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Should Pasta Be Rinsed After Cooking?

Photo of pasta shapesGastello /Depositphotos

When you try cooking your pasta like this, you’ll see why everyone’s raving.

Pouring the cooking water into the sink and rinsing the pasta noodles in a colander under cold running water after they’re done cooking.

You watched your mother do this when you were a kid and you were fooling around “helping her” in the kitchen. She, in turn, picked it up from observing her mother cook when she was a young girl herself.

But the question is whether any of you should be doing it at all?

Contrary to what most home cooks think, it isn’t a good idea to rinse the pasta after cooking. This washes the surface starch off the pasta, making it harder for the sauce to stick to it.

The only time it’s acceptable to give a good rinse to your pasta and coat it with olive oil after cooking is when you’re preparing a cold salad (or other cold pasta dishes) and you want the shapes to play along well with the other ingredients without being sticky and starchy.

To understand why, let’s talk about what pasta is made of—and how the right technique for the cooking process can make or break your home-cooked pasta dish.

Why You Shouldn’t Rinse Pasta

Pasta in its simplest form is made from durum wheat flour that’s mixed with water and sometimes eggs, then extruded into noodles or shapes (in the case of lasagna, the dough is pressed into sheets).

The main ingredient of pasta, in other words, is durum wheat flour—the powder obtained from the milling of durum wheat, a variety of spring wheat that contains 70% starch and 14% gluten along with fat, fiber, and minerals.

The key to understanding why you shouldn’t rinse pasta is starch.

Starch is the white powdery carbohydrate that all plants produce for their nourishment. It stores energy that the cells of the plant can easily access when needed.

Starch comes in the form of tiny, dehydrated granules that absorb water and swell up when cooked.

When you dip spaghetti (or any other type of pasta) in a pot of boiling water, some of the starch granules detach from the surface and turn the cooking water white and starchy. The rest stay on the surface of the noodles and give them their distinct stickiness.

Now that you know all of this, let’s talk about why pouring the cooking water into the sink and rinsing the noodles with cold water is the last thing you want to do to your pasta.

First of all, the white, starchy, and salty cooking water is liquid gold.

Instead of pouring it all down the drain, keep some of it in a cup and add a ladle or two to the pasta sauce as you’re simmering it on the stove.

Not only will this ameliorate the aroma and flavor of your pasta sauce, but the starchy pasta water will also help improve the sauce’s consistency by helping to thicken it.

This technique is one of the best kept secrets of traditional Italian cookery—and one of the main reasons why pasta tastes so different in Italy than it does in the United States. It’s also an amazing way to improve store-bought pasta sauce.

Second, the surface starches on the pasta assist the absorption of your sauce.

You don’t want to wash them away, because then the sauce wouldn’t adhere as well to the cooked pasta and, no matter how delicious your sauce, the finished dish would come out tasting bland.

Instead, what you want to do is strain the pasta from the cooking water and, without rinsing it, mix it with the sauce that you just made. I prefer to do this directly in the pan, right after the pasta and sauce are cooked and I have turned off the heat.

How to Cook Pasta to Perfection

Salt a large pot with enough water liberally and, over high heat, bring it to a rolling boil.

While you’re waiting for that, open a can of peeled tomatoes, crush them in a large bowl with your hands, and set the bowl aside. Mince a few cloves of garlic, pour a glug or two of cooking oil in your pan and preheat it over medium.

When the oil in the pan begins to ripple and shimmer, add the garlic and sauté, stirring constantly, for 20 to 30 seconds. Since garlic burns quickly, you should add the crushed tomatoes to the pan as soon as you can smell the aroma of garlic in the kitchen.

Season the sauce with a pinch or two of salt, reduce the flame to medium, and let it simmer. The water in your pot should be boiling (or about to boil) by now. When you see big bubbles forming in the water and bursting playfully, add the pasta, give it a quick stir to keep it from sticking, and cook al dente, for 2 minutes less than the time indicated on the package.

In the meantime, continue cooking the pasta sauce and give it the occasional stir. Halfway through cooking, skim off a ladle of cooking water, add it to your sauce, and stir it in.

If you time this right (it takes a while to learn the ropes, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t do this exactly as I say the first few times), the pasta will be ready when the sauce has thickened. Turn off the flame, strain the pasta without rinsing it, and mix it with the sauce in the pan.

Plate the pasta, grate a generous amount of parmesan on top, give it a generous cracking of black pepper, garnish with a few fresh basil leaves, and then serve.

Your perfect pasta supper is cooked.


Jim is the former editor of Home Cook World. He is a career food writer who's been cooking and baking at home ever since he could see over the counter and put a chair by the stove.

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