Al dente is an Italian term used in the culinary world that literally translates to “to the tooth”. I know, kind of weird right? It’s one of those phrases that don’t translate well into English. It is an important concept however.
The term al dente is used when cooking pasta, and it means to cook the pasta until the outside is soft, while leaving the center of the noodle slightly firm. Why would anyone worry about that you might ask?
It might not seem like it would matter much, but it’s actually a surprisingly important thing to consider when cooking any meal involving noodles. To put it in other words, it’s very important that you don’t overcook your noodles. Overcooking your noodles causes them to have a mushy and unpleasant texture. Not only that, but overcooked noodles are much more likely to rip and fall apart, ruining the presentation of the dish.
Perhaps most importantly though, is the fact that boiling the noodles for too long will alter their glycemic index. The goal is to keep the GI rating low. By cooking them al dente, the noodle stays firmer, which in turn increases the digestion time. This slower digestion brings with it a lower spike in blood sugars.
So in short, boiling your noodles for too long ruins the taste, texture and nutritional value.
Here are some other things to consider when cooking noodles. If you are making something like lasagne, you really won’t have to cook the lasagne noodles very long. In fact, you probably won’t even need to cook them to al dente. The reason behind this is because as they bake in the oven, they are going to continue to get cooked by the liquid (marinara sauce) in the lasagne. And since lasagne takes a long time to cook in the oven, the large lasagne noodles will get plenty of additional cooking time. Some recipes even call for uncooked lasagne noodles to be used.
Greek pasta salad should also incorporate al dente noodles. Since you will be thoroughly mixing the ingredients, you will want to make sure the noodles remain whole and won’t fall apart. One other thing to keep in mind is that the noodles will absorb some of the salad dressing over time and this will cause them to become a little more moist and plump. So that’s just one more reason to keep them al dente from the start.
If you would like to learn more about the subtleties of cooking pasta, you can check out a post I made that has a ton of good information about whether or not salt should be added to the water before boiling pasta. You can find that link here: Should Salt or Oil be Added When Cooking Pasta