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How to Boil Water

Well that's a dumb blog title, right? Who doesn't know how to boil water? Okay, it was a hook, this is more than how to boil water. It's how to boil water and make pasta.

Seems simple enough. Let's see, get a pan, fill with water, turn on burner, boil water, throw in pasta. Except...

Untold thousands of rookie cooks, mostly young men on their own for the first time (I was one once, I have free reign here), manage to make a disaster out of pasta. We've all seen this, the plate of pasta and red sauce that looks like your dog made dinner-- a clump of red tomato chunks sitting on a bed of pasta, with a pool of red tomato water around the rest of the plate. That is NOT going to impress the date you've invited over for dinner. It may not even impress the dog.

What went wrong here? Let's break down in simple terms what we want from a plate of pasta: (bullet points again!)

  • A chewy noodle, not crunchy, but not overcooked and mushy. This is known as al dente. No, "Al Dentay" is not a person.
  • Seasoned pasta, with enough salt absorbed so that it tastes like food
  • A nice creamy texture, where the sauce clings to the noodles

Right. How do we get there? Here are the "DO'S and DON'TS" every new cook needs to learn in order to make a respectable pasta (MORE bullet points?)

DO:

  • Choose a pot larger than you think you need, a big stock pot or dutch oven that holds plenty of water
  • Salt the water liberally, preferably with kosher salt, but only once the water has come to a full rolling boil (love that term, say it three times fast)
  • Once the pasta is almost finished, save a little of the water in a measuring cup, about 1/2 cup or so, before pouring it all through the colander
  • Get a tablespoon or two of butter ready, depending on preference

DON'T

  • Do not add oil to the water to keep it from boiling over!
  • Do not throw salt in the water before it boils
  • Do NOT RINSE the pasta after draining it! NO! NO!!!
  • Do not plate plain pasta and then pour sauce on top

 Okay, those are the rules. Now, why?

The pot size is important for keeping your water boiling, and thus keeping the cooking process rolling along. Start with a small mass of boiling water in a little pot, throw your pasta in, and that boil is just dead. Hope your guest isn't arriving soon. Remember the whole "impressing your date" thing? Timing is everything.

Salting the water before it boils, even with nice quality stainless cookware, will result in pitting on the surface of the pot. All it takes is a little warm, still water, and those grains of salt settle nicely on the bottom of your pot and begin the process of corrosion. You don't want that.

Oil. OMG, the mother of all cooking urban myths. "But, my mom told me that adding a little oil to the water keeps it from boiling over!" Yeah, I know, here's the thing. Pasta is starch. We want that starch intact when it reaches the al dente stage, sticky and ready for sauce to cling to it like you'd cling to that last pack of toilet paper at the grocery store during the Great Coronavirus Hoarding Panic of 2020. What, too soon? Anyway, you add that oil to the pot, the oil finds its way to the noodles, and that noodle wraps that oil around it like Linus clutching his security blanket and says, "Nope! No sauce for me!" Skip the oil and just turn the burner down a bit. You're cooking. Don't...leave...the kitchen!

Okay, the moment of truth has arrived. The pasta is al dente, the water was nice and salty, free of oil, you saved some of it, and you have butter ready. Oh, and presumably you have a sauce pan with some nice, hot tomato sauce ready, but that's a topic for another day. Drain the pasta in a colander, throw it in a big bowl, dump your sauce in there, add the butter, and stir it up. If you still have the now-dry boiling pot on the stove, dump everything back in there and set the burner to medium to heat it all up together, just for a little bit. It's not going to overcook because you only cooked it to al dente, right?

You've done it. You have a hot batch of beautifully seasoned, creamy pasta.  Plate it and finish it with a little grated parmesan, throw a couple basil leaves on top if you're feeling fancy, and don't forget the wine. Red wine. Enjoy.

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Just because:

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Charles Schultz

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