In the years since I’ve gone gluten-free, the gluten-free pasta market has exploded. In 2017, the global gluten-free pasta market was valued at $909.8 million USD and it’s projected to grow over 30% by 2025. Gluten-free pasta can be made of brown rice, quinoa, corn, white rice, or various bean flours (read our reviews of Catelli and Tinkyada gluten-free pasta). Although there are many different types of gluten-free pasta, the one thing they all have in common is they are all a bit finicky to cook. Having said that, it is still possible to cook the perfect al dente gluten-free pasta. Before we get to the 10 tips for cooking gluten-free pasta, let’s first address a few truths.
Gluten-free pasta has a tendency to (be):
- Starchier than wheat pasta, as gluten-free flour has a different density than all-purpose flour. This can lead to the pasta clumping together.
- Mushier, fall apart, and/or not hold its shape when not cooked al dente.
- Not hold well after cooking. For example, leftovers don’t reheat well and they don’t make the best pasta salad. If pasta is not going to be served immediately after cooking, it’s best to store it in an oiled bowl with a tight lid or plastic wrap.
10 tips for cooking gluten-free pasta that will help you cook the perfect al dente pasta every time:
1. Cook Gluten-Free Pasta in a Large Pot
Use a large pot with lots of water as the more water you use the less starchy/sticky your gluten-free pasta will be. The pot should be big enough to accommodate approximately 6 litres of water per pound of pasta, but not exceed 2/3 of the way filled. As we mentioned, gluten-free flour tends to be starchier than wheat flour. The starch can create a foam at the top of the water, so if you only fill the pot 2/3 of the way, that will ensure there is enough room in the pot so that the foam remains in the pot and does not boil over onto your stove.
2. Bring Water to Rolling Boil
Before you add salt, oil, or pasta, the water MUST be at a full rolling boil. If the water is at a full rolling boil, the salt will dissolve better, the oil will distribute better, and the pasta won’t absorb too much water and become mushy. When you first put the pot of water on the stove, keep it on high heat and cover with a lid to speed up the boiling time. Once boiled, proceed to step #3.
3. Salt the Pasta Water
There’s an Italian saying that goes “pasta water should taste like the sea.” I, personally, have not tasted much seawater; but I still think it’s a beautiful way to say salt your pasta water. The general rule of thumb is 2 tablespoons of salt per pound of pasta. Salting your pasta water boosts the flavour of the pasta and that is particularly important with gluten-free pasta that can be a little on the bland side. I bring the water to a boil, add the salt, give it a stir and then proceed to (controversial) step #4.
4. Add Oil to the Pasta Water
Ok – this one is controversial. I never added oil to wheat pasta. I have always heeded the words of the Italian cooking Goddess Lidia Bastianich when she says “Never, never, never put oil in the water. Oil will coat your pasta and will inhibit the sauce to grasp on to your cooked pasta.” That is true in most cases, but I have found myself adding a touch of oil to the pasta water of some gluten-free pasta brands. Some gluten-free pasta types just need a little extra help to prevent them from sticking together depending on how it’s made.
If you add oil to the water:
- Once you have salted the water, add a little bit of oil, give it a good stir and wait for the water to return to a full rolling boil before adding the pasta to the water.
If you DO NOT add oil to the water:
- Once you have salted the water, give it a good stir and wait for the water to return to a full rolling boil before adding the pasta to the water.
5. Stir the Pasta Frequently
Once you have added the gluten-free pasta to the boiling water, you will want to thoroughly stir it for approximately 30 seconds to stop it from sticking together and to the pot. You must continue stirring the pasta every 30-60 seconds for the first 3-5 minutes of cooking as this is when the pasta is most likely to stick together. Once the water has returned to a rolling boil and the pasta is starting to plump up, you may notice a foam starting to form on the top of the water. Continue stirring frequently to prevent the pasta from sticking and to prevent the water/foam from boiling over and proceed to step #6.
6. Start Testing 3 Minutes before Package Recommendation
Read the package cooking directions and then subtract 3 minutes from the recommended cook time. Set a timer if possible. That is when you must start doing your taste testing. For example, if the package says that it should take 9 minutes to cook, start doing your taste testing at 6 minutes and continue every 30-45 seconds until al dente. I know it may seem like overkill, but this is the time to micromanage your pasta. This is the critical time that will make or break your pasta dish. If it’s overcooked by even a minute, you could have a plate of mush in no recognizable shapes.
To test it, just carefully fish a piece of pasta out of the pot using a slotted spoon and taste it. You want the pasta to have a slight bite to it, but still be tender. You don’t want any stiffness to the pasta. Keep in mind that the pasta will continue cooking in the strainer and when being reheated with sauce. Once the pasta is al dente, you can move to step #7.
7. Keep 1-3 Cups of Pasta Water
Pasta water is the secret ingredient to some of the best pasta recipes. Our Pasta Nerano couldn’t exist without it. Even if pasta water is not called for in the recipe, having it on hand will help solve a multitude of problems that could creep up. As we know, gluten-free pasta can be a little starchy and that can spill over into the sauces as well. If you want to thin your sauce out without adding fat (butter or oil) or leave it too runny, use pasta water. If you find your pasta is still sticking together, use a little pasta water. The pasta water will not only loosen the pasta up but also retain the flavour it picked up during cooking. So, before you proceed to step #8, scoop out some pasta water.
8. Drain the Pasta in a Strainer
Once your pasta has reached the desired (al dente) firmness, and you have scooped out your pasta water, you will want to quickly drain the water from the pasta using a strainer. Some people recommend rinsing your pasta but I disagree. I feel rinsing the pasta only serves to chill the pasta which leads to more time being reheated which could break down the pasta. I believe it is best to quickly drain the pasta, and immediately return it to the pot/pan/bowl. Don’t worry if the pasta retains a little water. That will help keep the pasta from sticking and prevent the starchiness of the pasta from drying it out.
DO NOT LET YOUR PASTA SIT IN THE STRAINER FOR ANY LENGTH OF TIME. It will continue cooking and turn to mush in a flash. So. quickly shake the pasta through a strainer, return it to the pot or waiting pan/bowl and proceed to step #9.
9. Toss pasta immediately with olive oil or sauce.
Once you have strained the pasta, immediately return it to the pot/pan/bowl to be tossed in the desired sauce until the pasta is well coated. If necessary, use the retained pasta water to loosen the sauce and/or pasta up, and toss again. If it is going to be sitting for any length of time, toss it in oil and cover it tightly once cooled. For best results, serve immediately. Gluten-free pasta does not sit well so you’ll want to toss it in your desired sauce and serve it right away. Then move to step #10.
10. Enjoy your pasta.
This is what all the effort was about. Dig in and savour every delicious, gluten-free, al dente mouthful. There is nothing like a good bowl of pasta and that does not have to be sacrificed or compromised when eating gluten-free.
We hope these tips help you cook the best gluten-free al dente pasta. Let us know in the comments if you have any other techniques for cooking the perfect gluten-free pasta.
Buon Appetito tutti!