18 Things to Make While You Wait for the Pasta Water to Boil

January 20, 2016

What's the first thing you do when you walk in the door in the evening?

If you follow the advice of Edouard de Pomiane in his 1930 book French Cooking in Ten Minutes, you put a pot of water on the stove to boil (well, right after you take off your coat).

"What's it for?" wrote Pomiane. "I don't know, but it's bound to be good for something."

A girl and her pasta. Photo by Mark Weinberg

Setting aside a whole slew of variables, it probably takes you somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes to bring a pot of water to a boil.

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Maybe your miracle stove does it in just 10 minutes. Still, if you make pasta (or boil water for another reason) for 4 days a week from age 25 to 55, that's 62400 minutes (which translates to 1040 hours, or 43 1/3 days) spent waiting for water to boil.

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Top Comment:
“I just use an electric kettle and the water for pasta boils in under 2 minutes... which is enough time to get the pan out, get the pasta out, maybe chop some garlic/onion, but not much else! ”
— Meghan

If you're like me, you use those minutes to twiddle your thumbs or scroll through Instagram. But if you're like the person I want to be, you spend those minutes doing something productive: You make a sauce for the pasta, you sauté greens to complete your dinner, you produce a magical dessert, or you do a little something for yourself (shake a drink) or your future self (soak some cashews for nut milks to-be).

Here are 18 ways to use those those 10 (or 20) minutes to their fullest potential:

For the pasta

Sauté kale on the stove, flavoring it with onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, and Dijon. Then pulse it into a pesto with Parmesan, lemon juice, and white vinegar. Use half of it on the pasta you're about to boil and save the rest for a frittata or sandwich.

While your water boils, cook bacon and onion on the stovetop. Add canned tomatoes and red pepper flakes and reduce the mixture as your pasta cooks. Let it be on the stove, then add the cooked pasta and a bit of reserved cooking water and simmer for a couple of minutes. All you need now is a whole lot of pecorino.

Sauté thinly sliced shallot or onion in olive oil until translucent, then add stock, lemon juice, and a splash of white wine. Spoon in some capers, pour in a can of drained white beans or chickpeas, and let it all simmer until warmed through. Do you hear that? It's the sound of this sauce begging for some pasta.

Cook mushrooms and garlic in hot butter. (Pause to imagine what that smells like.) When the mushrooms are browning and fragrant, add some wine, heavy cream, vegetable broth, and a splash of balsamic. Allow the sauce to simmer and thicken while the pasta cooks. Now: Pasta in bowls, sauce over top, Parmesan over that.

Warm olive oil with lemon zest, a bay leaf, chile flakes, black pepper, garlic, and fennel seeds. Cook for about 15 minutes over very low heat to let the flavors infuse the oil. (Now your water is boiling: Add the pasta!) Canned tuna, pine nuts, capers, and, if you have it, a rinsed-and-chopped preserved lemon go into the sauté pan. Edge apart the tuna and let it warm up without cooking. Toss with the cooked pasta.

No additional cooking here: Blend or food-process soy sauce, tahini, minced garlic and ginger, agave syrup, rice wine vinegar, and Sriracha for a nutty, creamy sauce. You've got so much extra time: Why not grate some carrots or mandoline a cabbage?

For the sides

Sauté some greens to eat on the side or, to make it a bowl sort of meal, fold them into the cooked pasta. (Tip: Slice the greens finely enough and you don't even have to worry about removing any pesky ribs; plus, faster cooking time.)

As the water boils, roast chunks of sweet potatoes in a 400° F oven and sauté onions and sage on the stove. When the pasta goes into the pot, add the onions and some chopped apples to pan with the potatoes. By the time you're ready to drain the pasta, the vegetables will be ready. Presto: pasta.

If you don't have time to broil the goat cheese-stuffed dates (though it only takes 4 minutes!) and drizzle a lemony vinaigrette over circles of oranges and tangerines, you at least have time to do one or the other. And if you make this salad while your pasta cooks, you might just save the spaghetti for another night.

Preheat the oven to 450° F and mix together self-rising flour, heavy cream, and a pinch of salt while your water boils. Use a tablespoon to drop the biscuits onto a baking sheet While the pasta cooks, the biscuits will bake. A happy, beige-toned dinner awaits.

For dessert

Make this cookie dough (it uses melted butter, so you don't need to wait for a stick to come to room temperature), then put it in the fridge while you eat dinner. Bake off the cookies once you've cleaned up (or save them for tomorrow).

Stir together this no-cook ice cream (made of half-and-half, toasted pecans, melted butter, sweetened condensed milk, and maple syrup) and put it in your ice cream machine. Once churned, it freezes for one hour—just enough time to eat the pasta you just made and do the dishes!

Melt chocolate chips, peanut butter, and butter together in the microwave, then add vanilla and salt. Pour it over your favorite crunchy and airy cereal, then coat in confectioners' sugar. In five minutes, you made your late-night snack for the next two weeks.

For yourself and your future self

Make yourself a drink, why don't you! Sure you can pour yourself a glass of wine, but might you be more pleased with a limey, minty, bubbly gin cocktail?

Grind bittersweet chocolate in the food processor, add cocoa powder, confectioners' sugar, powdered milk, and cornstarch, then pack into a jar. When that snow storm hits, warm a cup of milk with a couple tablespoons of your hot chocolate mix and feel so smug for thinking ahead.

So maybe you can't do this while the water comes to a boil, but do it right after! Before adding your pasta to the water, take 3 cups of the boiling water and whisk it into 2 cups of polenta. Leave it at room temperature for 12 hours, at which point you'll be able to make a warm, mushy-in-a-good-way breakfast in just 10 minutes' time.

For a better smoothie tomorrow, soak almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, or macadamia nuts tonight. (Or, turn those soaked cashews into Vegan Queso.)

This combination of soy sauce, tahini, red wine vinegar, sesame oil, ginger, garlic, and chile will make any boring-flavored protein taste better—which means less stress about tomorrow's dinner. But if you just end up eating it on top of your cooked pasta instead, will anyone blame you?

And if you're really sick of waiting for the water to boil and the pasta to cook...

Consider experimenting with the amount of water and the starting water temperature. Food scientists Harold McGee and J. Kenji López-Alt have each written about using less water to cook pasta and adding dried pasta to room temperature (rather than boiling) water.

What will you do while you wait for your water to boil? Tell us in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Meghan
  • Caroline Lange
    Caroline Lange
  • Sarah Jampel
    Sarah Jampel
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Meghan January 21, 2016
I just use an electric kettle and the water for pasta boils in under 2 minutes... which is enough time to get the pan out, get the pasta out, maybe chop some garlic/onion, but not much else!
Sarah J. January 21, 2016
You've outsmarted me, Meghan.
Meghan January 21, 2016
I loved the article! Personally, I'd just call it 18 Things to Make (While Waiting for Batches of Cookies to Come out of the Oven). I was the same way until I moved to the UK! My parents had an electric kettle back in the States but we only ever used it for tea--my British housemates laughed at me waiting for pasta water to heat up on the stove when I could just zap it in the kettle!
Caroline L. January 20, 2016
myself and my future self are both inspired. this rocks.