How Much Pasta per Person To Cook: Definitive Guide and Rules of Thumb


“How much pasta do I make?” my husband yelled as I got into the car to buy something we’d forgotten.

“Two fistfuls each!” I yelled back. Twenty minutes later, I returned to find a mountain, no, an Everest, of spaghetti heaped on a platter. I had utterly forgotten how big his hands were compared to my tiny ones.

Have you ever made way more pasta than your family can finish, or too little? Do you always have leftover sauce, or find yourself opening a bottle of ragu to make up for a shortage? Chances are you have. We could all use better guidelines for measuring pasta and pasta sauce servings.

The best way to measure an ingredient like pasta is by weight. The USDA recommended serving per person is 2 ounces of uncooked dry pasta or 57 grams. For fresh pasta, use 90 grams per person (3.17 oz). Use digital scales for accuracy.

And adjust as needed for your family’s appetites!

For example, if you had to make pasta for 25 persons you would need a total of 50 ounces of uncooked pasta, or 3.125 pounds, or 1.42 kg.

However, chances are that just like in my house your digital scale’s batteries have run down just when you need to weigh something precisely. And hubby keeps stealing the cute pinewood pasta measuring tool we got from Daiso for his garage workshop.

It’s almost as if mischievous pasta fairies are wanting to make sure you never get the amount right!

But I’ve found ways to fix those pasta fairies. It turns out there are many handy guidelines for measuring pasta, including a completely unexpected recycling hack that I’m going to use from now on. Check out these tips for accurately portioning your pasta:

How To Portion Pasta According To The Package

pasta measurement

Many packages of pasta indicate how many servings they’re good for. To portion it out per person, simply divide the pasta into however many servings are indicated on the package and cook what you need.

For example, if a package indicates 8 servings inside and you only need enough for two persons, divide all the pasta in the package into eight equal portions and cook two of the portions.

How To Measure Long Pasta By Hand

You can measure portions of long pasta like spaghetti and linguini by hand as long as you have a reliable guide.

All brands cut their long pasta to the same length, so you can measure these by how many fit into a given diameter. The recommended serving size of 2 ounces fits in a circle 7/8 of an inch wide, which is exactly the size of a US quarter.

Just make a circle with your thumb and forefinger that a quarter will fit in, and fill that with your pasta. Each bunch is a serving for one person.

How To Measure Long Pasta With A Bottle

Guess what, the PET bottles for soda and bottled water have standard-sized mouths that are also the width of a quarter. You can recycle a soda or water bottle as a handy-dandy pasta measuring tool. Just wash and dry the bottle, then fill its mouth with pasta. Each bunch is a serving.

How To Measure Short Pasta By Cups

Short pasta like elbow macaroni can be measured using the same measuring cups you use for baking. Italian manufacturer Barilla recommends 1/2 cup of raw elbow macaroni per serving, 3/4 cup of shell, penne, rigatoni or rotini, and 1 cup of bow tie pasta.

Here’s the Barilla guide in table form:

ShapeRaw Pasta for 2oz servingCups Cooked PastaCooked Pasta Per Package
CapelliniA bundle 2 1/8 in circumference1  cup8 1/2 cups
Fettucine1 cup9 cups
Linguine1 cup8 cups
Linguine Fini3/4 cup6 1/2 cups
Spaghetti1 cup8 1/2 cups
Spaghettoni1 cup9 cups
Spaghettini1 cup9 cups
Cut Macaroni1/2 cup1 1/8 cups9 cups
Farfalle3/4 cup1 1/4 cups9 cups
Pennete, Rigate1/2 cup1 cup8 cups
Penne Lisce1/2 cup1 1/4 cups9 cups
Penne Rigate2/3 cup1 1/4 cups9 1/2 cups
Rigatoni3/4 cup1 1/4 cups10 cups
Rotini1/2 cup1 cup8 cups
Ditali1/3 cup1 1/4 cups9 1/2 cups
Medium Shells3/4 cup1 1/8 cups9 cups
Spaghetti (gluten-free)2 1/4 in circumference1 cup6 1/2 cups
Elbow macaroni (gluten-free)1/2 cup1 cup6 cups
Rotini (gluten-free)3/4 cup1 cup5 1/3 cups
Penne (gluten-free)3/4 cup1 cup5 cups
PASTA PRODUCT YIELDS

You can also figure out the amount of pasta you need by the desired serving size. Because most pasta doubles in volume after cooking, the amount of pasta you need is equal to half the volume of how much you want to serve each person.

For example, to give everyone one cup of cooked elbow macaroni, allow 1/2 cup of raw macaroni.

For pasta with big hollow air spaces like penne, we need to allow for the amount of empty space in each noodle. This adds about half again the volume, so a cooked serving is about 1.5 cups. This makes a single serving equal to 3/4 cup of raw penne.

How To Measure Pasta By Plate

You can also eyeball the amount of pasta needed by simply heaping raw pasta onto your dining plate. Place as much pasta you’d like in a serving on the plate. Since the pasta will double in size on cooking, this amount equals two servings. To count in single servings, divide the amount on the plate by half.

How To Portion Filled Pasta

Filled pasta like ravioli can be portioned by piece. A typical ravioli serving should contain about 8 pieces, double that for smaller filled pasta like tortellini.

How To Measure Lasagna

lasagna

The conventional wisdom is to allow about 9 lasagna sheets per 9×13” baking pan. This will yield 6-8 medium portions. If you’re using a different size of pan, you can also calculate how much you need using 2 lasagna noodles per person as your benchmark.

The typical box of lasagna noodles is 16 ounces and contains 12 pieces. The first thing you’ll notice here is there are more pieces than you need for the standard 9×13 pan. The extra pieces are the manufacturer’s insurance against some noodles breaking in shipping, so there should be enough to make a full pan even if a few lasagna sheets broke.

But what to do with the extra lasagna?

I always used to put them in soup, but I just found some interesting new ideas for using leftover lasagna sheets on this site, check it out!

How Much Water To Use In Cooking Pasta

Now that you’ve confidently measured your pasta, you’re likely wondering how much water is right. While each manufacturer’s pasta is a little different, you can’t go wrong by giving your noodles a generous allowance of water.

The Italian benchmark is 6 quarts of water per pound of pasta, but you can save energy and water, and still get good results, with 16 cups (4 quarts, or 1 gallon) of water per pound of pasta.

You will just need to stir a bit more with the latter option, but it will save you quite a bit over the longer term. For best texture, make sure the water is boiling before adding the pasta.

NY Times food writer Harold McGee experimented with cooking pasta in even smaller quantities of water, which will take less energy and time to heat up, and found that you can cook a pound of spaghetti in as little a 1.5 quarts of water.

However this required frequent stirring and pre-wetting the pasta. Having tried this myself, I have to say I prefer using a full gallon to make sure I get no clumps.

While a gallon of water per pound may seem to be a lot, remember that pasta absorbs quite a bit of water during cooking, and you’ll also lose quite a bit to evaporation. Also, the greater the volume of water you have, the easier it is to keep the pasta from sticking to each other.

For smaller portions, find out what fraction of a pound of pasta you’re cooking and adjust accordingly. For example, if we’re cooking pasta for just two persons that’s 4 ounces of pasta or 1/4 of the required amount (16/4=4); so we need 4 cups of water.

How Much Salt To Use In Cooking Pasta

pasta measurement

Figure on using about a tablespoon of salt per gallon of water. Divide that as needed if you’re making smaller portions. For example, if cooking pasta for two persons you need only 1/4 of the water, so you’ll also need to use only 1/4 of a tablespoon.

Adjust as needed for your tastes and requirements. Hubby is hypertensive, so we always cut the salt in recipes by at least half.

Is Oil Needed For Cooking Pasta?

While the traditional method of cooking pasta calls for adding oil to the boiling water, many chefs now say this isn’t needed and is in fact undesirable. You should keep pasta from sticking by stirring the pot often instead of adding oil, as oil keeps the sauce from adhering to the pasta.

Use a large, deep pot with plenty of water so the pasta’s free to move around, and get the biggest eaters in the house to help you stir!

How To Tell When Pasta Is Done

Different kinds of pasta cook at different times and even different brands of the same kind can have very different cooking times.

When cooking an unfamiliar brand of pasta, set a timer to the manufacturer’s recommendation but test the noodles starting from the halfway mark. Once the pasta is done, stop your timer and mark how much time you took; you can now cook that brand by timer alone from now on.

Perfectly cooked pasta is firm, with just the right resistance to the bite (al dente), and when you look at a broken noodle the inside should be of a uniform color. If there’s a white, powdery-looking ring in the core the pasta is not yet done.

Just when you should take your pasta off the heat however is another bone of contention for many chefs. Some maintain the tradition of cooking pasta to full doneness, then immediately rinsing in cold water to stop the cooking and rinse off excess starch. Others however favor skipping the rinse.

If you plan not to rinse pasta, cook it until it’s just short of the softness you want then take it off the stove and drain it. It will continue to cook over the next few minutes from the residual heat, reaching full doneness just in time for serving.

How To Drain Cooked Pasta

There are two schools of thought in draining pasta: to rinse, and not to rinse.

Which is right?

It turns out this depends on what you’re having the pasta with. When pasta is cooked and drained, it retains a thin film of starch coating each noodle. Rinsing will both stop the pasta from cooking any further and wash off this starch coating. But it turns out there are dishes that benefit from keeping that starch.

When serving pasta with sauce, do not rinse off the starch. The starch will help bind the sauce to the pasta, creating a more toothsome, balanced dish.

For pasta salads, however, you need to make the noodles come apart from each other easily and take the residual heat away so they stop cooking. Pasta for pasta salads and other cold dishes should be rinsed in cold water.

Before draining your pasta, however, chefs like Jamie Oliver advise reserving a cup or so of the cooking liquid. When you blend the pasta with the sauce, adding some of this starchy water can help you temper the consistency until it’s just right.

How To Measure Pasta Sauce

The right amount of pasta sauce per serving depends on what the sauce is made of. For tomato sauces, the typical Italian portion is 1.5 cups of sauce per pound (16 oz) of uncooked pasta. That’s exactly one 24-ounce jar of sauce. You can go lighter on oil-based sauces like pesto, 1 cup sauce per pound of pasta, and lighter still on rich, creamy sauces, about 3/4 cup per pound of pasta.

Related Post: Best Store-Bought Marinara Sauce

Since a bottle of tomato sauce is just right for a pound of pasta, which is good for 8 persons, you can easily figure out how many bottles you need by dividing the number of guests by 8. If you’re throwing a dinner for 24 persons, you need exactly 3 standard bottles of sauce. For 30 persons that’s 3.75 bottles of sauce; just use 4 bottles and reduce the sauce to the right thickness in the pan.

Fun Facts: How To Cook Pasta At High Altitudes

pasta measurement

Have you ever gone camping in the mountains and found yourself eyeing the squirrels like a Disney villain because the blasted spaghetti was taking so long to cook?

If you grew up in a flat country, chances are your first experience with the effects of high altitude on cooking will be a surprise, and an unpleasant, tummy-grumbling one.

The problem with altitude is water boils at lower temperatures the higher you go, and once water is boiling it doesn’t get any hotter – it just boils away as steam. In other words, the higher you go, the lower the temperature you’ll be cooking at. For example, in Denver, exactly a mile up in the clouds, the boiling point of water is just 201 F. This lower boiling point also means you will lose a lot of water to evaporation while you’re cooking.

To compensate for altitudes beyond 3,000 feet, cook pasta with 20-25% more water, and plan to cook about 25% or so longer. Mountain climbers use a formula of +1 minute cooking time for every 1,000 feet above sea level.

One hack suggested by Denver chef Jon Emmanuel is to add more salt than usual because salt increases the boiling point of water.

Chef Emmanuel also uses a lot more water, as much as 4 gallons for just small amounts of pasta, but if you’re cooking on just a camp stove you likely won’t have that luxury available.

Photo credit: ©canva.com

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