One of the easiest and most versatile foods in our pantry is pasta. It’s a terrific vehicle to get just about any other flavor, sauce, vegetable or meat into our mouths. And, when it comes to entertaining, pasta should be at the top of our go-to list of foods for those very reasons! Instead, most of us pass on the idea because cooking a lot of pasta and keeping it perfectly al dente, not to mention hot, doesn’t ever seem to work. Until now.
Here’s your go to tip-sheet on how to perfect any crowd-pleasing pasta dish, make it ahead of time, and serve it up deliciously hot. And we’re not just talking spaghetti. Think ravioli, wontons, or dumplings. Even gnocchi works with our tips. Entertaining just got a little more versatile and delicious!
Steps to Cook Pasta for a Party
1. Cook your pasta ahead of time, in a very large pot, with a lot of salt in the water, not oil. You can make your pasta up to a full day in advance. Make sure your pot is large enough to hold the full amount of water called for in the instructions on the box (for whatever quantity you intend on making). If you have to, repeat the cooking process.
Tip 1: Just as you don’t ever want to crowd food in a pan (it steams rather than sears), you don’t want to crowd your pasta in a pot of water. It can’t soften and absorb the water; the starch released into the water has nowhere to go and clings to the pasta.
Tip 2: Don’t skimp on salting the water. It gives flavor to the pasta and ultimately your final dish.
2. Save some of the pasta water. Before you even begin cooking the pasta, get a large heatproof measuring bowl out and a ladle. As your pasta is getting close to al dente (see below) ladle out a good few cups of the pasta water. Set it aside to cool, then cover and refrigerate it. When you’re ready to serve your pasta you can use the starchy water to reheat your pasta (just add it back into a big pot and fill the rest of the way with water), and you can use it to thicken sauces and give them a nice glossy, rich finish. By adding back some of the starch, sauces will better cling to the pasta.
3. Cook your pasta to almost al dente. Your pasta will come with cooking instructions on the box. Follow these for timing and at the earliest time test a piece of the pasta. You want your pasta just barely cooked all the way through. Not still raw in the center, but just past raw and approaching al dente, or with a toothy bite to it. On the reheat (see below), it will only take a minute or two in the water to finish it perfectly.
4. Drain your pasta under cold running water and pull it through the water until its cool. After you’ve saved a good amount of the pasta water, drain it and under cold running water and using tongs or a large serving fork, pull that pasta through the water to rinse off any excess starch and cool the pasta down so it stops cooking. Do this for several minutes or as long as it takes to cool the pasta down. Then, as it continues to drain and cool, keep tossing it or pulling it with tongs to keep it from sticking to itself. This will take about 15 to 20 minutes but is essential! Any residual starch is going to make the pasta stick to itself and make it difficult to store.
5. Once cool, portion out onto a sheet pan. Line a rimmed sheet pan with waxed paper or parchment paper. Portion out servings of the pasta using a pasta fork or tongs. Twirl it, or mound it and then refrigerate it. When fully chilled, you can transfer the servings to airtight containers without fear of it sticking. And, you’ll only ever have to reheat exactly the number of portions you want to make! Pasta stored this way should last 3 to 5 days when refrigerated in a well-sealed, airtight container.
6. Reheat what you need. Before the party begins, bring your pasta water (and any sauce or whatever you are serving the pasta with) up to temperature. Then turn your heat way down to low and cover the pot. This keeps everything hot and ready. When it’s time to put the food out, turn the heat up to high (the water will return to a boil very quickly) and give the pasta a minute or two in the saved pasta water. Drain and then sauce. Plate and serve or put it into a large serving or chafing dish to keep warm. You can be confident that your pasta will stay sturdy for a good long while.
Apply the technique above for a DIY pasta bar, a buffet style-meal, or covered in your favorite sauce for a formal dinner.
Still haven’t had enough pasta? Try out one of our favorites below…