Want to shave 10 minutes off your prep time and get dinner on the table even quicker? We've got you covered.
Credit: Greg DuPree

Check the directions on any package of pasta, and the first step will always direct you to bring anywhere between 4 and 8 cups of water to a rolling boil. That takes me 9 or 10 minutes, if I leave the lid off. And unless the pasta is fresh, it typically takes another 9 to 11 minutes to cook it al dente.

20 minutes might not seem like a long time to cook a bit of pasta for dinner. And in fact, there are plenty of one-pot pasta recipes that get the job done just as quickly. But for me, pasta inevitably ends up being a last-minute starch solution for supper, and 20 minutes is too long to wait. So instead of a great big pot, I reach for a skillet and use about half the amount of water. In the time it would take to just boil the water in a regular pot, I can have my starchy side—and eat it too. Here’s why.

Conventional cooking wisdom demands an adequate amount of water for pasta to freely move about as it boils. In theory, the pasta won’t clump together, and the water won’t become a starchy, gluey soup. In reality, a bit of stirring at the beginning of cook time—something you should do no matter how much water you use—loosens up the pasta and keeps it from sticking to itself. Further, that starchy water is actually liquid gold (at least in the kitchen). Rather than draining it away, use it to loosen up a pesto, or add body to any number of sauces (such as carbonara) right in the pan.

What all this really means is that you don’t need 4 to 8 cups of water to cook pasta—you just need just enough to cover it. 2 cups should suffice for thin shapes like spaghetti or farfalle, but you might need 2½ or 3 cups for bulkier shapes such as rotini or penne.

Select your largest skillet. Unless the stockpot you typically use is very grand, a large skillet will have a greater diameter, which increases the surface area over a standard stockpot. This means there’s more hot skillet that comes into contact with the water. Less water + greater surface area = a faster boil. That’s win-win on energy and water use!

When the water comes to a boil, at about 4 or 5 minutes, add the pasta (break longer shapes if they don’t fit) and stir. Lower the heat a bit, but maintain at least a rapid simmer. Keep an eye on it, as pasta water likes to boil over, and this is doubly true in a shallow skillet. (Pro tip: Don’t cook more than 8 ounces of pasta in the skillet!)

Test the pasta at about 5 minutes, because it will cook quicker than its allotted 9 to 11 minutes. For example, I cooked 6 ounces of elbows in 2 cups water in an 11-inch skillet and it only took 11 minutes, start to finish. Now that’s what I call a speedy side.