Pasta is one of the first things many Americans learn how to cook. Yes, of course, there are nuances to the art of making and cooking pasta that you might not grasp in your early days. But when I was a teenager who just needed a quick, easy dinner while I was studying, I reached for the macaroni and cheeese box—or the spaghetti with jar sauce—every time.
But even if you've been cooking pasta for a long time, you might have trouble figuring out when it's done to your liking without the help of the timing on the box. Many pasta recipes call for pasta to be mostly cooked through in boiling water and then transferred to finish cooking in the sauce, a move that melds the flavors of pasta and sauce together as well as bringing along some of that sweet, sweet starchy pasta water.
Easy never tasted so awesome.
So how can you tell how far along your noodles are in the cooking process? Don't throw them at the wall—that sounds messy. There's a simple trick that you can use that doesn't involve biting into a slightly raw, very hot piece of rigatoni. All you need to do is carefully fish out one of your noodles from the pasta pot and cut it in half.
When you do, you'll likely see a ring inside the pasta that's a lighter color than the rest of the noodle. That part is the uncooked pasta. The thicker a ring there is, the less cooked it is. For pasta that's al dente, there should be a thin ring of that lighter color inside. If you want your pasta a little bit less cooked than al dente, look for a thicker ring. For pasta that's cooked all the way through, there should be no ring at all.
Watch: How to Cook Pasta
This move works particularly well with tube pasta, like ziti or rigatoni, but you can use it reasonaby well with whatever you've got. The other day I was using some pasta I had splurged on during a trip to a fancy Italian grocery store, and realized that there were no time indicators on the box. The old cutting-in-half trick meant that I was still able to pretty easily tell when the pasta hit that sweet spot between too firm and too mushy, even without having a timer going. And no wall-sticking is involved, which is an all-around win in my book.
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