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Perfectly Cooked Pasta

From velvety Creamy Shrimp Fettuccine Alfredo to spicy Fusilli with Sausage and Mushrooms, pasta is one of the most versatile ingredients in the Italian pantry. Made from only three ingredients—eggs, flour and water—this simple food is the basis of literally hundreds of mouth-watering dishes. Here's all you need to know to prepare pasta perfetta like an Italian master chef!

Choosing the Pasta

Pasta means "paste" in Italian. There are two broad categories—dried and fresh—and classic sauces that pair with them.
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  • Dried pasta is made from durum semolina flour (hard wheat). The finest dried pastas swell and soften a bit during cooking but remain chewy, a major part of pasta's charm.
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  • Fresh pasta, made from all-purpose flour and eggs, may be homemade or purchased. It's more tender and requires less cooking time than dried pasta. For instance, thin strands of fresh tagliatelle cook in only 2 to 3 minutes.

Hot Together

Never allow cooked pasta to sit around while you heat your sauce. It will become mushy and unappetizing!

Instead, heat the sauce before the pasta is drained. Pour the sauce into a medium saucepan and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low to keep warm while the pasta cooks.

Pasta Prep

Have the equipment ready and serving dishes warmed.
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  • Position a large colander in a sink or over a pot equal in size to the one you're using to cook.
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  • Fill a 6-quart heavy pot with about 4 to 5 quarts of cold water. Add 1½ to 2 tablespoons coarse salt. The salt brings out the flavor of the pasta. Don't add oil to the cooking water, however. It will form a skin on the pasta and prevent it from absorbing the sauce. Cover the pot and set over high heat until boiling.
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  • For an elegant presentation, have a large pasta-serving bowl and individual pasta bowls warming.

Demystifying Al Dente

Al dente, pronounced like "dental", translates as "to the tooth." Here's how to get that perfect toothy texture every time.
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  • Remove the lid on the pot of boiling water and add 1 pound of pasta (enough to serve 4 to 6 as primi, or first courses). Stir right away to prevent sticking.
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  • Follow the cooking directions on the pasta package as a guideline—varying shapes and thicknesses require shorter or longer cooking—but start testing the pasta 3 or 4 minutes ahead of the prescribed time.
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  • To test for doneness, remove one piece of pasta and rinse in cold water so you don't burn your tongue. Bite the piece in half. Chew one half and look at the inside of the other. If no white dot of raw starch is visible, the pasta is ready. Before draining, scoop out about ½ cup of the cooking water with a heat-proof measuring cup or mug; set aside.

Out of the Pot

Now that the pasta is perfectly cooked, get it on the table pronto.
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  • Drain the pasta into the colander and toss several times to get rid of excess water. Don't rinse the pasta or you'll wash away the surface starch that will help the sauce cling to the noodles.
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  • For a family meal, simply return the pasta to the cooking pot, which is already conveniently warm. Add the heated sauce. With a pasta fork or tongs, toss well to coat every piece of pasta with the sauce. If the sauce needs loosening to better coat the pasta pieces, add a bit of the reserved cooking water and toss.

Serve It Up

Transfer your pasta to warm bowls. Pass grated Parmesan or grana padano cheese at the table with most pasta dishes.

Whether the pasta is the first course in a refined dinner al'italiana or the main dish of a rustic country meal, mastering the cooking techniques will make it perfect every time.