Tasty pasta is as much a science as it is an art. The art is in selecting and your ingredients and making the most of them. The science is in getting the timing and the technique right. When it comes to technique, there’s one question that home cooks often ask…
When is the best time to add pasta noodles to the water? As regular readers of this blog know, one of my long-time obsessions is Italian pasta. After years of online research and learning by cooking from the best Italian chefs, here’s what I have to share on the topic.
Cooking works best when you put room-temperature ingredients in sudden contact with hot cooking oil or boiling water.
The best way cook pasta noodles is in a rolling boil and in generously salted water. Put the noodles in the water shortly after it has reached a full boil and the salt crystals have dissolved in it.
Most home cooks add salt to the pasta water for the wrong reasons.
Contrary to popular belief, salt won’t keep the pasta noodles from sticking together. Nor will it raise the boiling point of the water by an amount significant enough to make a difference. Adding 1 ounce of salt to 5 liquid quarts of water will raise its boiling point from 212°F to 212.072°F.
Salt crystals are soluble. When you add them to the water, they will dissolve in it—seasoning the pasta noodles on the inside as they rehydrate and cook. If you’ve ever made bland pasta, it’s probably because you forgot to salt the water. Even if you tossed the pasta with the most savory of pasta sauces, the noodles still came out tasting bland.
What Is a Rolling Boil?
Every now and then, a pasta recipe will tell you to cook the noodles in a rolling boil. What does this mean?
A rolling boil, also known as a full boil, happens when a pot of water has been heated close to its boiling point of 212°F. It’s achieved by preheating water for enough time over medium-high to high heat. When you’ve brought a pot of water to a rolling boil, big bubbles will start to form quickly on the surface, moving around aggressively.
In most cases, it takes approx. 3-4 minutes to bring a pot of water to a rolling boil. The time will depend on the type of your cooktop (gas, electric, or induction), the size of the burner, the thickness of the pot, and the amount of water in it.
How Much Salt Should I Add to the Water?
Season your pasta water generously. For perfectly-salted pasta, follow the so-called pasta ratio (1:1:4). Cook 1 pound pasta noodles with 1 tablespoon salt in 4 liquid quarts (16 U.S. cups) boiling water.
As the saying among Italian chefs and restaurateurs goes, “pasta water should taste like the sea.” Though home cooks like you and me don’t taste the sea for a living, it’s fair to say that a high level of salinity is best for making tasty pasta.
I learned this, as well as many other useful techniques, from watching Italians cook on Italia Squisita, one of my favorite cooking channels on YouTube. If you’re like me and you like to binge-watch others cooking as you binge-cook at home while watching… check them out.
Can I Start the Noodles in Cold Water?
Yes, you can start the noodles in cold water. It’s not necessarily “wrong” to cook your pasta this way, but it will make it harder for you to time it.
In general, there are two methods for cooking pasta. You can add the noodles to a boiling pot of salted water, or you can put them in a cold pot of water as you bring it to a boil. In both cases, the noodles will rehydrate as they absorb water and cook through on the inside as their internal temperature rises.
Practically every chef I’ve spoken to, attended a course of, or watched cook online adds their noodles to a boiling pot of water. And for a good reason: once you’ve brought the water up to a boil, you have more control over the cooking process.
It’s simply easier to cook pasta evently and just enough in a pot of water that has reached constant temperature than in in a pot of water whose temperature keeps rising. Also, your noodles will come out soggy on the outside.
This is not what you’re looking for if you want to cook pasta al dente.
Should I Add Oil to the Pasta Water?
Don’t add oil to the pasta water. When it comes to your pasta dish, it will do more harm than good.
The simple science why you shouldn’t do this is that water and oil molecules don’t mix. Most of the oil will end up floating on the surface of your pasta water.
Some of the oil will coat the noodles with a fatty layer that will keep pasta sauce from clinging to them. That’s the opposite of what you want when you’re tossing pasta with the sauce.
What Does Al Dente Mean?
“Al dente” is the term that Italian chefs use to describe perfectly cooked pasta noodles. It translates to “to the tooth,” which is pretty illustrative of what you’re aiming for.
When pasta is cooked al dente, the noodles are cooked through on the inside, but still firm to the bite (and with a slight crunch) on the outside. To achieve this, cook your pasta noodles for 2-3 minutes less than the recommended time in the cooking instructions on the package.
Al dente pasta has the best texture and holds on to its shape well. When you toss it with the sauce, the noodles will absorb the sauce well and the sauce will cling neatly to the noodles. This results in a pasta dish with the ideal aroma and flavor.
The right time to add pasta noodles to the water is after you’ve brought it to a boil. Just make sure to season the pasta water generously. Remember, pasta water should taste like the sea.
Not that you can’t start the noodles in cold water. But they will come out soggy and it will be harder for you to time them. So you can forget about perfectly-cooked, al-dente noodles.
What’s your preferred technique for boiling pasta? Let me—and the rest of this post’s readers—know by leaving a comment below.