Test Kitchen tips: Defining ‘al dente’

Spaghetti with crushed black pepper and pecorino
(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

An Italian phrase, al dente literally means “to the tooth.” The term is often used in recipes to refer to the texture a food should have when it is cooked -- most notably pasta -- but also with rice and sometimes vegetables.

To check for an al dente texture with pasta and rice as you’re cooking, take a noodle or grain out of the pot and bite into it. The outer layer of the pasta or rice should be fully cooked, but with a very thin dot of white in the center; the texture should be soft but firm. Vegetables should still be bright in color, with a texture that is tender yet firm.

The cooking times of pasta can vary by brand; I’ve found I almost always get the best results when I simply follow the instructions given by the producer. Same with rice.


Finally, as soon as whatever you are cooking has reached al dente, remove it from heat so it does not overcook. Strain if needed, and serve. If you’re not serving pasta or vegetables immediately, shock them in an ice bath to stop the cooking process, and drain them as soon as they cool so they don’t absorb extra water. Then simply rewarm before finishing the dish.

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Spaghetti with crushed black pepper and pecorino cheese

Total time: About 25 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: From “Lidia’s Italy.” Use a very good authentic pecorino, one produced in Lazio, Tuscany or Sardinia. The cheese is at its best when aged only 8 to 10 months.

Salt for the pasta water

2 tablespoon whole black peppercorns, or more to taste

1 pound spaghetti

1 1/2 cups freshly grated pecorino cheese, or more to taste

1. Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, grind the peppercorns very coarsely, preferably crushing them in a mortar with a pestle or in a spice grinder.

2. Warm up a big bowl for mixing and serving the pasta -- use some of the pasta water to heat the bowl, if you like. Cook the spaghetti until al dente. Quickly lift it from the pot with tongs, let it drain for an instant, then drop it into the warm bowl.

3. Immediately scatter a cup of the grated cheese and most of the ground pepper on the pasta, and toss in quickly. As you mix, sprinkle over spoonfuls of hot water from the cooking pot to moisten and amalgamate the pasta and condiments -- add more pepper or cheese, or both, to taste. Serve while the spaghetti is very hot.

Each serving: 406 calories; 22 grams protein; 58 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 10 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 30 mg. cholesterol; 516 mg. sodium.