Pasta is such a popular and quick dish, and the vehicle to many sauces – but it’s also easy to screw it up and end up with a stodgy mess.

Sure, there’s cooking instructions printed on the box or packet, but if you get distracted while it’s boiling, you may well end up with a plate full of tasteless mush.

Here’s five tips to help you raise your pasta-cooking game and get you cooking like an Italian chef (well, perhaps that’s going a bit far!).

1. Lots of salt

Many people will put in a little pinch of salt to the cooking water, and then be surprised when their pasta turns out tasteless. Use a big pot so that your pasta can move around, then add a generous amount of salt. It should taste a bit like the sea – not disgustingly salty, but obviously salty. Add the pasta once the water reaches a vigorous boil.

2. Don’t pay too much attention to the cooking time on the packet

drain-pasta

Most commercial pasta packets tell you to overcook the pasta, so if you are cooking dried pasta, check it a few minutes before the packet tells you it will be ready. This should give you al dente pasta, which will have a little bit of bite to it, and it will cook a little more as it cools, and even more if you add it to a hot pan of sauce.

3. Keep some pasta water

The pasta water is full of the starch that has leached out of the pasta during cooking, and it’s the secret ingredient to great pasta. The starch helps the sauce to stick to the pasta, so when you drain your pasta water, keep a cup of it back and add it gradually to the sauce until you are happy with the way it tastes and looks. Don’t use the whole cup unless you think it needs it – just add a little splash at a time until it’s right.

4. Don’t rinse the pasta

drain-pasta

Your pasta is coated with starch, which helps the sauce stick to it, so don’t rinse your pasta off after cooking. There’s no good reason for this.

5. Finish the pasta in the sauce

If you’re having pasta only with olive oil and Parmesan cheese you don’t need to follow this step, but any other type of sauce needs to be finished off by cooking the pasta in it for a couple of minutes until it’s well combined.