Sunday, September 2, 2007

'Al Dente' Pasta

From the number of questions I get regarding the phrase 'al dente' concerning the cooking of pasta, it appears there may be quite a bit of confusion as to what the phrase actually means.

While 'al dente' literally translates to 'to the tooth', it does not mean that the pasta should stick to the teeth!

Pasta that is cooked 'al dente' will be tender, but still firm to the bite.

Here is the proper way to cook pasta al dente, according to the National Pasta Association:

1. Boil 4 to 6 quarts of water for one pound of dry pasta. (You can divide this recipe depending on how much pasta you are cooking.)

2. Add the pasta with a stir and return the water to a boil.

3. Stir the pasta occasionally during cooking.

4. Follow the package directions for cooking times. If the pasta is to be used as part of a dish that requires further cooking, undercook the pasta by 1/3 of the cooking time specified on the package.

5. Taste the pasta to determine if it is done. Perfectly cooked pasta should be "al dente," or firm to the bite, yet cooked through.

6. Drain pasta immediately and follow the rest of the recipe.

Here is the proper way to cook pasta al dente, according Nonna (and of course, my preferred way!)

1) Boil at least 4 quarts pasta (more is even better, it helps to prevent sticking) per each pound of pasta.

2) When water is at a full boil, add pasta (stir continuously while adding).

3) Cook pasta for the amount of time recommended on package, plus 1-2 minutes. (this extra time allows for the water to return to a full boil)

4) If pasta is to be used in a baked dish, reduce recommended cooking time by 4-5 minutes.

5) Stir pasta while cooking to prevent sticking.

6) You may taste pasta to determine if it is 'firm to the bite' (firm, but cooked through), but to follow Nonna's procedure exactly (don't laugh, I'm really serious here) remove pasta from pot and toss at the refrigerator. No, it's not a joke - it may sound crazy, but perfectly cooked pasta will stick to the fridge door, and Nonna swore by this method!

7) When the pasta is at that perfect stage, rinse with cold water (unless pasta is to be served immediately, and I mean immediately, in which case rinse with warm water), so that the cooking process stops.

Now, I'll explain what 'al dente' is not:

-Pasta that's so undercooked it sticks in the teeth when chewed.

-Pasta that's so overcooked that the starch is a gooey mess that's visible on the outside of the pasta, and has to be rinsed off.

Well, that's today's lesson in Italian cooking terminology, I hope it makes things a little clearer for someone.

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