?

al dente[al den-tey, -tee; Italian ahl den-te]

adjective, adverb

(especially of pasta) cooked so as not to be too soft; firm to the

bite: spaghetti al dente.

Al dente is an Italian phrase that means “to the tooth,” which is what they call perfectly cooked pasta. To the layman like me, this means that when I bite into the pasta I have to actually bite down a bit to get all the way through it. Think of it like this, ABCs & 123s in a can are usually not what I would consider to be al dente, and are cooked all the way through because they are meant to be a soft, easily eaten food.

There is a delicate balance between too much bite and just the right amount of bite. Do keep in mind that this “feel” is also a bit subjective. When you bite down on the cooked pasta it should keep a firm texture but still be flexible.

Make sure that you have a pasta spoon. They really do help!

The timing of cooking pasta

Pasta seems like something that you can set and forget but we actually don’t recommend that. To get the pasta al dente like you really love it, stick close to that boiling pot and pay close attention. (This oblong pot by Rachael Ray is perfect for cooking long pasta!) The directions on the box are a good place to start, but it all depends on how high the heat is under your pot. 

Each package of pasta should come with instructions for how to cook it and for how long to cook the pasta. Follow those instructions with one exception. Set a timer for 2 minutes sooner than they say it should be finished. Believe it or not, Alexa (Amazon's AI) makes a great hands-free timer, among other things. We easily use her for two and three timers at once when cooking dinner and we highly recommend the Echo Dot.

These are a magical 2 minutes in the life of cooked pasta. When the timer goes off carefully take one piece of pasta from the boiling water. Blow on it to cool it and then take a bite. If it is mildly chewy, it is time to drain it. It shouldn’t stick to your teeth. A lot of us were raised "testing the pasta" with our moms in the kitchen. 

FAQ about cooking pasta

How long do you cook pasta for?

The best way to find the answer to this question is to read the instructions on the packaging. However, if you don’t have these instructions, pasta is generally cooked for between 7 -12 minutes. Dense pasta like rigatoni, penne, manicotti and such cook longer than spaghetti, elbow macaroni, or egg noodles.

Should I add salt to pasta water?

Yes. Not only does this speed cooking, it adds flavor to the pasta itself. 

Should I add oil to pasta water?

Not, not usually, unless your noodles are sticking together so much you can't get them apart at all and they aren't cooking properly. Add 2 tablespoons of cooking oil to the water, but be prepared for your sauce to not adhere to the noodles very well. It happens. It's better to have an evenly cooked batch of pasta than a hard ball of partially cooked noodles.

How to make kraft macaroni and cheese 

If you've been wondering how to make kraft macaroni and cheese or how to make kraft macaroni and cheese taste better, we have some ideas. We've noticed that "blue box" mac n' cheese, for example, is a consistent 7 minutes on a medium-high boil. It overcooks quickly, so use a slotted spoon and cool a piece to taste-test before you wait too long past 7 minutes cook time. It's better to under-boil this slightly, because you can always make the mac n cheese and simmer on low with the milk to continue cooking to reach the perfect al dente stage.

How to make kraft macaroni and cheese without milk

- No milk in the house? No problem. Just use an extra tablespoon of butter or margarine with the cheese packet and an extra teaspoon of water.

- No butter or margarine in the house? Use a tablespoon of olive or vegetable oil with the milk and cheese packet. Experiment with half-and-half or heavy cream, even buttermilk, sour cream, or plain yogurt will give the box mac n cheese a bit of richness.

How to make kraft macaroni and cheese taste better

- Don't overcook it. It's definitely better to under-boil, then leave it to simmer in the cheese sauce to finish cooking if needed. Also, consider one or two of these tips:

- Add 1/4 c. bagged, shredded taco cheese

- Add 1/3 c. colby or cheddar cheese, pre-shredded or finely chopped

- Add 1/4 c. shaker parmesan cheese or shaved/shredded parmesan or adagio

- Add a dash of Worcestershire or 1/2 t. prepared yellow mustard to the hot mac.

- Toss a fistful of crushed croutons or breadcrumbs on top of the hot mac n cheese.

What happens if you cook pasta for too long?

If you cook pasta for too long it will become mushy and soggy and fall apart easily. If you realize that you may have overcooked your pasta or you are on the verge of doing so, drain the pasta immediately. Then rinse the pasta with cold water and even consider quickly putting them in a bowl of ice water. This will stop the cooking process.

Should you rinse cooked pasta?

If you have nice al dente pasta, you shouldn't rinse it.  If you do you will wash away the starchiness. This starch on the pasta helps the sauce adhere to the pasta. Gluten free pasta, in particular the kinds made with a high ratio of corn, can fall apart quickly in a rinse. Only get cooked pasta wet when you are going to stop the cooking process to avoid overcooking it.

A perfectly cooked pasta can really make a dish stand out. It can be challenging to keep a close eye on the pasta when there is a lot happening in a kitchen at once. However, it really is worth setting those timers and responding promptly.

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