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Why "Al Dente?" : 6 Tips for Making Amazing (and Perfect) Pasta

Why

If you take a look at most of our recipes, you’ll see that we say to cook your pasta “al dente.” It sounds like just a fancy term for making sure your noodles are done. “Al dente” literally means “to the tooth” in Italian. That means that well-cooked pasta must have a soft bite, a “snap” that you can feel when you chew. Why?

Go back about six hundred years and you won’t find these instructions in Italian cookbooks. In their history book, "Italian Cuisine,” authors Alberto Capatti and Massimo Montanari explain that in the 1500s, the proper cooking time for macaroni was about 2 hours. Apparently Italians of the renaissance preferred their pasta to be mush. It’s not clear when exactly firmer pasta became the thing, but we’re glad it did. The taste of the pasta comes out so much better in al dente pasta, which we think offers the reason for the change in cooking time.

But lucky for all of us, there’s actually more to the cooking technique than the texture and the flavor. Eating your noodles al dente is actually healthier for you.

Hot water breaks down the molecule bonds in starches – that’s how it turns dry pasta into cooked pasta. The longer the noodles are cooked, the more the molecules are broken down, and the faster your body can convert those carbs into fuel. That fast breakdown causes blood sugar levels to rise suddenly and then crash only a few hours later, leaving you tired and hungry again. When pasta is cooked al dente, it takes longer for your body to break down those carbs, which keeps your blood sugar levels more stable and your body more sufficiently fueled and filled. The result? You’re less likely to overeat or to eat unhealthy snacks after your meal. Keeping those blood sugar levels stable can prevent weight gain and type two diabetes.

So here are 6 tips for cooking your pasta to (al dente) perfection:

  1. Use the right pot: The bigger the better, but make sure it’s light enough so you can easily lift it to drain your pasta. Marcella Hazan (famous chef) suggests using enameled aluminum that heats quickly and is easy to handle.
  2. Use enough water: You should never use less than 3 quarts of water for your pasta, regardless of how much you’re making. Good Italian cooking says you should use 4 to 6 quarts of water per pound of pasta.
  3. Use just enough salt: Add salt once the water begins to boil but before you add the pasta. Let the water come to a boil again before adding your noodles. Use about 1 ½ tbsp. salt per 4 quarts of water.
  4. Test your pasta: Follow the directions on your dried pasta package for al dente pasta, but never trust that the suggested time is completely accurate. There’s nothing wrong with tasting a noodle or two intermittently to check the texture and to keep from overcooking the pasta. 
  5. Drain right on time: Once your pasta reaches that perfect al dente texture, drain it immediately. Even a minute too long can throw off the consistency of your pasta.
  6. Toss with sauce: You’ll notice that most of our recipes say to toss your cooked pasta in a cup of sauce. There are two reasons for this. For one, it prevents the noodles from sticking together. Just as importantly, it coats each noodle with sauce so that you get the perfect combination of noodle and sauce in each and every bite. Pasta, after all, was made for sauce. 

 

Sources:

Hazan, Marcella. Essential of Classic Italian Cooking. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997: 126-128.

Capatti, Alberto & Massimo Monanaar. Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003: 54.

"10 Ways to Slim Down Your Pasta Dinner." Eatthis.com. 

"Can Noodles Ever be Healthy?" Yahoo.com/health. 

"Taste and Health: Two Big Reasons to Cook All Your Pata Al Dente." Brightonyourhealth.com 

"How Much Water Does Pasta Really Need?" nytimes.com 

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