Spaghetti cooked al dente
Pasta needs a lot of room to move whilst cooking. For this reason it should always be boiled in a very large pot.
I usually allow 1 litre (2½ pints) per 100g (4oz) dry pasta. Therefore a 10 litre (20 pint) pot would be perfect for 500g (1lb) pasta which would be 4 main course sized meals. This takes 7-10 minutes to boil.
The water should ALWAYS be salted and at a rapid boil before the dry pasta goes in. As soon as the pasta is in the water, stir thoroughly or else it will stick together horribly!
Al dente is a phrase used in all pasta recipes. It literally means 'to the tooth'. In other words, cooked, but not to a sludge, gloop, bleeeghhh, or gunge.
The pasta should still be firm when you bite on it. This is especially important if you are going to re-cook it, as in a baked pasta dish. For these I cook it for a little less time.
You will sometimes see recipes that tell you to add oil to the cooking water. Personally, I'm from the school of thought that says 'NO' to that idea. Admittedly, it may stop the pasta from sticking together, but it also stops the sauce sticking to the pasta in the finished dish.
Boiling, salted water and frequent stirring is all you need.
The next vital piece of equipment is a large, heavy based frying pan (skillet).
A lot of pasta dishes call for the sauce to be pan cooked and then the pasta tossed in it.
If your fry-pan is full with sauce it may cause you a little consternation when it comes time to add the pasta. I would say a 12 (30cm) pan is the minimum required. For six main courses, probably 2 of them. It is also possible to use a large wok. I often do as tossing the pasta is a lot easier.
However, some practice is required as is washable paint on the kitchen walls and ceiling.
Always rinse the cooked pasta to remove excess starch. A large colander for straining the pasta makes life a lot easier.
Trying to tip a 20 pint pot into a tiny strainer is very likely to give you a sink full of pasta. Size DOES matter.
When cooking pasta for salads, always remember to sit the pasta in a colander and run cold water over it, stirring occasionally, until it is quite cold. This will arrest the cooking process and stop the pasta getting too soft.
Since pasta salads are made ahead, you want more substantial shapes, along the lines of ziti, butterflies, or penne, whose thicker walls will maintain their body as they absorb the sauce.
Since pasta does continue to absorb sauce even if it's cool or chilled, you don't want to start out with too dry a sauce, or the dish will dry out by serving time.
Be careful not to exaggerate in the other direction, however.
Article updated 25/2/2012, added picture
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