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Measure, taste your way to perfect pasta

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Pasta is often associated with Italian cuisine, but its position as an American staple should not be overlooked. Even as low-carb diet fads come and go, pasta’s popularity remains. No matter what kind you choose – and your options are plentiful– the cooking process stays pretty much the same. Here are some tips to making perfect pasta.

Measuring

Pasta expands when it is boiled, so one cup of dry pasta does not equal one cup of cooked pasta. For more accurate readings, uncooked pasta should be measured by weight rather than by cup. According to the National Pasta Association, 8 ounces of uncooked macaroni-type pasta (rotini, rigatoni, cavatelli, penne and ziti) yields four cups of cooked pasta. One box of pasta is sometimes equal to 1 pound, or 16 ounces.

Cooking

Make sure you use a big enough pot and a sufficient amount of water to allow the pasta to cook evenly. The National Pasta Association advises using between 4 quarts and 6 quarts of water for every pound of dry pasta. You should adjust that ratio to match your pasta-cooking needs.

Place the pot on the stove and allow the water to reach a rolling boil. Placing a lid on top of the pot will speed up the boiling process. Some people like to add 2 tablespoons of salt per pound to the boiling water, a step which is said to draw out the natural taste of the pasta. Add the dry pasta, but don’t put the lid back on. Make sure the pot returns to a steady boil. Do not mix different types of noodle in the same pot. Once the water is bubbling, make sure to keep an eye on it so it does not boil over. This may require lowering the burner. Stir occasionally with a long wooden spoon.

Use the directions on the box as a guideline for how long it should cook. Standard cooking time is usually about 8 to 12 minutes, but it varies based on the size and shape of the macaroni. Taste a piece of the pasta at the earliest listed time to see if it needs to continue cooking. Sample the pasta as it cooks. This is the best way to determine if it is cooked to your liking. If you plan to bake the pasta, boil it until the pasta is still firm but slightly flexible. This is usually about one-third of the suggested cooking time.

Draining

Shake the pasta over the sink in a colander or a pasta strainer to get rid of the excess water. Be mindful of steam and keep your face and body away from it, especially when you drain the pasta. Pour the pasta back in the pot until you are ready to add the sauce. Toss the pasta with the sauce in the pan or a serving dish.

Avoid overcooking the pasta and make sure you used enough water to prevent the pasta from clumping together or sticking to the pot. Adding olive oil will leave a thin layer on the pasta itself and prevent the sauce from coating the pasta properly. If you want to make a cold pasta salad, rinse the macaroni with cold water and drain.