How To Cook Pasta – The Right Way

Dried pasta shapes

Pasta is easy to cook when you have the right guidance. Here’s how to cook pasta – the right way.

Once you know how to cook pasta you’ll see how versatile it is. There are all different shapes, sizes and colours of pasta, and all of them are quick and easy to cook. Pasta now comes in vegetable and gluten-free versions as well as the traditional durum wheat variety. You will probably want to try them all at some point, but for simplicity here are the most common and popular types.

But first, a brief history of pasta.

The Origins of Pasta

Pasta was said to have been introduced to the Italians by Marco Polo in the 13th century, after his exploration of the Far East. But pasta’s origins can be traced back as far as the 4th century BC. An Etruscan tomb shows a group of natives making what appears to be pasta.

Pasta was introduced to America when Italians migrated to the USA and settled there. The first ever factory to make pasta on an industrial scale was built in Brooklyn, New York, in 1848 by a Frenchman named Antoine Zerega, who allegedly used to dry the pasta strands on the factory roof. His son, Frank, was a pasta maker at the factory for 83 years and he also served as the company’s president.

Pasta is now one of the most popular foods worldwide, with 59% of Americans eating pasta every week. But Italians are the biggest consumers; 83% of Italians eat pasta more than once a week. There is even a World Pasta Day, celebrated each year on 25th October. 2022 marks its 24th anniversary.

Pasta Shapes

Pasta comes in all shapes and sizes, both dried and fresh. Dried pasta is the most popular kind as it has a long shelf life (up to a year) and there are more shapes and varieties to choose from. Fresh pasta is best cooked and eaten as soon as possible to prevent it from drying out. It sometimes contains eggs which give it a lovely golden yellow colour. The choice of whether to use fresh or dried is entirely up to you.

The most common – and popular – pasta shapes are as follows

  • Spaghetti (long, thin strands)
  • Vermicelli (fine strands)
  • Tagliatelle (narrow ribbons)
  • Fettuccine (thin, flat ribbons)
  • Penne (quills)
  • Rigatoni (ridged tubes)
  • Fusilli (spirals)
  • Farfalle (bows)
  • Macaroni (short tubes)
  • Conchiglie (shells)

You’re no doubt familiar with spaghetti Bolognese, macaroni cheese and other popular pasta dishes, but there is so much more to pasta than these simple dishes.

A good rule to follow when learning how to cook pasta is to match the shape of the pasta to the type of sauce you want to serve it with. Spaghetti Bolognese, for example, is said to be completely unauthentic. Why? Because an Italian would never serve a rich, meaty ‘ragu’ sauce with long, thin pasta like spaghetti. It would be more commonly served with tagliatelle or rigatoni so that the sauce filled the hollows and ridges and coated every strand.

Also, an Italian would never serve Bolognese sauce (or any kind of sauce for that matter) just spooned on top of the pasta; it’s always thoroughly mixed with the sauce, clinging to and coating every piece or strand of pasta. Having tried both ways I have to say I’m with the Italians on this one.

Pasta with basil
Here are a few of the most popular pasta shapes and the best sauces to serve with them.

  • Penne or rigatoni – thick meat or vegetable-based sauces
  • Fusilli – light, smooth sauces that will cling to the spirals and coat them
  • Farfalle – tomato-based or vegetable sauces
  • Conchiglie – heavy, thick sauces based on meat or dairy
  • Tagliatelle, linguine and fettuccine – rich, meaty sauces or vegetable-based ones
  • Spaghetti or vermicelli – light seafood, oily or creamy sauces

There are some rules to follow to ensure that your pasta is perfectly cooked. First of all, use the biggest pan that you have. Fill it two-thirds full with hot water and add a tablespoon of salt to the water. It may seem like a lot of salt but it’s necessary to flavour the pasta. Don’t panic, it won’t taste too salty.

*Note – don’t add any oil to the water. it serves no useful purpose and is a waste of oil. It doesn’t stop the pasta from sticking together either.

Put a lid on the pan as it helps the water to come up to the boil faster. When the water is boiling, add the pasta and stir. When cooking spaghetti or linguine, don’t break it in half, lower it into the pan leaving the tops sticking up out of the water then push it down as it softens. This prevents too much starch from escaping and causing the strands to stick together.

Wait for it to come up to the boil again – the water should be bubbling vigorously – then lower the heat to medium so that the water is still boiling but not as strongly. Stir a few times during cooking to prevent the pieces of pasta from sticking together.

To test if your pasta is cooked properly, lift out a piece and bite into it. If it’s tender, but still has some firmness at the centre, it’s done. This is what the Italians call ‘al dente’ – or  ‘to the tooth’, meaning firm to the bite.

When the pasta is almost cooked, about 8 – 10 minutes, drain it in a sieve or colander, reserving a mugful of the cooking water. Don’t drain off all of the water, leave some on the pasta otherwise it goes sticky and dry. Tip the drained pasta into the sauce and stir well until it’s coated. The pasta will finish cooking in the sauce. If the sauce looks too thick, add some of the cooking water to thin it down. Serve immediately on warmed plates or bowls.

Most pasta dishes will benefit from a sprinkling of grated fresh Parmesan cheese but it’s entirely up to you. Personally, I like to add Parmesan. It adds another layer of flavour to the finished dish, almost like extra seasoning.

Sauces for Pasta

There are literally hundreds of different sauces to serve with your pasta. Thick, meaty sauces, creamy ones, simple blends of olive oil and herbs, vegetable-based sauces, and seafood sauces. You are spoiled for choice. It’s probably best to choose your sauce first then find the right pasta shape to go with it.

It’s a good idea to keep a few bags of dried pasta in your store cupboard. Then you will never be more than 30 minutes away from a delicious meal.

I hope this has given you some ideas on how to cook pasta. If you have any questions please get in touch. And if you have a family recipe that you love, please share it.

For more inspiration on cooking pasta, go to authentic Italian pasta recipes

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4 thoughts on “How To Cook Pasta – The Right Way”

  1. Hi Karen, As an avid pasta lover, I can say I´ve tasted all the pasta dishes you listed in the article. My favorite pasta dish is Maccheroni al Forno, but I can eat any pasta. I´m bad at cooking, so I´m happy to have found your site. I will bookmark it for quick reference whenever I´m looking for cooking ideas. 

    • Hi Marisa, I’m so glad you found this article helpful. My dad was Maltese so we used to have a version of your favourite dish called timpanaI still like to make it now. I just love pasta, it’s so versatile. I’ll be doing an article on pasta recipes very soon so look out for that. My website is for people who want to learn how to cook, so there won’t be anything complicated on there! My current favourite dish is linguine with courgettes, lemon and chilli. Ideal for this hot weather because it’s light and fresh tasting, and it takes about 20 minutes to prepare, cook and serve. Thanks again for your kind comments 

  2. Thanks a lot for this valuable post about pasta. Pasta is actually one of my favorite foods. My favorite shape is spaghetti. But I don’t know how to make them. But the way you make it is explained in detail. I will definitely try this. Keep posting like this. I will definitely share this.

    • Hi Pasindu, I must admit I also have a fondness for spaghetti! I think the most common mistake made when cooking pasta is to overcook it, or drain it too thoroughly once it’s cooked. A few practice sessions and you will soon be cooking your favourite spaghetti like a top chef! Thanks again and do share 


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