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Cooking Pasta: How to Tell When It’s Done

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Have you ever had pasta that was too hard or just plain mushy? Everyone likely has prepared a pot of pasta that wasn’t the best. You may have wondered if there were a secret to cooking pasta and knowing when it’s cooked to perfection. The truth is, there is a secret but it isn’t hard to learn.

And with it being National Pasta Month, it’s a good time to talk about it!

Al Dente

Do you know what “al dente” is? It is Italian for “to the tooth” which is what perfectly cooked pasta is called. But what exactly does it mean to have pasta cooked “al dente” and how do you get it there? Perfectly cooked pasta is going to be cooked just long enough that it retains firm texture but will still be flexible. Rather than being completely limp and squishy, you want your pasta to have a little “bite” to it where it takes a little bit of effort to chew.

Cooking the Pasta

When cooking pasta, you may be tempted to turn your attention to other things. You really do want to pay attention to when the pasta begins to boil and the time you allow it to boil. Rather than setting a timer and cooking the pasta according to package directions, you’ll want to check the pasta a couple of minutes before the directions say it should be finished.

Pasta Test: Method 1

Carefully take out one piece of pasta from the boiling water. Let it cool long enough that you won’t burn yourself when you put it into your mouth. The pasta, if cooked properly, will be mildly chewy. It also won’t stick to your teeth. If it does stick to your teeth or is too hard to chew, you’ll want to allow the pasta to cook for another minute. Again remove one piece of pasta and test it. Be careful not to allow the pasta to overcook. Generally you can reach “al dente” within 7 to 10 minutes of boiling.

If you don’t like the taste of plain pasta or are afraid you’ll burn yourself with the taste method, there are two other methods you can try. They aren’t quite as reliable as the taste method though.

Pasta Test: Method 2

You may have heard about flinging a piece of pasta against the wall to test for doneness. While this may be plausible, it isn’t a reliable method of testing pasta. Overdone pasta will stick to the wall in the same way. Besides that, you’ll then have to clean the pasta and leftover starch from the wall.

Pasta Test: Method 3

The other method for testing pasta is similar to tasting it. Remove a piece of pasta and cut it in half. Allow the pasta to cool enough that you don’t burn yourself. Pick up the pasta and look at it in a good light. If you can see a definite ring around the center of the pasta, it isn’t fully cooked yet. You’ll want to allow it to cook another minute. When the pasta is properly cooked you will not be able to see a difference in how the pasta looks and the texture it has.

No matter what…

Of course, not everyone likes to eat pasta the same way. True Italians, for instance, never rinse pasta after it has cooked but you may have been taught to do so. You may like your pasta to be softer than “al dente.” Remember to prepare pasta the way you and your family enjoy it. Even if it isn’t textbook perfect, it will be perfect for your family.

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Cooking Pasta: How to Tell When It\'s Done


  • Lily

    Hi Dominique. I haven’t cooked pasta a long time. I think I used to boil water, put pasta in and bring it back to boil, turn off heat, cover and leave for 20 minutes. Now we have a pasta machine and make fresh pasta. The guy usually does it. For fresh sphagetti I think it takes only 3 minutes. I could be wrong. 🙂 I’m not picky about anything so I don’t mind soggy.

    • Dominique

      Oh, I love fresh pasta. The best I ever had was in Italy… Maybe one day, I will start making my own. I am a bit jealous right now LOL

    • Dominique

      I agree — my first time really having that was in Italy. It was so good and obviously cooked correctly! Thanks for reading!

  • Roy A Ackerman, PhD, EA

    I use the 450 second method. I add the pasta to rigorously boiling water, splosh it around with a spatula, lower the flame to low, and set the alarm to 450 seconds. At that time, I decant (or strain) the water, pour the pasta into a bowl, add my cottage cheese and oregano- and then devour!

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