Learning how to cook pasta is likely the first lesson most away-from-home college students learn as a matter of survival. Sometimes, culinary experimentation is pursued, owing to enthusiasm or sheer boredom. The discovery that pasta can be cooked in liquids other than water is liberating to both chef and palate. But, like all life lessons, there are basic rules to follow to ensure the best results. The trick is to know which liquids will enhance the flavor of the final dish without getting lost or overpowering the other ingredients.
Substitute water with chicken, beef or vegetable stock to cook pasta. Alternately, you can top off a pan of boiling water with a cup or two of broth or stock. The pasta will still soak up the extra flavor, and you'll save money and have more broth or stock on hand to use another day. However, in an article published by GlobalGourmet.com, author Nancy Caivano advises against cooking pasta in broth or stock if you're going to finish the dish with a heavy sauce, because the flavor of the broth will be wasted.
Toss a handful of pasta into a simmering pan of vegetable soup or stew. In this case, the pasta is an addition to the whole dish as it cooks and won't be drained or separated from the other ingredients. Use only the amount of pasta needed to round out the dish and cook the pasta al dente, or just tender to the bite.
Cook your pasta in a combination of water and tomato juice. This is a great way to get some extra vitamin C into your meal and the flavor sets the stage for other vegetables in the finished dish. Similarly, if you are preparing a meal that features pasta and seafood, add a bit of clam juice and freshly squeezed lemon juice to the cooking water.
Enhance the flavor of the cooking liquid with herbs and spices, even if it is just plain water. Caivano recommends tossing in lemon wedges, whole garlic cloves or sprigs of fresh rosemary. The National Pasta Association suggests enhancing the flavor of vermicelli with red pepper flakes, fettuccini with cumin or linguine with curry powder, all of which can be added to the cooking liquid.