Although it is not difficult to prepare pasta, technique and timing are critical. Follow a few basic guidelines to help ensure an extraordinary dish every time.
Never crowd pasta in the cooking water; always use 5 to 6 quarts of water for every pound of pasta, which serves six as a first course or four as a main course. Filled pastas, such as ravioli and tortellini, and long, wide noodles, such as lasagna and pappardelle, do best in even more water. If you have a pot that's large enough, you can cook up to 2 pounds together. Beyond that, you'll need to use more than one pot.
Bring the water to a rolling boil, then add a generous tablespoon of salt for every 5 to 6 quarts of water. If you are cooking filled pasta, adding a splash of olive oil will help keep the pieces from sticking or tearing, but with other kinds of pasta, there is no need to add oil since a few stirs will prevent sticking. Add the pasta all at once; if the strands are too long to fit into the pot right away, such as with spaghetti, don't break them. Push the tops down gently with a wood spoon as the bottoms soften in the hot water. Stir the pasta to separate the strands or shapes, and stir again occasionally while the pasta cooks.
The only way you'll know when the pasta is al dente is by tasting it. When it's ready it should be tender but still a bit chewy, offering some resistance -- but not a crunch -- when you bite into it. Start testing sooner rather than later (and well before the time given on the package) so you don't end up with mushy pasta. By the time the pasta is ready, you should have a colander waiting in the sink and the sauce should be finished and hot. The instant the pasta is done, pour it into the colander, and give it a few shakes to remove excess water. Do not rinse the pasta (unless you'll be baking it or using it for a cold salad), since the starch will help the sauce cling to the strands or shapes.
While the pasta is piping hot, toss it with the sauce. If you have prepared the sauce in a skillet large enough to hold the pasta, you can add it directly to that pan; keep it on the very lowest heat, and toss the pasta and sauce together, then transfer to a serving bowl or individual pasta bowls, preferably warmed. Alternatively, combine the hot pasta and sauce in a warmed serving bowl, toss together well, then serve.
The long strands of linguine and spaghetti are best with smooth sauces or sauces with small chunks, like clam or tomato sauce. These pastas are most often used with fish and shellfish sauces.
Fettuccine, also known as tagliatelle, looks like ribbons and is often served with creamy sauces such as alfredo, which adheres well to the wider surfaces of the pasta.
Farfalle and fusilli also known as butterfly or bow ties, and corkscrews are small, open pasta shapes usually served with moderately chunky sauces.
Sturdy sauces with chunks of vegetables or other ingredients best complement rigatoni, ziti, and penne. The pasta's tube holds the chunks and sauce inside.