You've probably heard the term al dente but may be confused about what it means or why it matters. Translating literally as "to the tooth," it's key to maximizing the flavor of any pasta dish. "Al dente pasta is firm-it even gives the slightest crunch when you bite into it," says chef and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich, host of Lidia's Italy on PBS stations. "That texture sets off your sensory receptors and gives you a more satisfying mouthfull; after all, no one wants a forkful of slippery mush!"

You're better off nutritionally as well. Al dente pasta is digested more slowly, so it keeps blood sugar levels in check and helps you stay fuller longer. So how do you achieve it? Subtract one minute from the instructions on the box and then test a piece, says Bastianich. "Cut shapes like shells in half; you should see a thin line of starch in the center; for long varieties, the pasta should barely bend against the pressure from your fork."