Tips for cooking pasta al dente _lowres

Associated Press photo by Matthew Mead -- Fusilli With Italian Sausage, Peas and Creamy Tomato Sauce

What’s the one ingredient you should always have in your cupboard? Dried pasta, of course. It’s the base of a zillion easy-to-make weeknight meals and the friendly playmate of 2 zillion ingredients, including leftovers.

Pasta comes in all sizes and shapes, all of them designed with a purpose. Pastas in long strands — including spaghetti and linguine — are best paired with smoother sauces.

Tube-shaped pastas — such as penne, rigatoni and macaroni — team up well with chunky sauces. And pasta boasting nooks and crannies — like fusilli — are perfect for sauces with bits of meat and vegetables.

Whichever type you’re cooking, you want to make sure you cook your pasta properly. Undercook it and the pasta is chalky and tough. Overcook it and you get mush. What you’re aiming for is al dente, Italian for “to the tooth.” It’s just a way of saying that properly cooked pasta is tender all the way through, but still ever so slightly firm to the bite.

Of course, since pasta shapes, sizes and thicknesses vary widely, the proper cooking time for each pasta variety also varies. So let’s cover the basics of pasta cooking, regardless of variety.

Plenty of water is important. This prevents the pasta from sticking and mostly eliminates the need to stir during cooking. For 1 pound of pasta, you’ll want to boil 6 quarts of water (though 4 quarts will do if you don’t have a pot large enough). The water also needs to be well salted. For every 3 quarts of water, you’ll need 1 tablespoon of kosher salt.

After adding the pasta to the boiling water, give it a stir or two (and that should be enough). If you’re boiling long strands, push them down gently in the middle to make sure the ends are submerged, too. And by the way, do not add oil to the water. The pasta will end up oily, and the sauce will just slide off.

Pasta should never wait for the sauce (once cooked, it doesn’t improve with age), so don’t start cooking it until your sauce is either well along or finished.

For cooking times, read the packaging and follow the suggested times. But don’t follow them blindly. It’s also important to check the tenderness of the pasta while it is cooking. All you have to do is spear a single piece and bite into it. If it’s very chewy or tough, keep cooking it. If there’s just a tiny bit of chewiness, it’s ready to be drained.

But before you drain it, scoop out and set aside a little of the cooking liquid. And don’t rinse your pasta after draining it. That washes away the starch, which is what helps your sauce stick to the pasta. Now just add your pasta to the sauce, where it will finish cooking. And if your sauce is too thick, a few tablespoons of the cooking water you scooped out are just the thing.

The beauty of a pasta dish is that it rarely takes longer to throw together than the time it takes to boil the water and cook the pasta. And a hearty pasta dish is just the thing to warm up a cold and wintry night.