Having already written much on the proper way to cook pasta, let me share a little restaurant chef secret solution for these scenarios: double cooking.
Have you ever wondered how restaurants get your pasta dish out to the table so quickly? If you've ever cooked pasta at home you know that it takes anywhere from eight to ten minutes to properly cook pasta, right? (I'm speaking, of course, about regular pasta secco or dried pasta as opposed to pasta fresca or fresh pasta, which only takes a couple of minutes to cook.) So how do restaurants keep shoveling it out so quickly? A lot depends on the restaurant.
Most little mom and pop places cook pasta à la minute. I know that's French, but it's the accepted term in the culinary world for food that is cooked to order rather than being prepared in advance and held for later service. Some upscale specialty places cook pasta to order, too. But the majority of high-volume kitchens – those that get your plate out in about five minutes – rely on a technique called “double-cooking” when serving most pasta dishes. Caterers use the method as well because cooked pasta turns to unpalatable mush pretty quickly after more than a few minutes in a chafer or on a steam table. But it's not a procedure exclusive to the pros. Home cooks can do it, too.
Although I firmly believe it is always much better to cook pasta fresh and serve it right from the pot to the plate, sometimes – as in the aforementioned situations – that's not an option. So here's how you double-cook pasta:
First, it is imperative to start with good pasta. All pastas are emphatically not the same and you'll get much poorer performance out of that ten-pounds-for-a-dollar supermarket crap than you will out of a quality product like De Cecco or Barilla.
That said, prep and cook your pasta as you usually would, i.e. four to six quarts of water per pound of pasta, adding two or three tablespoons of salt to the water. Do not – let me italicize that – do not ever under any circumstances ever no matter what your friend or your auntie told you ever add oil to the pasta water! Keep the oil on hand for later in the process, but keep it out of the cooking water.
After you add the pasta to the salted water, give it a stir and stir it again about every three minutes. This, along with the right cooking vessel and the proper amount of water, will keep your pasta from sticking far more effectively than will dumping oil on the surface of the water.
Cook your pasta until it is just short of perfectly al dente. This is a cook's judgment call and involves actually tasting the pasta, but in general it means shaving a minute or two off the full cooking time.
Next up, immediately drain and chill the pasta. I mean immediately and chill. Don't let it sit in a colander and cool on the countertop or something. And don't just run it under cold tap water. In a restaurant you'd use a blast chiller or a walk-in cooler to get the pasta down to about 38° as quickly as possible. (Leave a pile of cooked pasta sitting out in a room temperature environment and in no time you'll have the healthiest little bacteria farm you've ever seen.) Most home kitchens – even mine – lack such equipment. But we do have ice and we do have refrigerators. So shock your slightly undercooked pasta in an ice bath and then drain it thoroughly. Normally you wouldn't drain pasta completely dry, but in this application, you do. Now you can break out the olive oil and give the drained pasta a little drizzle and shake. Don't drown it; a little goes a very long way. Actually, if you've cooked your pasta properly, you really shouldn't need the oil at all. Finally, stick it in an airtight container, and stash it in the fridge. If you've got a Food Saver or some other form of vacuum-sealing device, so much the better. That'll make things even easier later on.
You can actually hold cooked pasta this way for about 48 hours. I don't know that I would, but you can.
Okay, it's later. Your guests have arrived or your spouse has finally gotten home. You can do one of two things; if you cook like a typical American, you can heat up some sauce and, while it's heating, you can boil up another pot of water and put your already-prepared pasta in it for one or two minutes. (Here's where the vacuum-sealed pouch is really convenient.) Then you can drain the pasta, dump the drained pasta on a plate and dump the heated sauce on top of the pasta and call it dinner. I wouldn't, but you can.
Or, if you cook like an Italian, you can heat up your sauce and let your chilled pasta cook in the same pan for a couple of minutes, tossing the pasta with the sauce as they cook together to completely and perfectly blend the flavors and textures. Your choice. I think you know what mine is.
So there you go. Cook like a restaurant chef and amaze your friends and family. Or at least make things a little easier on yourself next time you're in a tight spot.
Buona cucina e buona mangiare!