“Al dente” is an Italian term that means literally “to the tooth.” An English equivalent phrase is “Tender To The Bite.”
There are a variety of ways that you can try to express what the phrase actually means, given that “to the tooth” is meaningless in English, even if you did know that was the literal translation from the Italian.
- tender but slightly firm when you bite it;
- slight resistance in the centre of the food when you chew it;
- the state boiled food reached when most mothers would have said, “needs another half hour.”
In any event, it refers to the texture of the food, and “al dente” is a cooking instruction saying avoid soft, mooshy or limp. It is used in reference mostly to pasta and vegetables.
Some people dislike pasta because they were only fed overcooked pasta growing up, and have never got past that slimy sensation when they were forced to eat it.
Al Dente Vegetables
Some people feel that the whole idea of “al dente” has been overdone. The concept hit North America and Britain in the 1980s, causing some foodies to feel that every cooked veg should be as crunchy as celery. Many vegetables, however, need to be cooked longer than “al dente” to develop the taste. Brussel Sprouts are one; peas are another. Eggplant and potatoes, etc, need to be really cooked.
Most veg lose any bright green colour when they are cooked properly. Many people assume that bright colour equals taste, and so undercook them to preserve the colour. But taste and brightness of the chlorophyll are completely unrelated. Green beans, when well-cooked for about 10 minutes, develop a great flavour that isn’t apparent after only 4 minutes in boiling water.
In reference to pasta, pasta that is cooked “al dente” will still have a bit of stiffness to it, rather than being limp. When you bite into it to test, your teeth will still meet just a bit of resistance and detect the density of the pasta — without its being crunchy. The outsides of the pasta will be white, but an inner core will still have a trace of yellow hue. If the texture is right but you still detect a raw flour taste, allow the pasta perhaps another 30 seconds in the boiling water.
Before you start cooking pasta, have a colander (or other such device) ready in or by the sink, because once the pasta hits “al dente” perfection, you want it out of that boiling water right away.
Just before draining pasta, Italians often scoop out of the pot a small amount of pasta water to add into the sauce.
If the pasta package gives times for al dente, start testing a minute or two before that, because you can always cook more but you can’t uncook. To test, have a small plate (or clean surface handy. Scoop out a piece of pasta with a fork or slotted spoon. Mind the steam and the boiling water. Place pasta on your test surface, let cool for a few seconds, then pick it up with a fork and bite into it, and in your mind run through the “is it al dente” questions.
Literature & Lore
The phrase should be, in a way, “a il dente”, to the tooth. That, however, would sound awkward to an Italian ear. “a” means “to”. When it meets up with the word “il” in Italian (a masculine “the”), it merges with “the” to become a more pleasing and quicker to pronounce “al”. Thus, “al dente”.
The phrase “tender to the bite” has started to appear as an English equivalent. We already say “tender to the fork” instead of “alla forchetta.” That being said, though, just the word “tender”, which means “easy to cut or chew”, would probably do the job just as well. You could say, “cook until just tender.” More people in the broader general population are likely to understand “cook until just tender to the bite” rather than “cook until al dente.”