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The Geek's Guide to Pasta, or, You're Doing it Wrong

Mon, 30 Apr 2012 «permalink»

Pasta on Head

Pasta. Who doesn’t love it1? Unless you’re on some sort of low-carb diet, pasta has almost become more American than Italian it seems. But, very much like coffee2, there’s a great chance that you’re making your pasta totally wrong. And it’s not your fault, you’re just doing what you’ve been taught. I’m here, once again, to write so many wrongs and send you down the road to proper pasta.

What You’re Doing Wrong

I’d be willing to bet that unless you’re the kind of person who has no need for this post or you’re from a hard-core Italian family, you’ve only ever been a consumer of off-the-shelf dried pasta from the supermarket instead of fresh, moist pasta. From hereon in, when I say “pasta”, this is what I’m talking about; dehydrated pasta.

If I could take a bet as to how it is that you cook pasta, it probably goes something like this:

  1. Fill a large stockpot with a great deal of water.
  2. Add both salt and oil to the water “so the pasta doesn’t stick together”, and bring the water to a boil.
  3. Toss the pasta in, and let it cook until it is soft all the way through.
  4. Drain the pasta, and rinse it off.
  5. Put the pasta in a serving dish, cover with sauce, eat.

Some of those things would make Italian grandmothers cry, and some of them seem correct but can be totally turned on their head, which I’m also about to do. Keep in mind, when I cook pasta, I’m usually doing alongside some sort of home made sauce. You’ll see why that’s important later on.

Anyway, let’s break things down a little:

Number 1 & Number 2: Let’s Talk about the Water

There are a few misconceptions, and also a few long-held traditions, about pasta water and cooking the noodles that needs to be addressed here.

First: what exactly is happening to the pasta when you cook it? Boiling dehydrated noodles is actually accomplishing two completely separate tasks: rehydration of the dried noodle, and cooking the starches and proteins to make them more palatable. It just so happens that using hot water makes the process of reconstitution take a lot less time, which is why dried pasta is often tossed straight in to the water.

Pasta is typically nothing more than flour, water, and maybe a little egg. In effect, nothing more than a matrix of starches and proteins3. Starch molecules can be thought of as large balloons full of starch. Dried pasta has a lot of its moisture removed, but when the starch molecules become warm they begin to absorb moisture. Eventually, these starches burst open and release starches in to the water4. Starch is very much like a glue, and this is what leads to noodles sticking together or to the cooking vessel. This is typically frowned on; it leads to noodles that have been cooked unevenly and they don’t have a pleasant texture. From this, we make some claims.


  1. Cooking pasta requires a large volume of water, for two reasons. Reason number one is that the concentration of dissolved starches will be less in a higher volume of water, decreasing stickiness. Additionally, a rolling boil keeps the noodles moving around and decreases the amount of time they spend brushing up against each other, decreasing the chance of sticking together. A large volume of water has much more thermal mass and as such thermal retention, so when a mass of dried pasta is added to the boiling water and draws heat energy out of the liquid it can come back up to a boil faster since it retains more energy than a small volume.
  2. Adding salt to the water not only adds flavor to the noodles, it makes the water boil hotter as well as making the pasta cook faster.
  3. Adding olive oil to the water forms a lubricating layer on the noodles, preventing them from sticking to each other.

Why This Is Hooey:

  1. These claims are actually quite accurate, but, there are other ways to cook pasta which do not require the water to be neither boiling nor in a large volume. I haven’t cooked pasta using the large stock pot method in quite some time. More on that later.

  2. There is nothing wrong with adding salt to the water before adding the pasta, but it does nothing to the cooking time or boiling point of the water. First, a little background in phase changes and matter. When we think of the three phases and their transitions from elementary school science — that is, solids, liquids, and gasses — we know that often times these phase changes happen around temperatures; solid matter becomes liquid at high heats, and gas at higher heats. And these transitions can be reversed. In truth, phase changes are a little more complicated, and they have to do with the introduction of energy in a system (which can be accomplished via heat). This internal energy has a relationship to pressure and volume as well; it’s the reason that water boils at different temperatures when significantly above sea level.

With the exception of very specific events (such as superheating), when matter reaches a point of phase change, then the measure of internal energy cannot change until the entire volume of matter has undergone phase change. What this means is that if you take a glass of water, which freezes at 32° F, and you place it in a freezer being maintained at 20° F, the glass of water will reach a temperature of 32° F and then stay at that temperature until the entire glass of water has turned to ice. Once the whole mass has become ice, then the system will permit more energy to be disippated and in turn the temperature will begin dropping again until the glass of ice reaches 20° F. It’s not to say that being in an environment colder than that has no effect; it will make the water freeze faster.

The same holds true for boiling water; once the mass reaches 212° F and beings to boil, it will not exceed this temperature while it is a liquid, it will just turn to steam faster; water vapor can exceed this temperature but typically not liquid water. Now remember what I said earlier; this isn’t actually a first-class result of the heat, but rather a result of a change in the internal energy of the system. By fundamentally changing the composition of the system, you can change it’s thermodynamic properties. The claim is that salt water has a higher boiling point than pure water. That means that the water starts boiling at a higher temperature and then stays there, and at a higher boiling point the pasta will cook faster.

The truth is that while salt water does boil at a higher temperature than pure water, it’s nearly negligible; fractions of a degree, and that’s with a lot of salt. The benefit to salting the water comes from the flavor enhancement; the starch molecules in the pasta will only be able to absorb salt while the noodles are hot and the salt is dissolved in the water. So if you’re a fan of salty pasta and you don’t want all of the flavor to be in your sauce, then you can add some salt to water.

  1. Adding oil to water achieves exactly nothing. Oil floats in water, and you can’t really change that. Any oil you add to boiling water will just sit on the top of the water and do nothing to the noodles.

Some people acknowledge this and say that you should oil or butter your noodles after draining. I suppose that this is sort of a personal taste thing, but I also greatly disagree with this. Oiling your noodles will coat them and keep them from sticking together, but it also keeps whatever sauce you’re using from interacting with the released starches still clinging to the noodles, preventing the sauce from sticking to the noodles and taking a way a little bit of that thickening goodness that you get (more on that later).

Cook The Noodles All The Way Through, Til Soft

Eww. Eww, eww eww eww. I’m not sure why Americans love mushy pasta, but they do. They love it so much that “Eye-talian” mainstay Olive Garden intentionally overcooks their noodles to make those mushy ‘merican noodles (bullet number 3).

I suppose if this is all you’ve ever known then it’s what you like. And I know a lot of people who have a great dislike for flawlessly cooked al dente pasta because they think it’s undercooked. But you should definitely learn how to cook your pasta al dente (firm but not hard). You also need to learn about residual heat, and the fact that even when pasta is pulled off the heat and drained it will continue to cook for a little while longer. Drain your noodles when they are still slightly harder than al dente to get perfectly cooked noodles later; especially if you plan on tossing your noodles in a pan with some sauce later on. A good al dente pasta will have the same pasta taste that you know with a slightly firmer bite to it. The inside should not be dry, chalky, or hard. Start checking your pasta around a minute or two before the suggested time on your packaging.

Rinsing Your Noodles

This is often used as a way to get the pasta to stop cooking quicker once drained, but I find this to have an undesirable effect; you wash off all of the delicious dissolved, gluey starches. I’ve heard the argument that rinsing pasta is good for pasta salads. I suppose that’s viable. But I highly prefer an unrinsed noodle.

So, what should you be doing?

Stuff I Said I’d Get To Later

Let’s talk about starches again. So much of cooking pasta well comes down to utilizing the starches released by the cooked noodles. It’s a long standing trick of chefs and restauranteurs around the world to reserve water that pasta has been cooked in and to then add a small amount of it to your sauce before tossing your noodles in it. When I worked for a few years in fine dining, I learned the process for plating a fresh pasta dish and still use it myself this day. The pasta is boiled, the sauce placed in a large sautee pan, the slightly harder than al dente noodles are added to the sauce with a small amount of retained pasta water, and they are all tossed together for about a minute. This thickens the sauce and helps it stick to the noodles through the dissolved starches.

There are other tricks, though, to getting a nice, thick, starchy sauce glued to your pasta. This is where some of the low-volume cooking tricks come in to play.

The first way of cooking pasta with a low volume of water is to use a large skillet or sautee and add the dry pasta to the pan, then fill it with water and place the cold water and pasta over heat until it starts to boil. Stir a bit more frequently than you normally would but not too much and mostly at the beginning of them sitting in the water, and once you get really good at this you can gauge just how much water you’ll need to get a nice al dente noodle while having almost all of the water boil off until you’re left with a hair of water, a ton of starch, and then you can add your sauce right on top of the noodles to toss and serve. It looks something like this:

When you cook pasta this way, it should be sauced immediately, but the results are amazing.

So, what about that other way of cooking pasta I was talking about? You can soak the noodles for an extended period of time, usually a couple of hours. Be aware that if you do this, the pasta will cook very quickly since you’re skipping the rehydration part of the cooking process. A neat trick to making the pasta this way is that if you sufficiently hyrdate the noodles and you have a good volume of sauce, you can actually cook your pasta in your sauce. It will only take a few minutes to cook the noodles through and you’ll get a nice binding between the noodles and the sauce. I made spaghetti last night using this very technique. You get a good deal of starchy water left too this way, I find often more concentrated than the water you get from boiling the noodles.

I personally recommend combining a nice, extra-starchy pasta cooked this way served with Neven Mrgan’s phenomenal Tomato Butter sauce. A simple, refreshing, filling meal.

Cooked properly.

  1. Communists. Communists don’t love pasta. That means you, Dan Benjamin.

  2. Seriously, the rest of this series is coming. Life and all that.

  3. Even without egg in noodles, there is still a decent matrix of gluten. Which is a protein.

  4. This is what makes pasta water cloudy. You should save your pasta water. More on this later.