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Trail Chef: 8 Tips for Making Perfect Pasta

Plus: Pesto Pasta with a Kick recipe

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My family and friends probably can’t tell from the dishes I cook (or the way I cook), but I DO watch the occasional cooking show. And I always pay particularly close attention to those cooking segments involving pasta—one of my favorite foods in camp or at home. Easy to cook and packed with carbohydrates, noodles are ideal for helping you refuel after a long day on the trail.

I admit I am no Martha (I’ve been known to set things on fire in the kitchen…and it wasn’t the crème brûlée”), but I have learned a thing or two over the years about how to make the perfect pasta. I could write a very long list of ways not to cook pasta (not too soggy, not too brittle, not a big, congealed ball of mush), but instead here are a few tips and a recipe to try.

  1. Use a large pot that holds plenty of water. The minimum amount of water you should use is one quart (four cups) of water for every four ounces of dry pasta. Plenty of water will help prevent the pasta from clumping and sticking together.
  2. Covering the pot with a lid will help bring the water to a boil faster. This doesn’t mean that the water won’t boil over, so be sure to watch it.
  3. Salt the water to boost the pasta’s flavor. The cooking noodles will absorb the liquid. You don’t need more than two tablespoons of salt per pound of pasta. Just remember not to salt the water until it comes to a boil. If you add the salt to cold water, it will take a little longer for the water to boil and the salt could also pit the bottom of your pot.
  4. Stir the pasta after you add it to the boiling water and occasionally throughout the cooking time. This will prevent noodles from sticking to the bottom of the pot and also from clumping.
  5. Don’t add oil to the water. Oil will coat the pasta and prevent your sauce from sticking.
  6. Pasta can overcook quickly. Test for doneness about four minutes before the time given on the package instructions. Most pastas cook in approximately eight to 12 minutes. It should be tender but still firm when you eat it, or al dente. Remember that pasta will continue to cook and soften even after you drain it. For fresh pasta, you know it is done when it rises to the surface.
  7. Drain the pasta immediately in a large colander and shake it well to remove excess water. Don’t rinse the pasta (expect when making a cold pasta salad or lasagna.) Rinsing the pasta will remove the starch that helps your sauce adhere to the noodles.
  8. Try whole-wheat or whole-grain pasta. It has more fiber, which will keep you fuller longer.

Pine Nut Pasta

(Serves about 4)


16 ounces pasta

2 packed cups fresh basil leaves

½ cup Parmesan cheese

½ teaspoon salt

Garlic clove

¼ cup pine nuts

Red pepper flakes (optional)

2/3 cup extra virgin olive-oil

Sun-dried tomatoes (optional)

At home

In a food processor, combine basil, Parmesan cheese, and salt. Then add in garlic, pine nuts, and, if you want some added kick to your sauce, red pepper flakes. (If you don’t have any pine nuts handy, you can also use walnuts.) Once all of the ingredients are combined, slowly add extra virgin olive oil. Adjust the sauce to your taste. Some people like it smoother with a little more olive oil, while others prefer an earthier texture with more pesto and pine nuts. Pack in a spill-proof container. True, you can buy premade pesto sauce at the grocery store, but I have yet to find one that can compete with homemade.

In camp

Use your favorite type of pasta such as rotini (my favorite), bow tie, penne, or angel hair. Cook pasta according to directions and tips listed above. Drain pasta well and add pesto sauce. Mix well so all of the pasta is coated with sauce. If you have extra whole pine nuts or walnuts, you can sprinkle them on top. For extra flavor, mix in some sun-dried tomatoes.

—Laura Binks

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