What Are The Most Common Pasta Cooking Mistakes?

Adding snapped spaghetti to oily water

Traditionally, cooking techniques were passed down through generations, and in the case of pasta, some outrageous theories have been allowed to rumble on unchallenged. Here we're picking apart the top 20 mistakes people make when cooking pasta, blow by blow.

1.) Choosing the cheap stuff
Everyone loves saving on their grocery bill, but we always recommend opting for premium pasta if your budget allows. The ingredients won't necessarily be better, but the pricier stuff will almost always have been dried slowly and made with superior equipment to ensure the sauce sticks to the pasta better.

2.) Thinking that fresh is better than dried
We know that fresh is king in virtually all areas of food, but contrary to popular belief, fresh pasta is not necessarily better than dried; it's just different. We generally prefer the texture of dried linguine to its fresh counterpart, while we wouldn't be seen dead buying dried tortellini.

3.) Not measuring how much pasta you're using
Little pasta shapes like orzo can be cooked, chilled, and added to salads with great results, but once you've mixed your pesto with your pasta, there's no going back. You can refrigerate those leftovers, and they'll be perfectly safe to eat the next day, but the texture changes when you reheat pesto-pasta dishes. Make sure you're following our portion size recommendation, and you won't end up with loads of leftover pasta to throw away.

4.) Choosing the size of your pot for the wrong reasons
Traditional wisdom is to use the largest pot you can find and cook your noodles in the largest amount of water possible. The reasoning is that smaller pans will take longer to get back to a rolling boil, and your pasta will cook unevenly, become sticky, and be overly starchy. Every single one of these myths has been debunked by J. Kenji López-Alt in his seminal book, The Food Lab. So, moving forward, use however much water you want. For what it's worth, we favour less over more.

5.) Not salting your pasta water
Forgetting to add salt to your pasta water is considered the most heinous of crimes among Italian cooks. Pasta naturally doesn't contain salt, so it's important to season it through the cooking process, or your dish is simply going to taste bland. We opt for a 0.5% salt-to-water ratio, but everyone has their own preference. There is, however, one myth that has got to go, however poetic or romantic it may sound. Pasta that has been cooked in water "as salty as the sea" is gross.

6.) Blindly following what your pack of pasta tells you
We never look at the "instructions" on our packs of dried or fresh pasta. Most of the time, the advice is way off the mark, and we much prefer trusting our intuition.

7.) Adding pasta to the water too early
Don't be tempted to try and speed up your dinner by adding your pasta to the pot before the water has come to a rolling boil. Those effervescent bubbles are your secret weapon to ensuring your pasta cooks without sticking or settling on the bottom.

8.) Over or undercooking your pasta
Al dente ("to the tooth") is what everyone is encouraged to aim for when cooking pasta. It basically means your pasta still has some resistance and is neither crunchy nor soft. We leave these rules at the door. We eat our pasta at whatever texture we feel like.

9.) Not stirring your pasta regularly
There's nothing more disappointing than having your lovely pasta ribbons stick together like glue. Avoid this by keeping the water moving, especially in the first couple of minutes.

10.) Adding oil to the water
We've no idea where this ridiculous recommendation came from, but it has been proven time and time again that it's completely unnecessary. It's true that coating your pasta in a little bit of oil after cooking can help prevent the noodles from sticking to each other, but that also means it will stop your sauce from sticking to the pasta, making it pointless!

11.) Flinging pasta against a wall to see if it's ready
Yet another pasta recommendation that makes absolutely no sense is to throw some pasta against a wall to see if it sticks. Is your kitchen wall better at taste-tasting than your own mouth? Trust your abilities; just try a little bit and see whether you like the texture.

12.) Not saving some of the starchy cooking water
As pasta cooks, it releases some of its starch, resulting in starchy pasta water. Despite being murky and unappetising, this stuff is liquid gold. Add a little of this water to your pesto or pasta sauce, and you'll end up with a beautifully silky, emulsified sauce that sticks brilliantly to your pasta.

13.) Rinsing your pasta after cooking
This is another pasta myth we'll never understand. Starch is your friend, so washing it off is actively ruining your dish, not improving it.

14.) Snapping spaghetti in half
We know that when you put spaghetti in a pot of boiling water, the pasta is half in, half out. People therefore think that their spaghetti is going to be cooked unevenly, so they snap their pasta in half. It only takes about 20 seconds for your spaghetti to have given up some resistance for you to get the whole lot submerged. Most importantly of all, though, spaghetti is the length it is for a very good reason. Try twirling your half-length spaghetti around your fork and having a satisfying mouthful. Chances are, you won't. If you want short pasta, buy short pasta!

15.) Pairing your sauce with the wrong shape
We're more relaxed about shape pairing than many foodies, but it is true that using different pasta shapes for pesto than you do with tomato-based sauces will make a very tangible difference to the overall enjoyment of your meal.

16.) Cooking different shapes or brands in the same pot
We're ashamed to admit that as broke students, if we found we didn't have enough pasta left in our already open bag, we'd open a new bag and mix them together to save those all-important pennies. We may not even have mixed the same brand, let alone the same shape. Suffice to say the results were appalling, with half our supper tough and the other half mushy. We feel miserable just thinking about it.

17.) Serving pasta with too much sauce
However much you love your favourite pesto or pasta sauce, drowning your pasta in sauce is downright uncouth. See our recommended pesto-to-pasta ratios here.

18.) Plonking the sauce on top rather than mixing through
Admittedly, we don't see this much nowadays, but if you look at stock images of pasta, you'll often find a big bowl of pasta with a dollop of sauce on top. Please, stir your pasta with the sauce before serving.

19.) Leaving your pasta standing around
In most scenarios, pasta should be served immediately. Letting it sit around will not only lead to a lukewarm meal but will also increase the chances of the pasta sticking. You also want the pasta to be hot enough to slightly melt the Parmesan you're about to grate on top. You are about to do that, right?

20.) Using pre-grated cheese
This one's simple, pre-grated cheeses are gross. They start losing their flavour as soon as they are grated, and producers prevent the cheese from clumping by adding all kinds of nasties. Just grate the cheese yourself; it really isn't any great hardship.