Pasta Rules of Thumb

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2010 • all rights reserved

Basic rules for cooking pasta for great results -- and just the right amount -- every time
A few bits of helpful information when cooking pasta — particularly useful if the package is in a foreign language or there isn’t one!

Uncooked vs. Cooked Pasta

  • Dried pasta doubles in volume when you cook it.

Serving Size

For a main course, one serving is generally:

  • 4 ounces OR 1/4 pound OR 1/10 kilogram OR 1 cup uncooked (medium-size)
  • For “long” pasta like spaghetti or fettucine, one portion is about a 3/4″ diameter bunch — this is about the size of an average woman’s thumb (easy to remember as truly a “rule of thumb”!)

For a side dish, one serving is about half the size of a main dish.

Fresh Pasta vs. Dried Pasta

  • Use 1-1/2 times as much fresh pasta as dried.
  • Fresh pasta takes about half the time to cook as dried.
  • Fresh pasta does NOT store well in a boat.

Substituting One Shape for Another

  • In general, it’s best to substitute a similar size pasta for what was called for in a recipe.  That said, I find that it’s often good on passage to use “bite sized” pasta such as rotini or penne instead of long types like spaghetti or linguine — it stays on a fork much better with the motion of the boat.
  • Really small types of pasta — the little stars and so forth — are best only in soups or salads.

Cooking Pasta

Add 1/2 teaspoon salt per serving to the cooking water.

Bring the water to a full boil, then add the pasta and bring back to a full boil before lowering the temperature.

How Much Water to Use

Purists say to use as much water as possible to avoid stickiness.  Most cruisers use just enough water to cover the pasta for several reasons:

  • Full pans of boiling water on a boat are more likely to slop over and cause burns — this is even a bigger problem underway or in a rolly anchorage.
  • Conserving water
  • Conserving propane or other fuel — the more water, the more fuel it takes to heat it

Add Oil or Not?

Some people add oil to the cooking water, others don’t.  Here are the reasons — take your pick:

  • Adding 1 teaspoon of olive oil or canola oil to the cooking water will keep the pot from foaming over BUT
  • If you use oil, the sauce won’t stick as well to the pasta.  (NOTE:  If you’re making a butter sauce, this isn’t an issue.)

Cooking Time

Cooking time varies considerably depending on how “sturdy” the pasta is.  Sturdier types like fettucine, rotini and penne will be “al dente” in about 8 to 10 minutes from when the water begins to boil after adding the pasta.

If you are cooking pasta that will be further cooked in another dish (such as a casserole), it’s best to slightly undercook it.

Other Tips

I’m sure there are other “rules of thumb” and cooking tips — add yours in the comments below.

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  1. Bruce Bibee says:

    You refer to adding a half teaspoon of salt per serving to the cooking water. It would seem like one could add some measured amount of sea water: 1) it is going to be boiled; and 2) one often pays a premium for ‘sea salt’ in the store. A cruising cook is sitting on an ocean of salt. Is there an amount for this?

    And a related question – it seems like that there should be some amount of sea water that can be added to a liter of potable water to turn it into ‘gatoraid’ This would stretch fresh water supplies while supplying an electrolyte balance. Do you know the amount?

    • Carolyn Shearlock says:

      Bruce —

      While we had read about using sea water for some cooking and dish washing before we went cruising, we found that almost no boats that were coastal cruising did so and very few did so even in the middle of the ocean.

      The reason? In a word, pollution. While boiling water does kill many bacteria and parasites, it does not remove many chemicals such as pesticides and heavy metals. Some petroleum products (and by-products) may be removed, others not. And there are often heavy concentrations of fertilizers, pesticides and petroleum products in sea water — particularly in countries with less stringent environmental regulations.

      Most cruisers feel that the savings in fresh water usage are far outweighed by the health risks of drinking contaminated water — even if it has been boiled. I agree. Except in an emergency, I wouldn’t use sea water for cooking or to make up a “drink mix.”

  2. Candy Ann Williams says:

    Loved your rule of thumb–I always have trouble deciding how much pasta to cook…although our dog, that loves spaghetti, may not be happy with you, because he always got the extra!

  3. Nope, all of it. You can never have enough pasta.

  4. My husband would starve if he only ate that much

  5. You can also pre-cook pasta…put it in ziplocks…and later on make “pasta hobo packs” if you will be using a grill (either on land or boat)! My fav secret!

  6. Glenda neild says:

    We don’t use big pots of boiling water anymore. I use a large frypan place past in just cover with cold water then bring to the slow boil. The water gets gradually absorbed and the pasta does not stick to itself. This has made a big difference to us as water is precious.

  7. Michael Mangione says:

    Barilla makes a no boil, no drain pasta that is perfect for cooking the galley. You simply measure the water and pasta and heat. The pasta soaks up the water and you can conveniently add your sauce or seasoning all in the same pan.

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