The other day my husband and child and I were in the car and our daughter was bemoaning the fact that she doesn’t know how to cook. We pointed out that she can barely see into pots on the stove — she’s not tall enough, and I hold that if she has to stand on a chair to see what’s going on at the stove, she’s not tall enough to safely cook — so it’s not really something we expect of her at this point. “I can’t even make noodles,” she lamented.
“Well,” I said, “That’s not true, really, you know exactly how to make noodles.”
“No I don’t,” she pouted.
I said, “Sure you do. What do you do, you boil water in a big pot, and you put in the noodles.”
“But I don’t know EXACTLY how to do it,” she said.
“Why don’t you tell her how?” suggested my husband.
And so I began a monologue. “First you get a big pot and you fill it about halfway or two-thirds with water. You need a lot of water, but you don’t want to fill it all the way to to the top, because then the pot is too heavy to lift. Then you put the lid on the pot and you put the pot on the stove and you turn on the burner to the highest heat. Then you wait for the water to boil.”
“How do you know when it’s boiling?” my daughter asked.
“Well, you can hear it,” my husband said.
“You can hear it, and also you see steam shooting out from under the lid,” I said. “And when you lift the lid to look inside you’ll see the water’s all bubbly, big bubbles rolling up to the top of the pot, not little bubbles. So then you take your pasta and you dump it in and you stir it right away. You have to stir it right away or else it’ll stick together and you can’t unclump it later. And you need to stir the noodles once or twice while they’re cooking.” My husband nodded.
“So you let the pasta boil. Sometimes it cooks really fast and sometimes it takes a little while. Spaghetti is usually about nine or ten minutes.”
“How do you know how long?” asked my daughter.
“The box usually tells you. It depends on the shape. Chunk-style shapes take the longest time usually, maybe ten minutes. The shortest time is angel hair, which cooks really fast, in about three minutes. Really fast. So you have to keep an eye on it before it turns into mush.”
“So then,” I continued, “You get a colander out and you put it in the sink. Before you put it in the sink, though, you should make sure you don’t have dirty dishes and stuff sitting in the sink. Make sure the sink is empty before you put the colander in. You put in the colander, then you go and stir the noodles again, and you pull one out to test it that it’s cooked. If it’s cooked the way you want it, then you take pot holders and you carry the pot to the sink and you pour the water out through the colander, and you let the noodles fall into the colander. Then you put the noodles back into the pot and put on your sauce and you’re done.” I thought for a minute. “Sometimes, before you drain the noodles, you want to dip a measuring cup into the pot to save some of the cooking water.”
“Because sometimes you want the cooking water to help make your sauce right. Like when you’re making a pesto sauce, if it’s too thick to stir into the noodles, you can thin it out with the cooking water. Also it helps to heat up the sauce a little bit, so you’re not just dumping cold-from-the-fridge pesto sauce onto your nice hot noodles.”
“You should write this down,” my husband said.
So I did.
Postscript: one regular reader, who doesn’t cook much, asked me in a private message, “Aren’t you supposed to put salt or oil or something into the water to keep it from boiling over?” I remember that people talk about these things all the time.
I can’t believe I linked to a Smithsonian Magazine article about cooking, but there it is: when I Googled on the subject, this was the first thing that came up, and it wasn’t such a bad recap of how to make pasta (though clearly the commenters find it lacking, and if I were to write it, I’d do it differently (duh, look what you just read), but whatever).
Anyhow: There is a school of thought that says you should add a bit of oil to the pot to prevent boiling over: I hold that if you don’t fill the pot too much, this ceases to be a concern, and that doing this is basically a waste of good oil and makes for a nastier pot to wash up without much benefit during the cooking process.
As for the salt: the reason to add salt has nothing to do with water boiling over, but is about adding flavor. Some people really like salt a lot. I find that I am easily overwhelmed by salt in food, and see no reason to add it to pasta water. If I do this, I am very likely to feel that the finished, sauced dish is ludicrously over-salted, because I’ve got my sauce salted to the degree I like. (If my husband and child want to add salt, as they often do, that’s their business. I don’t like that they add salt, I find it insulting, but it is their choice, and I do understand that.) This is particularly an issue with sauces that have a lot of Parmesan cheese in them, because Parmesan is really salty.
So I don’t salt my pasta water.
The real issues with making pasta are 1. don’t let the noodles stick together while cooking and 2. don’t overcook them. The fact is, you CAN make good noodles in a minimum of water (you can, if you want to, cook noodles the way you’d make risotto, though you’d have to have a weirdly shaped pan if you wanted to do it with spaghetti — short, chunk-style shapes, though, and orzo, this is not a problem). But your average spaghetti-with-meatballs dinner, follow my instructions and you’ll be fine.
Not you are planning to make spaghetti and meatballs or anything.
I never, ever, salt the water, and I never put oil in it either. If you want to keep it from boiling over, you can use the old trick of laying a wooden spoon across it, or do what I do: as soon as you put in the pasta and stir it, turn the heat down about 1-2 notches so that it’s still boiling but not FURIOUSLY BOILING. Also remember (in my case) to set the damn timer.
Anyway, bravo. This is exactly how I’d explain cooking to a kid who wanted to know.
The wooden spoon! I used to do that! Why did I stop? I don’t remember. But I suddenly now remember, I used to do that!
Setting a timer is useful, for sure. My husband has noticed, however, that I seem to have created an unfailing internal clock regarding the cooking of pasta such that no matter what kind of noodle I’m making, I can leave the kitchen for a seemingly random length of time and return at the precise moment it is time to drain the noodles.