Italian Chefs Share The Mistake Way Too Many People Make When Boiling Pasta

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On the surface, cooking pasta ranks pretty low in terms of difficulty. If you can boil water, you can do it, right? But there’s a difference between getting the job done and actually perfecting it — and it’s a difference you can taste.

As with other foods, cooking technique matters greatly when it comes to pasta-making. Knowing the best pasta shape and sauce pairings, how long to cook the pasta and even when exactly to add the pasta to the water on the stove all play a role in how well the dish turns out. Never thought about that latter point? Yep, it matters.

Maybe you’re the type of person who puts the pasta in right after you put the pot on the stove. That way, you can busy yourself with other things for 10 minutes until it’s time to check it. Or maybe you patiently wait until the water boils to add the pasta because, somewhere, you picked up on that’s how it should be done. It’s a small part of the pasta-making process, but Italian chefs say it matters.

Before you add the pasta to the pot, don’t forget salt.

You’ve likely heard that it’s important to add salt to the water in your pot ― it should taste like the ocean. Lina Nicolai, a Naples native who is now the chef at Il Piatto in Washington, D.C., explained that this not only gives the pasta flavor, but it also flavors the “liquid gold” (or pasta water), which you should use to finish off your pasta sauce.

“You can really tell the difference when salt is not added. The pasta tastes really bland even if the accompanying sauce is flavorful,” added Gennaro Contaldo, the author of “Gennaro’s Cucina: Hearty Money-Saving Meals From an Italian Kitchen.”

“I add salt when the water just begins to boil. This way, it will dissolve quickly,” Contaldo said. Make sure you wait until the salt has completely dissolved before adding the pasta.

Besides making your pasta taste more flavorful, salt can help with the cooking process too. “Salted water is more stable than unsalted water due to the dissolved NaCl ions,” said Steve Samson, the chef of Los Angeles restaurants Rossoblu, Superfine Pizza, and Superfine Playa, which is opening in March. “As a result, salted water has a higher boiling point than unsalted, so the pasta cooks at a slightly higher temperature, which leads to better consistency.”

There are steps you can take to make your pasta and meatballs even better.

Jennifer A Smith via Getty Images

There are steps you can take to make your pasta and meatballs even better.

Here’s when to add pasta to the pot.

If you want to make your pasta like an Italian chef, use hot water from the tap, not cold. Francesco Mazzei, the chef patron of three restaurants (Radici, Fiume and Sartoria, all located in London) and the author of “Mezzogiorno: Southern Italian Cooking,” recommends starting with hot water because it will reach the boiling point faster and is more energy efficient. But while that may save you time, it won’t affect the end result of how your pasta will taste. (And before you do so, consider the Environmental Protection Agency’s warnings about the safety of hot tap water in older homes.)

Now that you have your hot water in a pot on the stove, what’s next? Can you add the pasta? Not so fast. Patrick Money of Pazza Market & Cucina says the key is to wait until the water is boiling to drop the pasta into the pot. “If you don’t wait until the water is boiling, the pasta will absorb too much water and become mushy,” he said. Nicolai agrees, saying that adding pasta to water before it’s boiling can make the pasta gummy.

Not only can adding pasta to the water before it’s boiling make it gummy, but Contaldo says it can make the pasta stick together, too. He adds that stirring the pasta while it’s cooking will help prevent this.

While the water should absolutely be boiling before you add in the pasta, the chefs say that it doesn’t matter how long the water is boiling before you do it; most add the pasta as soon as the water starts boiling, but if the water is boiling for several minutes before you do it, that’s OK, too.

To recap: When making pasta, fill your pot with hot water, wait for it to boil, add your salt, wait for it to dissolve and then add your pasta. According to all five Italian chefs, this is the correct step-by-step process. And don’t forget to save that pasta water to integrate into your sauce.

Once you have this process down, there are all sorts of ways you can level up your pasta game. But you have to have the basics down first — and now you do.

If you want to cook great pasta, you absolutely need a proper pasta pot. Here’s a roundup of the best.

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Calphalon Classic stainless steel stock pot

For a sturdy solid steel option, this 8-quart stock pot is a great choice. Orange County, California-based chef Amanda Rios said she likes this pot because “the pasta insert doesn’t warp at all with heavy usage.” It has loop handles for a firm grip and even comes with a pasta insert, steamer insert and matching lid.

Promising review: “I am finished with burning my hands draining pasta or potatoes! I should have bought this many years ago. Good quality pot and the lift out pasta drainer is simply wonderful. My wrists and hands are thanking me with each use.” — Liz Koster

Great Jones

Great Jones Big Deal pot

This 8-quart stock pot from Great Jones is designed with handles that are oversized to make them easier to grip while you drain your noodles. It’s made of stainless steel and comes at the recommendation of Gonzalez, who likes it because it holds heat well for better cooking and has measurements inside the pot to help you follow recipes.

Promising review: “Nice and big. Perfect for long pastas. Also used it for making a big batch of turkey stock, and it worked perfectly.” — Joshua F.


Caraway Dutch oven

Make your next pasta night more colorful with Caraway’s non-stick Dutch oven, which was recommended by Abyssinia Campbell, a New York City-based personal chef and caterer. She chose it because of its non-toxic coating.

“When boiling pasta, any appropriate-sized pot will get the job done. If I had to choose one, I’d recommend using Caraway products because they are non-toxic and free of chemicals,” she said.

It comes in multiple colors, including yellow, cream, gray, sage green and navy blue.

Promising review: “The color is perfect and the pot is so nice we keep it on display. It’s the perfect size for all of our pasta and soup needs. It’s SO easy to clean and I can’t recommend caraway products enough. Can’t wait to get more!” — Claire S.


Gotham Steel stock pot

With over 7,000 five-star reviews on Amazon, this 5-quart stock pot is a great cooking tool for your pasta needs. Thanks to its twist and lock handles that secure the built-in strainer (which also serves as a lid), you don’t even need a separate strainer to remove excess pasta water. The pot is made of non-stick ceramic with non-toxic materials.

Promising review: “This is the best pan, not only for pasta, we use it to cook many things. The locking lid makes it easy to drain liquid. It is deep and big enough for large amounts of food but not too big to store in a cabinet. It’s easy to clean and dishwasher safe. We have given this as a gift. Would recommend !” — Lee Wilder


Oster Sangerfield stainless steel pasta pot

This stainless steel 5-quart pot has over 11,000 five-star reviews on Amazon and comes with a strainer lid and steamer insert to handle all of your pasta tasks. And while we’re talking about handling, you’ll love the handles on this pot as they have a “stay cool” feature that helps prevent you from burning your hands while cooking.

Promising review:
“Loved the quality of these, and the fact you can cook couscous or pasta or whatever in the pan while steaming veggies on top. The one with holes doubles as a colander too, useful for draining. I once had a plug-in steamer and it was a total pain to fill, clean and store… ridiculous in every way. This is what I should have bought back then.” — James Jerome McCarthy


Cuisinart stainless steel pasta pot

There’s no need for a colander with this ultra-convenient 6-quart pasta pot, which come with a straining lid that securely fastens to the pot so you can spend less time pouring out water and more time devouring scrumptious pasta noodles. On the inside of this highly rated pot (it has over 55,000 five-star reviews on Amazon) you’ll even find measurement markings to make cooking easier.

Promising review: “I wanted a pan that would be good for pasta dishes like cacio e pepe where you create the sauce in the pan with the pasta. I wanted something deep enough so there’s no spillage, a slope to a narrow center to concentrate hard stirring, and I didn’t want a coating so I could mix vigorously and not worry about damaging the coating or having the coating ending up in my food. This pan checked all the boxes, plus it’s priced right.” — J. Caputo