10 Mistakes Almost Everyone Makes When Cooking Pasta
Find out how to cook and serve pasta perfectly every single time.
Pasta is the ultimate comfort food, but knowing the best way to prepare it can get tricky. Salt the water? Rinse the cooked noodles? The controversy abounds, so we turned to some major names in the world of pasta: Chef Carmine Di Giovanni of New York’s Aunt Jake’s, Glenn Rolnick, executive chef at Carmine’s and Taste of Home’s trusty Test Kitchen experts.
Mistake 1: Cooking too much, or too little, pasta
Pasta expands when it’s cooking, so it can be hard to gauge how much you’re actually making. Here’s a tip: Tightly pack long noodles (think spaghetti and angel hair) in the opening of an empty, clean soda bottle to measure one portion. For smaller pastas like macaroni, filling a closed fist with dry noodles will give you about one cup cooked. Take a look at Taste of Home’s handy pasta measuring guide, here.
Mistake 2: Not salting the water
Chef Di Giovanni, Aunt Jake’s: Absolutely yes, you should salt the water.
Chef Rolnick, Carmine’s: Yes, salt it—about one tablespoon of salt per gallon of water.
Salt is added to the cooking water to pump up the pasta’s flavor. If someone at the table is on a low-sodium diet, you can leave it out and let each person salt their own serving. Learn the best way to season your pasta water here.
Mistake 3: Adding a splash of olive oil to the water
Chef Di Giovanni, Aunt Jake’s: Oil is not necessary.
Chef Rolnick, Carmine’s: No oil—it will make the pasta gummy.
Contrary to what you might think, this is a major no-no. Since water and oil don’t mix, olive oil isn’t able to keep pasta from sticking together while it cooks. Instead, it ends up on the pasta after it’s been drained, which prevents your sauce from sticking to pasta, and no one wants that. By the way, here’s how to find the best olive oil while avoiding the fake stuff.
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Mistake 4: Not stirring the pasta
Pasta is easy—just toss it in a pot and forget about it for ten minutes, right? Yes, it’s easy, but it’s not 100 percent hands-off. Without stirring your pasta, the noodles will end up clumping together. Give it a stir as soon as you toss the pasta in the boiling water (that’s the moment when noodles sink to the bottom and start sticking), then swirl it again a minute or so later. Have pasta leftovers? This is how to reheat it so it’s just as good as it was on day one.
Mistake 5: Letting pasta boil for too long
Ideally, your pasta should be cooked al dente so that it’s firm, not mushy. If you’ve overcooked yours, here’s a clever trick that will save dinner: Strain your pasta and rinse it with cold water (this is the only time we’ll excuse rinsing). Fry it on the stove for a bit in a bit of olive oil to help it crisp up. Here’s how to fix 14 other common cooking disasters.
Mistake 6: Throwing cooked pasta against a wall to see if it’s done
Chef Di Giovanni, Aunt Jake’s: Not unless you like cleaning it up afterward.
Chef Rolnick, Carmine’s: No. Better to taste and look for a little bite or texture.
Not only does it not truly indicate if the pasta is done, but it can cause a mess in your kitchen! Here are some more pasta tips from celebrity chef Giada De Laurentiis.
Mistake 7: Not setting aside some pasta water for the sauce
Chef Di Giovanni, Aunt Jake’s: Yes, a bit of pasta water will add a silky texture to your sauce. But if your sauce is already very thick then skip.
Adding some of the drained off water to a sauce will help it to bond with pasta. Check out these other 10 cooking tricks that are only taught in culinary schools.
Mistake 8: Rinsing cooked pasta
Chef Di Giovanni, Aunt Jake’s: That’s a definite NO. I get this question all the time. It’s a huge mistake to rinse it.
Chef Rolnick, Carmine’s: No, this is an easy skip.
The issue is that by rinsing pasta, you remove starch that helps sauces cling to the cooked pasta. Check out these 24 homemade pasta sauces that are so good you’ll never buy the jarred stuff again.
Mistake 9: Only using dried pasta
Chef Di Giovanni, Aunt Jake’s: Boxed pasta (dry) works well for pasta salads, otherwise try to use fresh. It’s a night and day difference.
Chef Rolnick, Carmine’s: You can use fresh when it’s available, but serve immediately after draining. Dried pastas will sit a little better.
Making fresh, homemade pasta is way easier than you might think. Take a look at these recipes for homemade fettuccine, ravioli, gnocchi and more. Otherwise, you can always pick up a pack or two from your grocer’s refrigerated section or Amazon.
Mistake 10: The pasta and sauce don’t match
The texture of certain sauces work better with particular pasta shapes, so plan yours accordingly. For example, wide, flat fettuccine works well with creamy sauces, while thinner capellini (angel hair) lends itself to a lighter sauce; crevices of farfalle (bowties) and fusilli catch chunky sauces, but ravioli should go with a simple sauce to help the filling shine. Want more? Take a look at our ultimate guide to pasta shapes.
Chef Rolnick’s step-by-step advice is:
- Start with cold water and a lot of it! You should have one gallon of water for every pound of pasta.
- Bring the water to a full rolling boil and then add salt, about a tablespoon per gallon.
- Add the pasta but keep it uncovered—don’t cover pasta while it cooks.
- Cook the pasta until it’s al dente, maintaining a little bite and texture.
- Drain the pasta into a colander but don’t rinse it. Serve immediately—freshly boiled pasta should never sit!
- For dressing the pasta, don’t overpower it with too much sauce—you should still be able to taste the pasta once it’s sauced.
Make sure you know how to avoid these other cooking mistakes that ruin your food.