Cooking dried pasta should be easy, right? After all, the hard work has already been done for you. You've made a knock-out sauce that you've spent some time over, so the pasta cooking ought to be the easiest part of the meal. Even if you follow the packet instructions (and who does?), all too often your pasta sticks to the pan, and to each other, leaving you with one big sticky mess. What can you do?
Forget the Oil Slick
Often, the most common solution you will hear is to use a splash of oil in the water. This doesn't work for two reasons. First, oil and water don't mix so you just end up with a slick of oil on top of your water that doesn't even reach the pasta. Second, your pasta gets covered in the oil once it's drained — and then the sauce won't stick to it.
So, what do the Italians do to combat this sticky problem? They put on the kettle.
No Pan Is Too Big
By far, the best method of preventing pasta from sticking to the pan is to use a large pot for cooking, and make sure it is at least 3/4 full of boiling water. The idea is that the pasta really needs space to move, so no pan is too big. By making sure the water is on a rolling boil, the pasta keeps moving so it doesn't have a chance to stick. The biggest reason that pasta sticks is that there isn't enough water for the pasta to move, so of course it will stick as there's nowhere else for it to go.
Make sure the water is at a full rolling boil before you put your pasta in — putting pasta into cold water is a complete no no. Optional but recommended: Add plenty of salt to the water. This doesn't prevent the pasta from sticking, although it does give the pasta some flavor. As you add the pasta to the boiling water, give the water a stir to get the pasta moving and floating around, rather than sticking together. It doesn't need constant stirring, but go back every couple of minutes and give it a stir, especially on the bottom of the pan, to make sure there are no rogue hangers-on.
Use the packet as a guideline only for how long to cook your pasta. Test a piece to see if it is just firm enough (al dente), or if it needs a minute longer. Overcooking releases more of the gluten that makes your pasta stick, as well as reducing the amount of water in the pan.
Get It Back Into the Pan
When you drain your pan, keep a little of the water to add to the sauce (just like the Italians do), and don't leave the pasta sitting there as it drains. Get it back into the pan with the sauce. Non-stick pasta, done!
Perfect Pasta Recipes
Now that you've mastered the art of making no-stick pasta, here are a few delish dishes that feature pasta with different sauces (click titles for recipes):
What's your best tip for perfect pasta?