There’s a saying among Italian chefs that “pasta water should taste like the sea.” While not all of us taste the Mediterranean sea for a living, this is probably not the first time you read or hear of the rule of thumb that pasta water should be generously salted.
If you’ve ever wondered why that’s so (and how much salt you should be adding to the water in the first place), I wrote this post for you.
Why do Italians say that “pasta water should taste like the sea?”
When you add salt to a boiling pot of pasta, the salt will dissolve in the water and season the noodles as they rehydrate and cook. As a result, the noodles will come out well-seasoned, greatly enhancing the overall flavor of your pasta dish.
The reason why salt seasons pasta noodles as they cook can be attributed to three basics facts of cooking:
- Pasta noodles consist of dehydrated dough
- Dehydrated dough tends to soak up water
- Salt is water-soluble
The first basic fact is that, in their essence, pasta noodles are shapes and forms of dehydrated pasta dough. The lower the moisture content of the noodles, the longer their shelf life.
Fresh pasta has a moisture content of 30% after about 15 minutes of drying. Dried pasta, which is commercially-made, has a moisture content of 12.5%.
This is why a batch of fresh pasta will last for only 2-3 days in the fridge and a pack of dried pasta will keep its peak quality for 2-3 years in your pantry.
The second basic fact is that pasta dough is made of flour, and flour has the tendency to absorb water. Flour can be broken down into carbohydrates (starches) and proteins (gluten), both of which soak up moisture.
A 100-gram serving of flour will, on average, absorb as much as 55-65% of its own weight in water. When pasta noodles come into contact with a boiling pot of water, the starches will absorb some of the water and swell up as a result.
The third and most basic fact is that salt crystals are water-soluble, which means they dissolve in water.
By now, you’re probably starting to see how these three facts add up to explain the effect of salt on cooking pasta:
- The salt dissolves in the water, seasoning it as a result
- The pasta noodles soak up the salted water as they rehydrate and cook
- The salted water seasons the pasta noodles from the inside, which enhances their flavor
It’s as simple as that.
Which brings me to the next question you’re probably thinking to yourself…
How Much Salt Should You Add to Your Pasta Water?
I’m about to tell you one of my favorite rules of thumb of all time.
If you’re wondering how much salt to add to your pasta water, use the 1:1:4 ratio. Cook 1 pound of pasta noodles with 1 tablespoon of salt in 4 quarts (16 U.S. cups) of boiling water.
The 1:1:4 ratio works just as well with table salt, kosher salt, sea salt, or Himalayan pink salt.
I always cook my pasta noodles in sea salt. I buy my sea salt in the form of large crystals packaged in 20-oz containers, which I store in my kitchen cabinet for easy access.
Italy is a country on the Mediterranean coast—and the Mediterranean sea has a salinity level of 38-40 g/kg, which allows the nations living near it to extract salt from the water. The salt native to Italian cuisine, in other words, is Mediterranean sea salt.
Over time, you’ll probably develop an intuition for the amount of salt to add to the water without needing a spoon. For example, I’ve cooked pasta in my pot for enough time to know just how hefty of a pinch I need to add to the water.
Will Salt Keep the Pasta Noodles From Sticking?
Here’s a secret: most home cooks add salt to their pasta water for the wrong reason.
Contrary to what some cooks will tell you, adding salt to the pasta water won’t keep the noodles from sticking together. It will just season them as they rehydrate and cook.
To keep pasta noodles from sticking together, bring a large enough pot of water to a rolling boil and cook the noodles over medium-high heat. Stir only in the beginning.
Can You Flavor Pasta Water?
You could add a bouillon cube to your pasta water instead of seasoning it with salt. Or you could bring a pot of beef broth to a rolling boil and cook the pasta noodles in it.
Contrary to what most home cooks think, it won’t add that much more flavor to your noodles. When it comes to pasta noodles, it’s best to keep to what’s authentic and traditional; Mediterranean sea salt (or salt in general).
My two cents? Season your pasta water generously with good ol’ sea salt—and save your bouillon cubes or broth cans for dishes like soups, stews, and chilis that actually need them.
Thank you for reading this far! If you enjoyed this article, share it with your friends. If you have any pasta-cooking tips of your own you’d like to share with the rest of the readers, leave a comment below.
Yes, pasta water should taste like the sea. When the pasta noodles come into contact with the generously salted water, they’ll absorb it, coming out seasoned and, as a result, tastier.
Remember the 1:1:4 ratio. Cook 1 pound of pasta with 1 tablespoon of salt in 4 quarts (16 U.S. cups) of boiling water. It’s best to cook pasta noodles over medium-high heat, in a rolling boil.
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