Happy-dappy definition hour: What, exactly, is al dente and does he carry a machine gun?

Al dente is an Italian expression which means “to the tooth.” It is used in cooking to indicate a degree of doneness for pasta generally considered ideal: Soft on the outside with a hint of firmness (not crunch, mind you) on the inside.

In other words, think the polar opposite of the mushy pasta they heaped on your cafeteria plate with such horrific abandon and wanton glee in high school.

The only way to tell if your pasta is al dente is to taste it (the whole throwing it against the wall thing is just too weird - don’t do it). To do this, scoop a few strands or shells or whatever of your pasta out of the pot, blow on it (I don’t know if this actually cools anything - Harold McGee doesn’t seem to think it does much - but I am full of hope), and bite it, paying special attention to the ease with which your teeth go through the pasta. If you feel a crunch (or if, heaven forbid, it should shatter), you have a ways to go. If it is mushy, you’ve gone to far. Shorten your cooking time the next time you make pasta.

And, while al dente does not carry a machine gun, his twin brother, al capone, does. As opposed to his other twin brother, al capon. Who is known as more of a chicken.

Ciao!