The question “how to make pasta” is entered into Google millions of times each and every day. At a casual glance this may seem silly—after all, how hard can it be to dump a box into a pot of boiling water? But even the most seasoned cook can tell you this essential skill is far more than dump and drain, as poorly made pasta is one of life’s greatest disappointments. And one of the most important elements in building your pasta prowess is the one that is barely discussed in most recipes and how-tos: the water.
What’s So Great About Pasta Water?
Boiling water is where it all starts, and it’s always important to start things on the right foot. The water is what determines the pasta’s texture, its flavor, and how it will interact with the sauce. So, you know, everything. Plus once the pasta is done cooking, that water becomes the secret ingredient that every restaurant chef uses to turn simple noodles and sauce into the stuff that dreams are made of. It will transform your humble weeknight pasta into something so magical, you’ll seriously consider staying home and eating in every night of the week.
How Much Water Do I Need?
Surprisingly, not as much as you think! Many recipes tell you to use the largest pot you have for any amount of pasta so the noodles have lots of room to move around and kick off all of the extra starch, preventing them from sticking to themselves. But as you’re about to learn, that starch is incredibly valuable in proper pasta-ing, meaning too much water will dilute it to the point of worthlessness.
Fill your pot up so that once the pasta is added, it’s covered by about four to six inches of water.
How Do I Salt It?
Just like anything else you cook, you need to taste your water as you go. Start off with a hefty pinch, and keep adding until it tastes like palatable saltwater (like tears). If it tastes too salty, that’s a bad thing. You can fix that by pouring out a bit of water, then replacing it with fresh stuff from the tap.
How Do I Keep It From Sticking?
The only way to keep your pasta from sticking to itself—even if you’re using a ridiculous amount of water—is through stirring. Right after you dump the pasta into the pot, stir it around for twenty seconds or so. This will not only rinse off the extra starches but will allow the ones on the pasta’s surface to gelatinize and set. Once they’re set, they won’t stick.
What about that old “hack” of adding oil to the pasta water? It’s a flat out lie: oil and water don’t mix, so all the oil will do is float. While it won’t do a damn thing to prevent sticking, it can have a good purpose. You know how pasta water has a tendency to bubble up straight out of the pan? That’s because the newfound starch in the water allows the bubbles to hold their shape as the water boils. A few drops of any kind of oil will reduce the water’s surface tension, which greatly reduces the risk of your pot boiling over.
Okay, So Now What Do I Do With All This Pasta Water?
Wet starch is essentially glue: it can emulsify pan sauces that are heavy on butter or oil, and it can help thick sauces like marinara adhere better, bringing the two separate entities of pasta and sauce together into one harmonious dish.
If you’re going to drain your pasta by pouring it into a colander in the sink, use a large liquid measuring cup to scoop out as much water as it will hold (better to have too much than too little) before draining.
Unless you’re adding a cold sauce, like pesto, after cooking, it’s best to pull your pasta right before it’s completely done, then finish cooking directly in the sauce in a sauté pan. Using tongs or a kitchen spider to transfer pasta straight from the pot to the sauté pan will also bring along some of the starchy water with it, allowing things to start coming together straight away. Plus it’ll keep a big pot of water on the stove to use as reserves or to quickly blanch some vegetables to go along with your pasta.
If your sauce is of the olive oil or butter variety, as with cacio e pepe, begin by tossing the pasta in the sauté pan, continually adding water a few tablespoons at a time until everything begins to look smooth and creamy. If it’s a tomato sauce, add between ¼ to ½ a cup, which will dilute the sauce enough so that the pasta can continue to cook for a few minutes without the sauce reducing and becoming too thick.
Dish up what you’re planning to eat, then add a bit more water to the pan and stir well before turning off the heat. As pasta sits, it will absorb whatever liquid it’s sitting in, becoming firmer and drier. When you’re ready for seconds (let’s face it—we’re always ready for second helpings of pasta), turn the heat back on, add a bit more piping hot pasta water to loosen, and everything is as good as new.