All dente means ‘to the tooth’ – it is a term used most often to describe how pasta and risotto rice should be cooked but you’ll also find it used to describe vegetables (green beans for example). It means that they should be cooked until they are soft but still have a bit of bite when you remove them from the heat.
How to cook pasta al dente
You don’t need to cook pasta fully if you are then adding it to a sauce in a pan where it will continue to cook for a few minutes more. If you add fully cooked pasta to the sauce and finish the cooking, the pasta would be overcooked by the time you eat it. So stop cooking when the pasta still has a little bit of bite in it. For spaghetti for example, bite into a strand and you should just see a tiny white speck of uncooked pasta that shows it is not fully cooked through.
There are a few occasions when you should cook pasta all the way through – when you are making Spaghetti Carbonara, for example, you need to cook the pasta fully because you are adding it to the eggs and pancetta in a warm bowl, rather than finishing the pasta over heat.
If you are cooking pasta for salad, where the pasta will not be cooked further, you need to cook it fully.
Food snobs tend to look poorly on pasta salads but the evidence shows that pasta that has been left to cool, then chilled, is better for you than hot pasta. Read more about Dr Michael Mosley’s study into the benefits of resistant starch for the BBC here.
A speciality of Naples is an omelette using leftover cold spaghetti but you could use any cooked hard pasta. Fry some onions in olive oil, add sliced cooked peppers or cooked meat, heat, then add chopped fresh or dried herbs, pour over seasoned whisked eggs, cook until half-set, add the cooked pasta and press it gently into the eggs, sprinkle over freshly grated Parmesan and finish cooking in the oven or under the grill until golden.
Cooking risotto al dente
Risotto grains should have a tiny white dot inside them when you finish cooking – they will continue cooking after you remove the risotto from the heat. However, that doesn’t mean that the finished risotto dish should have ‘bite’. The final risotto, when it has finished cooking off the heat, should be velvety smooth and the grains should be plump and hold their shape but be soft and easy to eat. (You shouldn’t be chewing a risotto!)
Cooking vegetables al dente
There was a trend to cook vegetables so they were part cooked/part raw – this may have been that some chefs misinterpreted the way the French cook vegetables. But this is not the correct application of al dente: green beans for example should not ‘squeak’ when you eat them, nor should they be so soft that they can only be enjoyed by someone with dentures. They should have a little resistance when you finish cooking them so they can – like pasta and risotto – continue cooking using residual heat after they have been drained or removed from the heat. But you need to cook them almost fully first. The same is true for other vegetables: cooked root vegetables should be pleasurable to eat, they should hold their shape but still have enough resistance so they don’t collapse in your mouth. But they should not be ‘tough’.
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