Many cookbooks, articles, and even cooking show episodes will tell you that the best way to test whether spaghetti (or another pasta) is done, is to throw it at the wall. If it sticks, it’s done. Is this a good indicator of the doneness of pasta?
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First, although you probably already know this, most cooks agree that pasta is done when it is al dente, meaning “to the tooth.” It is somewhat tender but gives a little resistance when you bite it. It is not mushy. So, the wall test is supposed to tell you when your spaghetti is al dente: just right.
It is not true. Throwing spaghetti at the wall is not any kind of indication whether it is done. I tried to find an origin for this instruction, or at least an indication of where it might have come from, but I was unable to trace it. It just appeared at some point. Chances are, it was started by one chef or one cookbook and was then repeated without question by many others.
The problem with the wall spaghetti test is that the stickiness of pasta does not indicate when it is done. If your pasta sticks to the wall it simply means it is sticky. When you boil pasta it cooks from the outside in. The outer surface of the pasta can start to get sticky before the inner part is tender enough. So, your spaghetti or other pasta can stick to the wall but still be too crunchy. If you throw some at the wall and find that it sticks, then you try some and it is perfectly al dente, it’s called luck. That is, it is a coincidence that the pasta stuck and happens to be ready. On the other hand, it may stick to the wall and already be too mushy. The test is simply unreliable.
Sometimes, when people debunk this myth, they overstate it. For example, some cooks say that once spaghetti sticks to the wall, it is always overcooked and mushy. In reality, there are a number of factors that determine whether it will stick, not only the degree of doneness of the pasta. The surface texture of the wall certainly matters a lot. Also important is how much of the surface area of the pasta makes contact with the wall. And, how long must the pasta stick to the wall? Should it cling for a half a second and fall off, or should it stick like glue? What about the force with which you throw it? Since you cannot control accurately for all these factors, and the instruction itself gives no standard or reliable guidelines, we may start to realize that this test is just plain silly.
How to Know When Spaghetti is Done
For most dried pasta, the box directions may give you a pretty good indication of the time it will take for the pasta to cook to a proper al dente texture, but the only reliable test for the doneness of pasta is to try some and find out if it is the right tenderness. You have to be patient and test it a few times when you think it is about done. If you plan to toss the pasta in the sauce, remember to cook it just a little less than you want it, and then let it finish cooking in the sauce.
I find that the best way to “drain” pasta is to lift it out of the water. But, however, you drain it, keep a little of the pasta water handy so that you can add it to the pasta and sauce mixture, in case you need more moisture either to correct the thickness of the sauce, or the help finish out the pasta (the pasta may need some more water to absorb).