The trick to cooking dried pasta perfectly is really all about the timing. Timing is important when it comes to cooking pasta because this means the difference between al dente pasta, cooked-just-right pasta, and mushy pasta. For pasta, the moment you begin counting is the moment the water begins boiling again after you add the pasta.
That usually means many of us find ourselves cooking pasta for one to two minutes longer than we thought we should have. That's because when you add the pasta to the water that was just boiling, the temperature of the water drops and stops the water from boiling. The pasta isn't doing anything for that first minute in the water other than trying warm itself up to the same temperature as the water it is in. That's why you don't see any boiling for that first minute! It takes a minute, maybe even more time depending on how much pasta and water you are cooking, for the water to boil again.
This is when you begin the countdown for the pasta to cook, when the water is boiling again.
After the countdown begins, you can start your pasta sauce or you can warm it up so that when the pasta is cooked to the perfection you want, it's ready to toss into your prepared sauce.
These are the times you need to remember for the type of pasta that you're going to cook:
Spaghetti = Eight minutes
Spaghetti is long and thin so it doesn't take too long for this kind of pasta to cook. However, there are other long and thin dried pasta in the market that might take less time or more time. Angel hair pasta is the thinnest pasta and these can take as few as three minutes to cook through! Fettuccine and linguine meanwhile are flat noodles that, depending on the thickness, can take the same time as spaghetti, give or take a minute or two.
Macaroni = Nine minutes
Macaroni are shaped pasta that are tubular but bent in the middle. This is the classic pasta used for macaroni and cheese recipes! These are best-cooked al dente but if you're going to be baking the macaroni after its time in the water, you can shorten the cooking time to as few as five minutes so when it emerges from the oven, it's perfectly al dente. Pasta shells will cook in the same time as macaroni, too.
Lasagna noodles = 12 minutes
Lasagna noodles are as long as spaghetti but many, many times wider. That's why it takes so long to cook! However, despite these being wider and thus, may need more cooking time, these are best cooked even less than the suggested 12 minutes. That's because like the macaroni that may be baked in the oven, it will cook and become tender in the oven so undercooking these noodles is a good move if you want to avoid mushy lasagna noodles.
Penne or ziti pasta = 10 minutes
These long, tubular pasta are hollow and measure around two inches long. These are best served with sauces that can tuck themselves into the hollow centers such as a classic meat sauce like the Bolognese. These need a little bit more time than macaroni and spaghetti because of its shape and you can apply this cooking time to twists or fusilli, rigatoni, bow-ties, and other irregularly shaped pasta.
If you have other shaped pasta, make this the rule: Cook it for eight minutes and if not yet al dente, add two minutes before checking doneness again. Most pasta will be ready in 10 minutes but if your pasta is thicker, longer, or bigger in general than dried spaghetti, you may have to cook it 12 up to 15 minutes like the lasagna noodles.
Perfect pasta can be achieved! No more mushy pasta that disintegrates when you try to spear it with a fork!