Al dente, simply translates as ‘to the tooth’.
What it means is that the teeth should find some resistance to the pasta as they bite into it or chew on it. This also applies to vegetables.
In Italy, if you are served a plate of pasta, which is not ‘al dente’ or overcooked, you can send it back to the kitchen because Italians believe overcooked pasta is reeks havoc on your digestion.
Worse still, if you are cooking for Italians and send out some over cooked pasta, BEWARE. I once had someone poke his head into the kitchen I was working in and said “hey chef, I think that spaghetti was probably overcooked by half a minute” Leaving the pasta ‘al dente’ actually increases the complexity in flavours of a dish. Try it if you don’t believe me. Living in Italy has made me an ‘al dente’ snob. I won’t accept overcooked pasta anymore unless it’s cooked by my auntie who, at her age, has problems chewing.
My golden rule for cooking pasta ‘al dente’ is simple:
Be ready to serve 1 minute before the indicated cooking time of the pasta.
ie. If the cooking time for your pasta is 10 minutes, be ready to serve in 9 minutes.
Pasta keeps cooking after it is drained, while you add and stir in the sauce, while you serve it onto plates, while you sprinkle it with cheese, while you fuss around the kitchen, while you are making a toast with your guests. If you follow this rule, by the time you get to your first forkful of pasta, it should be perfectly ‘al dente’