How to Cook Al Dente...and What Does It Really Mean Anyways?
Getting grains perfectly cooked to al dente is serious business in Italy. So, how do you know when pasta is cooked al dente? You throw a piece of pasta against the wall! WRONG. Al dente means “to the tooth”, not “to the wall”…come on now! You’ll make an Italian very angry if you attempt to throw their precious pasta against the wall, take some advice from me: don’t even think about it. (Scroll to the section titled: Respecting La Terra: Italian Al Dente Philosophy to find out why.) I learned how to cook grains in numerous kitchens across Southern Italy, below I share tid-bits about this grain preparation and how to achieve perfect al dente grains every time.
Cultural and Social Significance of “al dente”
In all the kitchens I explored across southern Italy, the cooking was the woman’s job—however, testing the pasta, legumes, and rice for doneness was the man’s job. Even in the most progressive homes, I found this to always be the case. I mentioned this observation to a girlfriend of mine who lives in Southern Italy—her and her fiancé are feminists—yet even they had never noticed this cultural habit and agreed that it was interesting and “just the way things are”.
Getting the grains prepared right is critical and sets the quality standard for the entire meal. If you’re hanging around the kitchen in Italy, regardless of your gender, odds are you’ll get pulled into the decision-making process of “Pronto?” (Ready?). Of course you don’t need a man around to help test your grains (I certainly don’t!). But, if cooking and sharing food is the blood line of all Italians, take this kitchen quality-control behavior to heart, cooking grains precisely is a big deal.
I was staying with a family in Lido di Noto, Sicily. One evening a sweet South American gal was over and said she wanted to cook a pasta dish for dinner. She insisted she was a great cook who excelled with Italian food. With raised eyebrows, we agreed to let her proceed.
She began boiling the pasta, then patiently foraged for fresh ingredients in the garden out back. With much finesse, she whipped up a beautiful braised meat and eggplant ragu, fairy-dusted with grated parmiggiano and torn sweet basil. Gorgeous.
I looked over at Massimo, the 82-year old man of the house. Hangry and eager to take the first bite, he twirled the pasta on his fork and immediately watched it break into itsy-itsy-limp pieces of spaghettini. Not only was he visibly angry, he was offended as an Italian. I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. Let’s just say that was the last time she prepared pasta for us. “You make very good sauce…but leave the pasta to the Italians,” Massimo remarked then gave her an atta-boy pat on the shoulder.
30 Second Window to get it right
Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the most influential photographers of all time, had a famous phrase called “the decisive moment”.
Decisive Moment Definition: Capturing an event at a precise instant that is ephemeral and spontaneous, where the image represents the essence of the event itself.
Cooking grains to al dente has its own form of decisive moment as well. Depending on the grain, you have about a 30 second window to get it right. For example, Fettucine is more robusto than Angel hair, therefore the al dente-window is a bit more flexible. It gets easier and easier to achieve al dente grains each time you make an intentional effort to make perfectly cooked grains, it eventually becomes second nature.
how to judge “doneness”
Nonni in Italy have the most experience with taste-testing grains. So how do they become al dente pros?! Lots and lots of delicious practice with understanding grain doneness.
The phrase is called “bite integrity”. I used to work as a food scientist who trained professional taste testers (a “descriptive sensory company” as we say in the biz), it was there that I learned about bite integrity—an attribute used to scientifically define the textural experience of a food product.
Instead of saying a subjective statement, such as: I like it—the candy is firm, but chewy;
Descriptive sensory panelists say an objective metric-based statement, such as: The candy has a bite integrity of 10/12.
Bite Integrity Definition: The amount of force it takes your jaw muscle to bite and sheer a piece of food with your teeth.
Bite Integrity Training Scale
You can only become an expert for judging grain doneness by thoughtfully testing the grains and carefully checking the “bite integrity” with your teeth. You will notice the grain bite integrity decreases as the cook time increases.
A Step-By-Step GUIDE to Perfect Al Dente Grains Every time
America as a whole likes their pasta more well-done than they do in Italy. Many boxes of pasta have suggested time ranges and even have an italicized time for “for perfect al dente pasta”. But often that suggested al dente time is still a bit too long. Here’s how you can avoid that stumble and cook grains that’ll even impress Massimo:
Note: This is a general rule of thumb for all grains, not just pasta.
Look for the suggested al dente cooking time on the back of the box, and subtract about 3 minutes. For example if the box says: “For perfect al dente cook 12 minutes”, subtract 3 minutes and cook for a total of 9 minutes.
Taste test a piece of grain by biting into the grain, it should be tender but firm in the center. If it’s “not quite there yet” and a bit too firm and raw in the center, boil another 30 seconds and test again, continue boiling in 30-second intervals and test until slightly tender but “firm to the bite at center of the grain” is achieved.
respecting la terra: Italian Al Dente Philosophy
Preparing Italian food is an intimate process.
With a short list of ingredients, Italian food is iconically simple. Truly caring about each ingredient is essential. But lucky us, nature does most of the hard work. It takes twenty-four to forty weeks to grow Italian wheat for pasta. Once Arborio rice is harvested, it gets aged in steel silos for quite some time (premo brands age their Arborio up to seven years!).
Thanks to Demeter’s blood, sweat, and tears—our only responsibility is to boil the grains properly and season accordingly. By tasting the grains carefully, you begin to understand the gradual cooking impact of each grain type over time. Try your best to serve the grain at its best; this gesture is ultimately a form of respect to Mother Earth.
Throwing a noodle against the wall to check for al dente makes most Italians very frustrated because of this. It demonstrates yet another way Americans cut corners, removing themselves from the food process. Food is for eating, not for throwing at your kitchen backsplash.
Italians feel very strongly that one should try to be a part of as much of the meal preparation as possible. Nevertheless, many of us in the real world don’t have time for all that fuss, and that’s okay. Perhaps you bought your cheese in a can, your sauce in a jar, and the only thing you actually prepare is boiling the pasta—Great, now you know how to do it with confidence and Italian finesse!