Do you need to cook pasta on high heat?
It’s a question a friend of mine, who recently got into cooking, asked. And, truth be told, I hadn’t given it that much thought.
Since she’s probably not the only one asking, I thought to do my usual research into the science of cooking pasta—and write this post.
So, for all of you out there who may be wondering whether or not to set the heat on your stove to high when cooking pasta, here’s everything you need to know (and nothing you don’t).
You don’t need to cook pasta on high heat. However, turning up the heat on your stove to high will bring the pot of water to a boil faster. When you add the pasta, give it an initial stir to keep it from sticking and reduce the heat to medium-high.
Since you can’t heat water past its boiling point in normal circumstances, keeping the heat on your stove on high won’t cook the pasta faster but will cause the water to evaporate quicker.
To show you why and how that works, I’m going to take you all the way back to physics class in high school (don’t worry, there won’t be an exam by the end of this post).
Water exists in three states: solid, liquid, and gas.
There are six ways for water to change from one state to another, all of which are caused by changes in pressure and temperature. Those ways include melting, freezing, evaporation, condensation, sublimation, and deposition.
When you bring a pot of water to a boil, you’re raising its pressure by increasing the temperature, which causes it to evaporate gradually.
Some of you may remember from high-school physics that energy can never be created or destroyed—it’s simply transferred from one form to another. The universe is an exciting place to live and, at any point in time, the total amount of energy in it will always be the same.
Simply put, to boil a pot of water, you take energy in the form of electricity, convert it to heat with the help of your stove, then charge the water molecules with it (using the pot as a vessel to hold the water in place).
Eventually, the water molecules get charged with too much energy to stay in place; they have no other option but to move. You probably know how that feels. Think about a time when you drank too much coffee or ate an excessive amount of sugar.
Next, the water molecules charged with the most energy form gaseous molecules of water vapor, which end up floating to the surface in the form of bubbles and escaping into the open air of your home kitchen.
This, in case you’ve ever wondered, is why the amount of water in your pot will decrease as you raise the heat and boil it for a longer period of time. So the water will exceed its boiling point—it will just evaporate at a faster rate.
The boiling point of water is the exact temperature at which this process occurs—and it’s determined by the atmospheric pressure of the air around you.
Interestingly enough, if you live at a high altitude, like at the foot of the Alps or in the mountains of Colorado, the atmospheric pressure is lower (since there’s literally less atmosphere to press down on the earth). This means that water will have a lower boiling point, so you’ll need to boil and simmer your food for a bit longer (than if you lived on the coast of the Mediterranean sea or the Atlantic ocean).
As a rule of thumb, liquid water boils when it gets heated to 212°F (100°C) at 1 atmosphere of pressure.
Though water will boil at a slightly higher temperature if you lived near the sea and a somewhat lower one if you lived up in the mountains, the reality for most of us is that it doesn’t make any significant difference.
By now, some of you are probably thinking, “Jim, I appreciate a physics lesson on any day, but why are you telling me all of this?”
Here’s the long story short.
What Happens When You Boil a Pot of Water
You bring a pot of water to a boil. Personality chefs and cookbook authors will tell you to do so over high heat because it brings the water to its boiling point the fastest.
Most chefs will also tell you to turn the heat down to medium-high shortly after adding the pasta to the pot.
Why is that?
Pasta, even at room temperature, is colder than water’s boiling point. As soon as you add the noodles to your pot, the temperature of the water in it will drop below 212°F (100°C), and it will take time for it to go back up.
The exact time, as we just established, is hard to tell. It will depend on the atmospheric pressure of where you live, the type of stove you cook with, the size of the pot you’re boiling the pasta in, and the temperature of the noodles at the time when you added them in.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that soon after—maybe 10, maybe 20, maybe 30 seconds—the water will heat back up to its boiling point and recover the boil.
At this moment, it should be totally okay for you to turn down the heat to medium-high. After all, you can’t heat water past its boiling point in the conditions of your home kitchen. So the higher the heat, the faster the evaporation. As one Redditor put it, “you’re basically wasting fuel.”
Does Adding Salt to Water Increase Its Boiling Point
Yes, adding salt to water does raise its boiling point. But don’t listen to people who tell you to add salt to your pasta water for that reason. The amount by which this happens in the conditions of your home kitchen is so tiny that it won’t make any difference.
Pasta water, as Italian chefs like to say, should taste like the sea. Not because it boils the pasta faster, but because it seasons it while cooking. As you probably know, pasta is made by mixing flour, water, and, occasionally, eggs, then kneading and cutting it into shapes.
By default, pasta tastes bland. That’s not to say that good pasta won’t be aromatic or flavorful on its own. On the contrary, the best boxed pasta in the store and the more expensive pasta brands in delis will have a wheaty fragrance and earthy taste, even if you forget to cook them in salted water. It’s just that salt will amplify these characteristics.
And, while we’re on the topic of myth-busting, don’t add oil to your pasta water. It won’t prevent the noodles from sticking together, but it will keep the sauce from clinging once you toss them with it (which is the exact opposite of what you want to achieve).
No, you don’t need to cook pasta on high heat. At the same time, nothing stops you from doing so—as long as you mind the level of water in your pot.
This is why most chefs will advise you to turn down the heat to medium-high shortly after adding the noodles, which is a generally good habit to have for your own convenience and the sake of your electricity bill.
Still, do I do that 99% of the time? No. Since I use an induction cooktop that’s highly efficient in transferring energy to my cookware, I seldom use the highest heat for cooking anything, including pasta.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to your personal choice. What’s yours? Share your thoughts with the rest of this post’s readers and me in the comments below.