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What I've Learned
My father used to say if you break spaghetti, all the flavor leaks out. I taught this to my children.
It's not true, of course. If you break spaghetti, you simply end up with short spaghetti.
So why break it?
"To make it cook faster," some say.
Not so. The cooking time of pasta depends on its thickness, not its length.
"So it will fit in the pot," others say.
If your pot is so small that spaghetti must be broken to fit, you are cooking with the wrong pot. A good pot should be thick-bottomed – with a thin bottom, the pasta tends to stick and burn – and able to hold a gallon of water for every pound of spaghetti, with left-over room at the top so it can boil without splashing over.
The pot should be large enough to drop the spaghetti in unbroken, with none sticking out.
Bring the water to a serious boil before putting the pasta in. I mean a serious boil, not a few polite bubbles starting to form. A rolling boil. An angry boil. A serious boil.
Then add salt and wait a minute for the seriousness of the boil to return. How much salt? You want the saltiness to resemble sea water.
Why salt? It raises the boiling temperature of the water and it infuses its taste into the spaghetti. Unless you have certain specific types of heart disease, salt will do you no harm. It won't give you heart disease. Want good-tasting pasta? Salt the damn water.
I've found the cooking times listed on packages of spaghetti to be fairly accurate. Tasting, however, is the sure test. You want the pasta to be what the Italians call al dente. This means "to the tooth" or toothsome – dente being of the same root as our word dental. Al dente means the pasta is done, but firm, offering some gentle resistance when chewed. Al dente is not crunchy. Al dente is not mushy. It's a pleasant state in between.
Unless you particularly like washing your walls, don't throw spaghetti against it. If the spaghetti sticks, its overcooked, and it's overcooking even more as you fool around throwing it. Just taste. Is it done enough to eat, still a bit firm, but not crunchy or over-firm? That's al dente.
There's a difference, not just in texture, but also in taste between al dente and mushy. Don't overcook. And don't under cook. Aim for baby bear status: just right.
Ideally, you want your pasta to mate with your sauce. You want the two to wed, to go together like a horse and carriage. If you remove the spaghetti from the salt water and combine it with the sauce – or put it in a bowl so people can add sauce when it's on their plate – the sauce will stick to the pasta. This is good.
If you rinse the spaghetti or butter it or oil it, this will cause the wedding of sauce and pasta to fail.
So how do you keep it from being sticky?
You stir it a number of times while its cooking--do this with a LONG implement to keep from getting burned. There will be some stickiness, which is good, but not so much that you have a solid mass of stuck-together spaghetti, impossible to serve.
The most important time to stir is when you first drop the pasta in the water. Let me say that again. The most important time to stir is when you first drop the pasta in the water. This is critical. If you don't stir when first adding the pasta, I guarantee you'll have a mess. Give it eight or so gentle figure-eight swirls to separate the pasta as the first layers begin to soften and release their starch.
Adding oil to boiling water, thinking this will keep pasta from sticking, is a mistake. Don't do it. Oil on the water will calm the violence of the boil a little, making it less likely to splatter, but that's why you have a large pot with extra room at the top. Adding oil to the water is a waste of oil and will interfere with the pasta's attraction to the sauce. Spare the oil, stir the pot.
What about covering the pot? Cover it until it boils if you want. Once the water is boiling, uncover and don't cover again. Do not have it covered once the pasta is in the water.
If everyone is seated at the table ready to eat and the spaghetti is al dente, all is well. If there is to be some delay between the pasta being ready and being served, you may have to add a bit of olive oil to the pasta and toss it thoroughly to keep it from sticking. This will spoil the sauce/pasta wedding, but will prevent serving problems. If possible, though, avoid this and depend on good timing instead.
If there is unsauced spaghetti to be placed in the fridge for another day, go ahead and lightly oil it.
I remember as a child my mother buying uncooked, unpackaged spaghetti at a deli. The strands were about 18 inches long and each was doubled at one end, meaning the strands were actually 36 inches. With this wonderfully long spaghetti, you could catch a single piece in the tines of your fork then twirl and twirl and twirl, ending up with a large spool of sauce-drenched goodness, requiring you to open wide.
That was spaghetti.