An “al dente” Primer
by Mamma Marcella Hazan, considered by many to be one of the foremost authorities on Italian cuisine.
“Al dente means “firm to the bite”, and that is how Italians eat pasta. It is not easy to switch to firm pasta when one is used to having it soft and mushy. The whole point of pasta is its texted and consistency, and overlooking destroys these. Soft pasta is no more fit to eat than a limp and soggy slice of bread.
In the course of civilization’s long and erratic march, no other discovery has done more than, or possibly as much as, pasta has to promote man’s happiness. It is therefore well worth learning how to turn it out at its best.
No foolproof cooking times can be given, but you can begin by ignoring those on the box. They are invariably excessive. There are so many variables, such as the type and make of pasta, the hardness and quantity of water, and the heat source, even the altitude (it is impossible to make good pasta at over 4,500 feet above sea level) that the only dependable procedure is to taste the pasta frequently while it boils. As soon as pasta begins to lose its stiffness and becomes just tender enough so they you can bite through with snapping it, it is done. You should try at first to stop the cooking when you think the pasta is still a little underdone. Do not be afraid to stop too early. It is probably already overlooked, and, in any case, it will continue to soften until it is served, once you have learned to cook and eat pasta al dente, you’ll accept it no other way.”