Test Kitchen tips: Defining 'al dente'
An Italian phrase, "al dente" literally means "to the tooth." The term is often used in recipes to refer to the texture a food should have when it is cooked, most notably pasta, but also with rice and sometimes vegetables.
To check for an al dente texture with pasta and rice as you're cooking, take a noodle or grain out of the pot and bite into it. The outer layer of the pasta or rice should be fully cooked, but with a very thin dot of white in the center; the texture should be soft but firm. With vegetables, there should still be some bright color, and the texture should be tender but firm.
The cooking times of pasta can vary by brand; I've found I almost always get the best results when I simply follow the instructions given by the producer. Same with rice.
Finally, as soon as whatever you are cooking has reached al dente, remove it from heat so it does not overcook. Strain if needed, and serve. With vegetables, if you're not serving them immediately, shock them in an ice bath to stop the cooking process, and drain them as soon as they cool so they don't absorb extra water.
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-- Noelle Carter
Photo credits: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times (top); Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times