Al dente is an Italian phrase which means “to the tooth.” It is used to refer to foods which are cooked completely, but not soft and overdone. Most commonly, it is used in the context of pasta, although one could also make rice or vegetables al dente. The goal is to achieve complexity of texture while also ensuring that the dish is completely cooked. Learning to cook to this stage takes practice, and the kitchen needs to be closely supervised while the food is cooking to ensure that it does not become overdone.
The term originates from the fact that the pasta needs to be chewed to be eaten, because it is firm with some resistance. Pasta which sticks to the teeth is usually considered to the underdone, and it may have a pale uncooked core, or a floury taste. This is undesired, except possibly with baked dishes, in which the pasta will be cooked in the oven after being boiled. Pasta should be well stirred while cooking and frequently tasted, because the line between al dente and overdone is very fine.
The texture of pasta al dente is preferred by many Italians as well as cooks outside of Italy. The more dense texture carries flavors well, and encourages consumers to linger over their food because they are forced to chew it. Mushy, overcooked pasta also tends to be blander in flavor, and it can detract from a complex hand made pasta sauce. The term is also sometimes translated as “to the bite,” because the pasta engages the consumer with its robust texture.
Vegetables can also be termed al dente, when they are cooked to the stage where they are warmed through, but still slightly crisp. Vegetables cooked in this way can be used in a variety of dishes, and the crisp texture has a pleasant feeling in the mouth. In addition, when cooked al dente and cooled with water to stop the heating process, vegetables retain their bright and distinctive colors, which can make a dish more attractive to look at. The term is also used to refer to chewy rice.
To cook pasta al dente, use a pot with plenty of water brought to the boil with salt. Add the pasta, and use the time guidelines on the box as a rough guide. Stir the pasta frequently to prevent it from sticking, and bring the water temperature down so that the pasta is not being aggressively boiled. As you reach the low end of the time window, start pulling out pasta to taste periodically, until it has reached the ideal stage. Al dente pasta will be chewy without any crispness, and it should be promptly drained and sauced.