Kitchen Confidence

How to Properly Salt Your Pasta Water

By • March 20, 2014 • 37 Comments

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: The first step towards perfect pasta? It's all in the salt.

How to Salt Your Pasta Water on Food52

If you're reading this post, most likely you know how to cook pasta. In fact, you probably know three entirely different ways to cook it. Heck, you probably know how to whip up some ravioli -- from scratch. But even the most seasoned of cooks can make the cardinal mistake of under-seasoning their pasta water. We're here to ensure that there's enough salt in every pot.

While you can certainly throw in a a few sizeable pinches of salt and leave it at that, let's dig a little deeper. Do you really, really have to salt your pasta water? Why? When is the right time to add the salt? And what is the optimal salt-to-water ratio? 

How to Salt Your Pasta Water on Food52

The short answer is yes. You must salt your pasta water. Even when tossed with a flavorful bolognese or a pesto, if you haven't salted your pasta water the entire dish will taste under-seasoned. Seasoning the pasta water is the only chance you have to flavor the pasta itself, and it's a necessary step that shouldn't be neglected. 

In The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan had this to say about salting pasta water: 

"For every pound of pasta, put in no less than 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt, more if the sauce is very mild and undersalted. Add the salt when the water comes to a boil. Wait until the water returns to a full, rolling boil before putting in the pasta."

As one of the foremost authorities on Italian cuisine, and the woman behind this legendary tomato sauce, I tend to take Marcella Hazan at her word. But after a bit of poking around, it seems that when it comes to salting pasta water, there's no hard-and-fast answer

More: Learn how to make fresh pasta from scratch.

How to Salt Your Pasta Water on Food52

Many (including Marcella herself) claim that the salt must be added to the water only after it's at a full boil. Others add salt to their cold water from the get-go, so they don't have to worry about it later. If you opt to add your salt to cold water, make sure to swish it around with a spoon (or your hand) until the salt dissolves. Salt is corrosive, and could pit your pot if not dissolved before your pot hits the heat. 

More: Now that you've got a perfect pot of pasta, here's how to sauce it.

How to Salt Your Pasta Water on Food52

Chances are, when it comes to pasta water, you've heard the age-old adage "It should taste like the sea." I personally like to imagine it declared, not spoken, by a wizened Italian matriarch while she gesticulates wildly, flinging salt haphazardly around her rustic kitchen. When it comes to cooking pasta, this fuzzy measure seems to be most chef's rule of thumb.

So what does that translate to in cold, hard numbers? After scouring the internet, results vary from 1 1/2 tablespoons to 3 tablespoons of salt per pound of pasta, with most people falling in around the 2 tablespoons mark. If you gain satisfaction from neat measurements, feel free to get out your measuring spoons. However, I find that a few very hefty pinches will suffice. 

How to Salt Your Pasta Water on Food52

While the amount of salt in your pasta water will affect the end result, so will the type of salt. Stephanie Stiavetti of The Culinary Life blog begs you never to use iodizied salt, which she claims will give your pasta a metallic flavor. Christopher Boswell, of the Rome Sustainable Food Project, never uses anything other than coarse sea salt,: the choice of Italians. However, fine sea salt, or ever kosher salt, will do the trick just fine.

This has been a Public Service Announcement from your friends at Food52. Remember folks: Salt your water with verve. Salt your water with panache. But, above all, salt your water -- period. 

How do you salt your pasta water? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: kitchen confidence, pasta, pasta water, salty, how-to

Comments (37)

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4 months ago Carmen

The comment that Margaret Magennis Quinn left, was NOT in response to MY comment, but to the first picture, which is indeed a pot that definitely could stand some cleaning.

Stringio

4 months ago Margaret Magennis Quinn

As soon as I saw that dirty old pot, you lost me. Clean your post, inside and OUT. Lazy, lazy lazy.

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4 months ago Carmen

I don't add any salt to my pasta, and no one has complained that it doesn't have any salt. I also don't add salt to the sauce for the pasta, this isn't because I have a medical condition, I just feel that the person eating the dish, should have the option to either salt or no salt, my husband salts his, my granddaughter and I don't.

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4 months ago Joe Bradley

This strange article keeps trying to equate the amount of salt to use to the amount of pasta (like, two tablespoons per pound of pasta). The amount of pasta is meaningless, what matters is the amount of WATER you boil. If you tend to use a huge pot full of water, the salt will be FAR more diluted and you will need to add more to get it salty enough to "taste like the sea". The amount of pasta you put IN the water doesn't matter. This is obvious, why doesn't the article address this?

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4 months ago callen34

You are so right.

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4 months ago Steven McGarvey

I agree completely!!! In fact, I watch a lot of cooking shows and collect recipes on-line as well, but I cut the salt back by 1/2 to 2/3. I want my food seasoned and taste delicious, but I certainly do not want my blood pressure to be 200/120.

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4 months ago Steve Mcrae

Chef Stevorino signing off. Stay tuned for my book, "Joe Can Cook". Coming later this year. In the making since 2005. Awesome stuff in there! You eata my ah pasta ya gonna get ah fat ah. :)

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4 months ago Steve Mcrae

I agree--put the salt in after water boils. Use a good coarse Kosher salt. Not only will it save the pan over time, it will taste fresher.

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4 months ago Steve Mcrae

To make Marinara sauce more authentic, add the rhine of a Parmesan Reggiano cheese wedge(The part you throw away), and a half a tube of anchiove paste. Relax...it won't be fishy. Try a little mixture in a bowl first if your paranoid. Using a very fine Chianti or Cabernet reduction will help a lot. Boil deseeded Roma tomatoes in wine and reduce the 2 cups wine until 1/4 the size. Add giant can of S&W Ready cut tomatoes(Costco) that are drained and patted dry by paper towels, twice. Pat dry very hard in collendar or sauce will be watery. Add Basil, Rosemary, Lots of oregano, 1-2 cloves minced garlic, dash if sugar and EV Olive Oil, several dashes of salt, if adding salt, 3 dashes Pepper, dash of chili powder, and a dash of Pinot Grigio Vinegar(Whole foods sells it). Hand blend to semi-chunky. Serve after 7 Min of heating. After 9-10 Min, the herb flavor starts to disappear. Grab it fresh. More flavor! Entire meal takes 15 Min. White pepper optional. Use fresh herbs!!! Sometimes I use Thyme and margerum. Ok I can't spell. :)

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4 months ago Steven McGarvey

I do the same with a cheese wedge of Parmesan to many things.

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4 months ago Steve Mcrae

....and also don't forget to put a little oil in the water. The pasta texture will be better.

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4 months ago Steve Mcrae

I use to put zero salt, and make my sauce saltier. Try this. Put zero salt in the sauce, and put a ridiculously large amount in the water. You will end up eating less sodium as most if it is in the water, plus the pasta is more flavorful. Most of the time I put salt in both, but try this trick. I saw a famous Chef do this on Emeril---he disagreed with him, but turns out it was good. Only problem is it costs more...but salt is cheap! Bananas helps counteract the sodium intake. I mean eating them...don't put it in the pot. :)

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4 months ago Marilyn

I have to eat a low sodium diet, so I never salt my water these days. but Iwill try it next time I cook pasta. I always see star chefs on TV saying they are putting in a few teaspoons of salt to a dish, but they are clearly putting in more.

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4 months ago joan

Wow, I definitely need to add more!

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4 months ago PazzoNico

Here's what I always tell people (actually, I was training a new guy the other night on the pasta station); salt your water and TASTE it. Dip your finger in, taste..if you don't cringe, it's not salted enough.
I do a "3 count" when pouring in the salt for service every night. Granted, it's about a 30 qt pot. And also, it's kosher salt, so the "salinity" will be less intense with more salt.

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4 months ago Ackker

Personally I like to use pugils (soft G as in pugilist), the amount of a substance that you can pick up with your thumb and first two fingers. I like the anachronistic.

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4 months ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Wonderful Scrabble word, Ackker! (Thank you.) ;o)

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4 months ago ATG117

Wish there was a blind taste test on this. Despite being an aggressive salter, I find the pasta never picks up enough. I have a similar problem with roasted vegetables, though I'm sure the reasoning differs.

France

4 months ago Catherine Lamb

Catherine is the Community Manager at Food52.

I was surprised to find out how much salt Italian cooking experts actually use. While I was working in a kitchen, the cooks would put a whole handful of salt in their water (granted, it was a much larger pot). I think it just goes to show the pasta absorbs so little of the salt that if you want it to be seasoned, you've got to be a bit more aggressive that you think.

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4 months ago homie sapiens

I keep the coarse salt in a covered jar near the stove, and I simply hold it perpendicular to the surface of the water and give it one shake. I started out my life in Italy putting a conservative pinch in, but I got over that quickly:)

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4 months ago Cindy Wells

I don't like overly salty pasta so I rarely add salt to the water. I think it is a personal taste issue so there's no exact rule!

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4 months ago Guy

Marcella Hazan with all her tomato onion and butter magic,was no scientist. You started the article by mentioning the "proper way" to salt your pasta. I find it misleading to reference anecdotal info as the results of your findings.

Taste tests have proven that salting/seasoning your sauce properly is way more important than salting the pasta.***This only holds true if you add your non-salted cooked pasta to a hot pan sauce to finish off the cooking process.

The salt sticking to the pasta is nonsense. That salt is disintegrated moments after hitting a boiling liquid/sauce.

I very rarely add salt to my boiling water and just add a little more salt to the sauce than usual,to compensate for the addition of pasta at the end.

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4 months ago homie sapiens

Actually, the salt does not 'stick' to the pasta, it is absorbed by the pasta (think of the salted water as pedialyte for noodles). For empirical evidence of this fact, one only needs to take a good quality dried pasta and cook two batches, one with salt and one without. The one with salt will be delicious simply drizzled with good olive oil. The one without will be boring. As for salting the sauce instead, consider that the flavor of good (fresh or dry) pasta deserves to shine just as much as the sauce. Salt enhances flavor, and any pasta worth eating should benefit from this enhancement so that instead of being smothered, it can marry the sauce.

Stringio

4 months ago Allie S

I've always heard that salt increases the boiling point of water, thus cooking the pasta at a higher (better?) temperature. There are also some that argue that adding salt to the water will make it come to a boil faster.

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4 months ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

You'd have to add 2 ounces (that's a lot of salt!) per quart to raise it by about a half a degree Fahrenheit, which I seriously doubt could affect the outcome. That said, it does raise the boiling point of water, which would make it take longer to boil, not shorten the time. Given the quantities noted above, however, the effect in standard practice should not be perceptible. ;o)

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4 months ago yjZuk

AntoniaJames is absoultly correct, salt does raise the temperature of the pasta water. in addition, I was always told that the culinary logic behind adding salt (beside flavoring the pasta), was to prevent the drop of the temperature of the pasta water, when you add pasta to it; the higher boiling point of the pasta water, helps to counter this the temperature drop, hence saves time & energy.

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4 months ago David Rosengarten

As to all the salt-affects-the-water theories (outside of the salt-seasons-the-pasta claims): in my tests, the water doesn't get hot faster, stay hot longer, etc. with salt. BUT: you must of course start with a tremendous amount of water in your super-large pasta-cooking-pot, get it furiously hot before adding pasta, and keep it roiling during the pasta-cooking!

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4 months ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Actually, the amount of salt you should use is dependent on the type of salt you use. Some are much more intense -- much "saltier", if you'll pardon the tautology -- than others. (I use Redmond Real for just about every application where the salt will disappear.)

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4 months ago David Rosengarten

I discovered some years ago that if you lightly salt the cooked pasta in the colander, it's a much more effective seasoning...and you can taste if the ratio is right.

France

4 months ago Catherine Lamb

Catherine is the Community Manager at Food52.

Do you salt your pasta water as well?

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4 months ago David Rosengarten

I do not! The salting in the colander is sufficient!

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4 months ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

That would not work for me because I always slosh the pasta right back into the pan with the sauce, dripping wet, to let the starch blend in and the liquid loosen the sauce. The salt would not adhere, and I'd just be salting the sauce. Now, for a pasta salad, I might just have to do a taste test . . . Thanks for your post, David! ;o)

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4 months ago David Rosengarten

I too always toss the cooked pasta in a pan with the sauce. And I can tell you that with my method the pasta definitely tastes seasoned with salt!

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4 months ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Good to know, David. Thanks for the follow up. ;o)

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4 months ago xw2012

Why measure salt relative to the weight of pasta? I would think since the salt is being dissolved in and diluted by the water, one should actually find the right amount of salt to get the water to a certain salinity. I've always abided by Ruhlman's rule of thumb: 2 Tbsp salt per gallon (4L) of water.

France

4 months ago Catherine Lamb

Catherine is the Community Manager at Food52.

You're correct! I was operating under the assumption that most people wouldn't measure out their pasta water, and were just filling up a big pot. However, that ratio sounds in line with most of my research!

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4 months ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

I was just going to say, Hazan must have had some standard amount of water to be used per pound of pasta as the salinity is determined by the ratio of salt to water. I never measure. I just throw in a lot, sort of using the time honored rule for roasting vegetables -- "use more than you think you need" -- and it's never been too much. ;o)