Making pasta is as much a science as it is art. Which is why it’s easy for so many home cooks to get their pasta recipes wrong. I’ve been cooking at home for decades. I’ve also been learning how to make the perfect pasta by watching some of the best chefs in Italy do it.
One of the long-standing myths about making pasta is that adding salt to the pasta water prevents the noodles from sticking together. If you’re curious to know if this is actually true or not, keep on reading.
Does salt keep pasta noodles from sticking together?
Contrary to popular belief, adding salt to the pasta water won’t prevent the noodles from sticking together. Nevertheless, you should be adding salt to the pasta water before you put the noodles in. The salt will dissolve into the water, seasoning the noodles as they cook and, as a result, improving the taste of your pasta.
If you don’t salt the pasta water, your pasta dish will come out bland—no matter how tasty and savory the pasta sauce. Here’s why.
Pasta is a type of noodle that comes from Italy and is traditionally made from durum wheat and water, and in some cases eggs.
Notice that salt isn’t usually used as an ingredient when making pasta. In other words, pasta noodles taste bland unless seasoned. And the best way to season pasta noodles is by salting the water that you’re cooking them in.
To understand the reason behind this, let’s look into how pasta noodles are made. In the next few paragraphs of this post, I’m going to show you why boiling pasta noodles is as much about rehydrating the dough as it is about cooking it.
Pasta is made by mixing pasta dough, forming it into different shapes, and letting the noodles dry. The drying time depends on the type of pasta being made:
Made by home cooks and artisanal pasta shops, fresh pasta is air-dried for up to 12-24 hours. The more humid the room, the longer the optimal drying time.
Made at commercial scale by pasta brands, dried pasta is produced at factories and air-dried in a controlled environment in two cycles, a short and a long pasta-drying cycle.
For the curious of you, here’s a good video about how pasta is made at factories:
Fresh pasta has a moisture content of 15-30%, whereas dried pasta has a moisture content of 12.5%. This is why raw fresh pasta tends to be rubbery and raw dried pasta tends to be crunchy; there’s simply less moisture in dried pasta (which gives it a longer shelf life).
As the Mail Online reported in 2017, two things happen when you bring a pot of water to boil and add the pasta noodles to it:
First, the pasta noodles rehydrate as the starches contained in them start to absorb water. This gives the pasta its somewhat soft and gummy texture.
Second, the proteins cook and form a bond around the starches, keeping them on the inside of the noodles and preventing most of them from falling out into the pasta water.
If you bring the water to a boil and salt it before you put the noodles in (letting the salt dissolve for about 15-30 seconds depending on the size of the salt crystals), the salty water that the pasta noodles absorb will season them as they rehydrate and cook.
If you cook the pasta noodles in unsalted water, they will come out tasting bland on the inside. Even if you coat them with the best-tasting pasta sauce in the world, that won’t really be enough to fix the blandless of the noodles since they’re already rehydrated and cooked.
How Much Salt to Add to Pasta Water
There’s a saying among Italian chefs that “pasta water should taste like the sea.”
That’s a good rule of thumb for some cooks—and not really a useful one for others. So how do you go about this? If you’re into science, you know that the Mediterranean sea has a fairly high salt content (which academics call ‘salinity’) compared to other water bodies in the world. The salinity level of surface water averages about 38 parts per thousand.
Don’t mind my nerdiness and don’t worry; there’s a better way. Just remember the golden pasta ratio, 1:1:4. The golden pasta ratio goes like this:
For every 1 pound of pasta noodles, use 1 tablespoon of salt and 4 quarts (16 cups) of water.
You can use any salt you want. In my experience, Mediterranean sea salt is the best salt to add to pasta water. You could also use table salt, Kosher salt, Himalayan rock salt, or others.
The more you apply the golden pasta ratio, the more accustomed you’ll become to applying it. Over time, you’ll become able to measure the salt, water, and pasta noodles intuitively. Whenever I make pasta, I simply add two good pinches of salt to the water.
To make my pasta as authentic as it can be, I keep the ingredients as close as I can to the ones that they use in Italy. For example, I select the cheeses and meats well, ideally buying them from Italian markets and delis. I try to shop for the best Italian pasta brands, canned San Marzano tomatoes, imported extra-virgin olive oil, and Mediterranean sea salt.
How to Keep Pasta Noodles from Sticking Together
Don’t add olive oil to the pasta water. Adding oil to the pasta water will do more hard than good to your pasta dish as a whole. The oil won’t necessarily keep the noodles from sticking together. And it will make it harder for them to absorb the pasta sauce.
As I wrote in “I Stopped Adding Oil to Pasta Water (And You Should Too)”, there’s a simple and science-backed reason why this is a bad piece of advice, no matter how often you heat it from TV and YouTube chefs who claim to know what they’re doing.
Oil and water molecules simply don’t mix. When you add oil to pasta water, the oil will end up floating on the surface. Some of the oil will coat the pasta noodles with a greasy coating that will prevent them from absorbing the sauce once you toss them with it—causing your pasta dish to come out less appetizing as a result.
To keep pasta noodles from sticking together, use a large pot and follow the golden pasta ratio: for every 1 pound of pasta noodles, use 1 tablespoon of salt and 4 quarts (16 cups) of water. Bring the pot of water to a boil and add the salt to it before you put the noodles in. Stir the noodles when you add them to the water, as well as every now and then as they cook.
So ‘the secret’ to cooking pasta so that the noodles don’t stick is simpler than most people think. Ensure the noodles have enough space by using plenty of water in a large pot, bring the water to a boil before you put the noodles in, and give it in the occasional stir as they cook. That’s it.
The Bottom Line
Salt doesn’t keep pasta noodles from sticking together as they cook.
But you should nevertheless season your pasta water with plenty of salt. As the noodles rehydrate and cook, the salty water will season them, enhancing the overall taste of your pasta dish. If you forget to add salt to the pasta water, the noodles will come out tasting bland.
Don’t make the same mistake as many television chefs and home cooks do. Adding oil to the pasta water won’t really keep the noodles from sticking together. In fact, it will do more harm than good to your pasta—as the oil will coat the noodles and prevent them from absorbing sauce.
So what should you be doing to keep the pasta noodles from sticking together, then?
Follow the golden pasta ratio (1:1:4): for every pound of pasta, add 1 tablespoon of sea salt to 4 quarts (16 cups) of water. Bring the pasta water to a boil before you add the noodles in—and stir them as you do. Keep giving them the occasional stir every now and then as they cook.
How did it turn out for you? Let me and the rest of this post’s readers know by leaving a comment below.