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mushy pasta - any tips?

When I make pesto or alfredo dishes, I like to mix the pasta with the rest of the ingredients and simmer a few minutes or so with the sauce and other ingredients. To do this, I usually account for the additional cook time in the sauce and drain the pasta 2 or 3 minutes before al dente but usually end up with mushy pasta anyway. Any tips to prevent this? Should I just half cook the pasta or is this method pretty much flawed and I should just toss the sauce with the pasta when serving and add perhaps some of the pasta water to the sauce to thicken?

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    1. re: momskitchen

      sorry clarification - i like to mix it in and let it simmer with the veggies and protein

    2. You may not be using enough water when cooking your pasta and when you drain it the excess starch in the water clings to the pasta making it gummy. Even though Harold McGee doesn't agree with me (or I with him, as the case may be) I'm using a gallon of water per pound of pasta. If you're using less, try that ratio and see if it helps. You can also rinse your finished
      al dente pasta with hot water (in a colander) and then add the sauce to finish.
      You might use pasta water to thicken the sauce but that's done before combining the pasta and the sauce.
      As "momskitchen" asked, why would you cook pesto?

      1. Could it be the brand of pasta you're using? Some brands seem to go right past al dente to mush...there's no getting it right. I usually use De Cecco (Rustichella D'abruzzo when I'm feeling rich). My husband brought Barilla home one night and I almost threw the whole pot in the trash. It stuck together something awful in the pot and had a terrible mouth feel (to me, at least) when finished cooking. What brand are you using?

        18 Replies
        1. re: Christina D

          I have tried many, many brands of pasta--my husband is Italian--and we both consider Brilla to be the best. It never sticks together and can even take reheating the next day without becoming mushy. Interesting the different experiences.

          1. re: escondido123

            Hmmm...that's interesting. Maybe I had an off night? I'll keep this in mind and consider giving it another go. Thanks for the input!

            1. re: Christina D

              The hardness of your water plays a role in the texture of the cooked pasta.

          2. re: Christina D

            I usually use the Ronzoni Healthy Harvest.

            1. re: fldhkybnva

              STOP!!!! You are using whole grain pasta, not regular semolina pasta. This is most likely the reason for the texture difference.

              1. re: iluvcookies

                Do they make whole wheat semolina pasta? I know nothing about pasta...clearly.

                1. re: fldhkybnva

                  Semolina is a type of flour, different than whole wheat. Semolina pasta is the most common type, so if you are used to getting it from restaurants, then Semolina (also called durum wheat) is 99% of the time what you get.
                  I have a feeling if you use the blue box of Barilla then you will see a big difference in texture.

                  1. re: iluvcookies

                    From a quick google search to understand the difference - semolina is refined durum wheat and thus not considered "whole wheat." For a pasta to be considered whole wheat the ingredient list should read "100% WHOLE semolina (durum) wheat." Is that correct? So to clarify, the Barilla Blue Box ingredients are semolina and durum indicating it is not whole wheat? I'm just trying to figure out this difference, thanks for all of your tips and suggestions. I might just have to try the Barilla as it seems to be a chow favorite.

                    1. re: fldhkybnva

                      Semolina is made from hard, durum wheat. Whole Wheat Pasta (like your Ronzoni) also contains the fiber or bran from the wheat and that cuts the gluten in the pasta, making the cooked pasta mushy.
                      Here is a good link to help you understand the difference

                      1. re: iluvcookies

                        And what was the pasta that won the taste test? You can't get the results from the Cooks Illustrated web site without subscribing.

                        1. re: roxlet

                          bionaturae then barilla multigrain...

                          1. re: Becca Porter

                            I'm not familiar with bionaturae. Is that a heath store brand?

                            1. re: roxlet

                              I just bought it at Wegman's yesterday in the pasta aisle.

                              1. re: roxlet

                                I have seen Bionaturae at D'Agostino's in New York. When people come to me for cooking lessons here in Rome, I ask them to imagine a wall of spaghetti in the supermarket and tell me how they would go about choosing one to take home. (Surprising how few think of reading the labels.) So, once in NY I decided to try myself and studied the wall of spaghetti at Dag's. Bionaturae was the only brand that came close to meeting my criteria. I now forget whether it met them all, but it certainly came the closest. Of course De Cecco would have been fine too, but I guess Dag's didn't have it. I didn't buy the Bionaturae because in New York I want to eat other things.

                                1. re: mbfant

                                  According to my internet search of its availability in my area (Westchester, NY), the only stores that carry this brand are, as I suspected "health food" stores. There's one in my town that carries Bionaturae, as do all the Mrs. Green's stores in the area. The only Dag I know locally is in Rye Brook, and it wasn't listed as a store where it is available. Apparently, the Whole Foods in White Plains also carries it, but that's pretty far from me. Since I am Italian and have been making and eating pasta my entire life, I am not fazed by a "wall" of pasta, but as I said, this is not a brand carried by mainstream stores in my area, and since I don't generally shop in heath food stores, I had never seen it.

                                  1. re: mbfant

                                    Wow, what a difference a pasta makes! I finally whipped up some pasta last night and used the Bionaturae that I grabbed at Wegman's. Same recipe, Bionaturae instead of Ronzoni and it was amazing! No mush and great, nutty flavor. I have to admit that I have always seemed to love that more "gritty, tastes like whole wheat" flavor that a lot of people detest and this pasta definitely tastes like it is made with with whole wheat. However, in comparison to other varieties I have tried it has a lovely nutty, earthy flavor which is difficult to describe and the pasta really holds up in the sauce. I have found a new favorite, it is definitely now front and center on the pasta shelf. Chowhound to the rescue once again, thanks for all of the suggestions.

                              2. re: roxlet

                                I posted the link for the explanation of whole wheat pasta vs semolina, to help OP understand the difference.

                  2. re: Christina D

                    That's funny--I like Barilla, but my husband bought Prince once (hey, the box is blue, what difference could there be?) and I almost threw it in the trash too--mush city.

                  3. The method is fine. I simmer pasta in a sauce to finish all the time. There is a lot of flexibility--it's hard to go wrong. You can test the pasta for doneness as it simmers just as you can test it in a pasta pot (indeed, it's easier to test out of a saute pan), so there's no reason it should ever come out mushy.

                    So I wonder -- What kind of pasta are you using? I always use dried pasta, and it's almost always Rustichella or Latini.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: AlkieGourmand

                      Dried penne. Should I drop it into an ice bath when I drain it so at least it isn't cooking any longer than in the boiling water + in the sauce?

                      1. re: fldhkybnva

                        You should never rinse pasta. You don't want to rinse the starch off.

                    2. Just cook the pasta for shorter and shorter periods prior to adding into your final mix. You'll eventually find the right balance

                      1. Don't simmer it in the sauce. Put in in the sauce (pasta almost done), turn the burner off, give it a good stir, and finish whatever last minute things you have to do. I bet the pasta will be perfect.

                        1 Reply
                        1. Mushy Pasta: I am Italian French, and Italians do not make mushy pasta.

                          My viewpoints: Overcooking or expiration date on the pasta. Follow the Pasta Box Instructions and use a high quality Italian brand pasta, and you shall not have mushy pasta.

                          best regards.


                          1. sparrowgrass nailed it.

                            While I'm not a big fan of using penne for pesto, mainly due to the fact pesto is a strongly flavored sauce that needs a little more surface area to spread itself out like in spaghetti or linguini, it should not be heated.

                            My traditional pesto is basil, pine nuts, garlic, salt, olive oil and parmesano cheese.

                            At room temp, the pesto should be thin or soft enough to just be gently blended into the al dente pasta in the cooking pan with a little pasta water, tossed and then served.

                            Basil will turn dark when heated so putting it to any heat other than the hot pasta will make things worse.

                            It's a simple dish that needs little help. Add basil pesto to heavy cream and cheese to make a pesto cream sauce and you do need to heat the cream and cheese but again, the pesto is added at the end and then the pasta folded in.

                            I just made a pint of fresh basil pesto last night. Gotta love the two sweet basil plants in my garden that just refuse to quit growing. LOL.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: jjjrfoodie

                              Great thanks. With alfredo I usually simmered with the pasta, but the pesto did get added later in the process for a few minutes on heat but glad to know that I should just mix it in at the end.

                            2. Simmer the veggies and protein in the sauce as you're cooking the pasta. Drain pasta and toss with sauce. No reason to simmer the pasta along with the veggies and protein.

                              This doesn't apply to pesto sauce as many have noted, no simmering pesto.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: seamunky

                                great, thanks. so just mix pasta in at the end and stir for a minute or two.

                                1. re: seamunky

                                  Depending on the sauce that I am making, I cook my pasta to a very al dente state (what my mother would refer to as "still in the box"), and then I finish cooking it with the sauce. This is not something I would do with any kind of cream sauce, or any kind of fresh pasta.

                                  And by the way, the traditional pasta for pesto is trenette, which is almost a flat noodle.

                                2. I think that your problem is multifaceted, from what I've read here. First, don't cook pesto, or simmer or heat it up in any way, lots of, but not all, pastas are served together or separately after being fully cooked and don't need any simeering together. Same with most tomato sauces, from what I've seen, the sauce and the pasta are combined after the cooking and stirred together. Or in the case of my non-Italian family, a red sauce is ladled on the pasta as it's served. I think you'll really like the advice you're getting here, you may have been led down the wrong path when you started cooking pasta.

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: EWSflash

                                    At least two well-known cooks differ on whether to finish pasta in the sauce. In Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan teaches that after it is cooked al dente, the pasta should be tossed with the sauce in a serving bowl. She teaches in some detail how this tossing should be performed. (Though interestingly, in a recipe for spaghetti with white clam sauce, she calls for finishing the pasta in the sauce without much comment.) By contrast, in Molto Italiano, Mario Batali says that finishing the pasta in the sauce is "the only way I do it."

                                    In my experience, both methods can yield very good pasta dishes. Hazan's method is easier and is my default, though I frequently finish pasta in the sauce when the sauce is thin.

                                    1. re: AlkieGourmand

                                      My opinion is that the cook should do what needs to be done to get a good result. Good pasta goes from chalky and undercooked to al dente in a few minutes, whereas lesser pasta goes straight from underdone to mushy.

                                      I am not a fan of rinsing pasta. The starch on the outside of the noodle makes the sauce almost creamy. Unless rinsed the pasta will continue cooking from its residual heat, which makes it a matter of judgment when to remove it.

                                      Sometimes, I get this right, other times not. If not, I'll cook as long as necessary adding as much pasta water as necessary.

                                      1. re: ChrisOfStumptown

                                        =========,,,,Unless rinsed the pasta will continue cooking from its residual heat, which makes it a matter of judgment when to remove it....===========

                                        Uhhh, that's why they call it COOKING. It an active process that takes learning and skill.

                                        No rinsing pasta. No

                                        If you have to rinse the pasta to cool it down to prevent overcooking then you've done it wrong.

                                        Suggesting an inappropriate cooking technique to compensate for poor cooking skills is just...wrong.

                                        I am happy and applaud your improvisation if only YOU have to eat that rinsed pasta. If you serve it to others, you are doing them a great disservice by doing so.

                                        I also want to add that as for whole wheat and multi grain dried pastas, for all of the years that I have cooked them, their window of "doneness" is very tiny. in my opinion.

                                        They don't have the dry state density to give that "toothsome" bite when slightly underdone so they go from just right and firm to mushy in a heartbeat. And I mean a heartbeat, which is why I use them judiciously and with quick toss and done sauces.

                                        They are healthy but man are they finicky.