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Cooking Tips

How to Cook Pasta for One: My Findings After Three Months of Recipe Testing

Goodbye, big pot of boiling water and conventional pasta-cooking wisdom.

Published July 17, 2020.

Indulging in the delight of dining alone is one of life’s greatest pleasures. If you're one of the 36 million Americans who live alone or one of the countless others who cook for themselves for other reasons, you'll love our cookbook Cooking for One, which has more than 160 perfectly portioned recipes, along with approachable tips that will help you become a smarter, more confident, and less wasteful cook.

Samantha Block

The way I see it, there are days without pasta, and then there are better days with pasta. A warm bowl of pasta is pretty hard to beat: it’s easy, it’s comforting, and it never fails to hit the spot. It’s also a go-to dish for those of us, myself included, who eat dinner most nights as a party of one. 

But the way we all learned to cook pasta—a big pot of water, a whole package of pasta, sauces prepared separately—isn’t ideal when you’re cooking just for yourself. Too many pots and pans pile up in your sink and who wants to wait (and wait . . . and wait . . . ) for all that water to come to a boil, especially when you’re only cooking about a quarter of a box of pasta at a time? 

I wanted to make the process as easy as possible for myself and other solo cooks, so when tasked with developing a few pasta recipes for our Cooking for One cookbook, I threw what I knew out the window and turned to my . . . skillet.

It took three months of research and carb loading, but I can say with certainty that the final recipes were worth every bite. Here’s what I learned over the course of that testing.

Solo dining never tasted so good

Cooking for One

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1. Leave the Pot in the Cabinet and Reach for Your Skillet

We knew we wanted to cook our dinner without a pile of dishes and since cooking pasta for one usually uses only about 4 ounces of pasta, the typical pasta pot seemed like overkill. It turned out that a 12-inch nonstick skillet with a lid was the right tool for the job. Not only does the wide skillet give your pasta a comfortable amount of space to lounge in, but that surface area also allowed us to efficiently reduce the sauce (more on that later).

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2. Pasta Shape and Size Matter (Kinda)

While working on Cooking for One, spaghetti was our go-to choice for pasta—who doesn’t love a good noodle slurp after all?—but we know that people like what they like. We don’t judge. And it turns out that as long as you adjust the cooking time, you can throw in whatever shape of pasta you have lying around the kitchen.

There's a step in our pasta recipes where you cover the pasta while it cooks. So for a thicker pasta such as fettucini, add a few minutes to the covered cooking time. For a thinner pasta such as angel hair, start checking for doneness on the early side. As long as you pay attention and start testing for doneness before the pasta is overcooked, you can use any shape you love (or just happen to have on hand).

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3. Use a More Flavorful Cooking Liquid Than Water

Pasta needs to be cooked in a liquid. Stating it may sound silly, but for me it posed the question of “why is pasta almost always cooked in salted water?” There are plenty of other liquids that taste a lot more interesting!

I’m not here to hate on water—you should drink plenty of it—but when it came to developing pasta dinners for one, flavor-packed liquids such as tomato sauce and broth took the final dish from flat to flavortown. Since you’re starting with less liquid overall and the liquid works double duty to cook the pasta and becomes the sauce, the liquid we chose turned out to be really important to give our dish a flavorful base. Not only did these flavor bombs season the pasta from the inside out, but they also provided a much richer and more savory backbone to the final dish. 

4. Be Patient and Believe—the Simmering Liquid Will Become a Sauce

During my first attempt at cooking Lemony Spaghetti with Garlic and Pine Nuts I was anxious that I was cooking more of a lemony pasta soup than a creamy pasta dish. You see, to cook pasta in a skillet there has to be enough liquid for the pasta to become tender, but not too much that it overcooks or ends up swimming in sauce.

Sam cooking pastaSam cooking pastaSam cooking pasta
Waiting for that magic moment when the liquid becomes the sauce, then plating a perfect portion.

In the beginning it always seems like it’s not going to work out and you’re going to have to eat your dinner with a spoon. It’s in the final 5 minutes that the magic really happens. At this point the pasta is almost tender and some of the liquid has definitely been absorbed by the pasta, but it still looks a little iffy. But if you then uncover the skillet, simmer it vigorously, and stir it occasionally, the sauce reduces, thickens, and finally achieves an unctuous, “creamy without any cream” effect that clings to the pasta and delivers an unbelievable mouthfeel. The science of food never ceases to amaze me, and cooking pasta for one will never be the same for me again. Sayonara, water.

Want more info on cooking for one? Check out this collection of time-saving tips and other helpful resources, and our Cooking for One cookbook.

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