How To Cook Pasta “Al Dente”

Among the many untranslatable idioms of the Italian language, there is one dictating that pasta should be cooked al dente (we may say “with a toothy quality”; it would mean nothing, exactly like the original). Outside of Italy, unless you have Italian ancestry or are a statistical outlier, you have your pasta “cooked until you throw it at the wall and it sticks” (which is how Italians refer to overdone pasta). Well, today we’ll learn some rules, a secret and my battle-tested CFC (no environmental harm will ensue) for real, Italy-proof pasta al dente.

Al dente is best understood by its opposite, overdone, and taking into account that multi-valued logic must be applied when talking of Italian food (and not only food…). So, al dente will be almost underdone, but not quite it, as underdone pasta is crunchy.

You should also take into account that even in Italy there is ample margin for variation in considering how much al dente is al dente. Pasta that will be al dente in Milan or farther up north will be unacceptable in Rome and considered bin-worthy in Palermo. Conversely, Naples-style spaghetti will be labelled as “raw” in Milan.

If you think all this is pretty complicated and difficult to learn, you should know that we learn it the hard way: the typical Italian mother will illustrate the concept to her offspring by forking one hot spaghetto or rigatone out of the pot, slamming it as it is into their mouths and sentencing “Feel it? Now it’s al dente“. The average kid, in turn, will either yell, spit, swallow or any combination of the above and by the time he regains some composure there will be no pasta left in his mouth to understand how it was supposed to feel.

And yet, al dente is a concept that begs experimentation. What momma will tell us by the ninth or tenth time we run away screaming, and which I’ll tell you straight away is: “Why don’t you just nibble at it, it’s hot, you know?

So do it: nibble. You can (o horror) cool it under running cold water but if you do it you will lose the ability to gauge al dente-ness by sight (see the “color” rule below).

To fight the elusiveness of the concept, here are some basic rules and my personal CFC criteria. You will need to use them while you practice; practice makes perfect.

First of all, let me be clear: you have the right to eat pasta in whichever way you like, including “cooked until you throw it at the wall and it sticks” (which is how Italians refer to overdone pasta). What follows is just the “what would an Italian do”, as in the spirit of this blog.

First, some generic rules

  1. Do not believe the cooking time on the box (even in Italy, it’s just meant as “after this many minutes, drain it already!”)
  2. start checking the pasta at no more than 3/4 of the “suggested” cooking time.

Then a secret. I swear I saw a TV show in Canada where the chef went on twenty full minutes promising the “real Italian secret” before revealing it. Well, I won’t take twenty minutes, here it is: pasta cooks in salted water. 10g per liter, or simply as much as needed for the water to taste salty.

And now, my CFC for

  1. C – color: underdone pasta is yellow-brown and matte; overdone is whitish and glossy; al dente is straw-colored
  2. F – firmness: underdone pasta is solid; overdone is limp; al dente is springy
  3. C – crunchyness: underdone pasta is peanut-crunchy; overdone is jelly-like; al dente has the slightest hint of crunch.

Enough theory. Now go and cook yourself some real pasta al dente!

11 comments

  1. Well, never realised it was that complicated….I liked to think I was cooking my pasta al dente, but maybe not….but it wouldn’t stick to the wall!!

    • hi suej! Like biking, like everything in cooking and like many other things, it’s only complicated if you don’t know how to do it 🙂
      when you have found your own “al dente”-ness, you just nibble once or twice and that’s it.
      And, if yours doesn’t stick to the wall, and you like it, it’s OK by me.
      Thanks for dropping a line.
      W

    • Hi Ivonne! My high school chemistry is not enough to tell whether “al dente” being more digestible is an urban legend or a fact. Mom has the same belief, though. I’d file the “less fattening” claim in the same category as “light” chocolate, but I may be wrong.
      “Al dente” is the traditional way pasta is cooked here, and I claim it also gives better sensorial results: better texture, a more pleasurable bite, less watery taste (overdone pasta does absorb more water) and I would say it definitely looks better.
      best,W

    • hello Francis, and thank you.
      there are many food things I cannot believe they manage to sell, and yet…
      I am all for rediscovering what food is all about, which goes way beyond mere nutrition.
      Do you remember how the future used to about flying cars and food pills?
      Even in the dismal state of our prevalent food culture, I think there is hope.
      Enjoy Longoio,
      W

  2. What are your thoughts on wholewheat pasta? Same rules apply? (apart from colour, obviously!). do Italians even eat wholewheat pasta?!

    • hi Becky, this question deserves a little explanatory post, I think I’ll get it out early next week…
      thanks you for the inspiration!

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