Tips & Techniques

What Can You Add to Pasta Water (Besides Salt)?

June 13, 2016

By now, we know the importance of seasoning pasta water with salt (and lots of it), but why aren't we seasoning it with peppercorns, with dried chiles, with whole and ground spices, with fresh herbs and dried herbs and bouquets garnis? Why aren't we treating our pasta water like broth?

In Martha Stewart's Genius One-Pot Pasta, the pasta cooking water becomes the sauce more than it flavors the noodles themselves. Photo by James Ransom

The answer: Because it doesn't do much.

A similar question ("What can I put in my pasta water?") was asked on Reddit, and the top-voted answer is to-the-point: Go ahead and put anything you want in pasta water (within reason: you don't want to drastically change the pH level)—but the "effects will be minimal or absent." Redditor Khuervo claims that pasta just:

doesn't really hold on to anything, it doesn't really retain much water. If you compared a cooked piece of pasta to a raw piece of pasta, you would notice that the size is almost exactly the same. Rice absorbs water and increases in size because of it, this is a situation where flavouring the cooking liquid is almost the rule.

Many of you in the comments (thank you Greenstuff) pointed out that this is a bit deceiving. While Harold McGee, who Khuervo cites, explains that the outer layer of the noodle is affected in ways the center is not—"deeper within within the noodle, there's less water available, so the starch granules aren't completely disrupted: the center of the noodle therefar stays more intact than the surface"—pasta does, indeed, absorb a fair amount of water: 1.6 to 1.8 times its weight. Still, not all parts of the noodle are affected equally or at the same rate (think of al dente—still firm in the center).

Shop the Story

And then there's question of how the size of the molecule affects its ability to penetrate the pasta. According to others on the Reddit thread, salt is better able to penetrate pasta than other flavors because it's a very tiny molecule. Plus, they argue that most of the flavor that the salt confers onto the pasta is in the water left clinging to it.

One of these plates of pasta was boiled with smoked paprika. Bet you can't tell which one!

I'm no scientist—and I haven't studied the size of aroma compounds or measured the precise amount of hot liquid a pound of pasta sucks up in 8 to 10 minutes—but my own trials confirmed Khuervo's answer: I made a pot with mint, sage, crushed garlic, and red pepper flakes; a pot with 1/2 teaspoon of smoked paprika; and a pot with the water subbed out for a comparable amount of vegetable broth.

While the pasta cooked in the three souped-up liquids was discernibly different from plain pasta, the effects were subtle, and I wasn't convinced the change was in the noodles themselves: My theory was that any noticeable effects were due to fragrance-taste (smells like mint, must taste like mint) and to particulate matter (like red pepper flakes) and the barely-flavored liquid left hanging onto the linguine.

For this herb-crushed pasta, you could add the herbs when you add the pasta—but their flavor will leach into the water, giving you only lightly-scented/flavored noodles.

Because when you flavor the pasta cooking water, you're essentially making a very weak broth that the pasta ultimately doesn't absorb very much of. Yes gently-flavored liquid may stick the noodles' surface, but rinse them (as you would soba) and the effect is eliminated. It's still a cool party trick if you want some just-barely-detectable paprika-flavored (scented?) noodles. And it could be a fun base for a pasta salad. But to get the most flavor out of herbs, spices, lemon zest, and other ingredients you want to use to flavor the noodles, it's best to apply them to the cooked noodles themselves—rather than to dilute their power in water that you'll eventually dump out.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Ali
  • Greenstuff
  • 702551
  • Smaug
  • M
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.


Ali December 8, 2017
If you are making pasta alfredo or some white sauce spaghetti, I had a good experience with adding 2 small veggie broth cubes to the pasta water when it boils before throwing the noodles. I had no salt at home (was raining and I was out whole week) but hungry and wanting to use the ingredients I had, how to make a sauce and pasta without salt!? I just throw the 2 cubes of organic veggie broth, used the water (1 to 2 cups) for the sauce and it made taste better than the ones I make with only salt on the pasta water. I think would interfere with the flavors of red tomato sauce, but for white creamy/cheese sauce worked great together with grind pepper! Was a risky attempt though XD
Ali December 8, 2017
*threw in - sorry for the typo :/
Greenstuff June 14, 2016
What is your McGee reference? In my copy of On Food and Cooking, he says that pasta absorbs 1.6 to 1.8 it's weight in water, and it says that rice absorbs 1.7 times its weight.
Sarah J. June 14, 2016
Hi Chris, Sorry about the confusion on this point! I'm going to update the article to clarify—thank you. The reference that Khuervo, the Reddit responder, was referencing is on page 575 (the page before your citation!):

"When pasta is cooked in water, the protein network and starch granules absorb water and expand, the outer protein layer is ruptured, and the dissolving starch escapes into the cooking water. Deeper within the noodle, there's less water available, so the starch granules aren't completely disrupted: the center of the noodle therefar stays more intact than the surface. Cooking pasta al dente means stopping the cooking when the center of the noodle still remains slightly underdone and offers some resistance to chewing; at this point, the noodle surface is 80-90% water, the center 40-60% (somewhat moister than freshly baked bread)."

I didn't mean to insinuate (or cite someone who was insinuating) that pasta doesn't absorb water, of course—more that the water doesn't penetrate all the way to the center of the noodle and neither does the flavor in the water (if it even penetrates the surface at all, considering that these "flavor" molecules are larger than salt).

702551 June 14, 2016
This is a good example of how McGee cannot be quoted blindly without close scrutiny. He doesn't mention whether or not he's describing fresh pasta or dried durum pasta.

Again, I reiterate that you (or your kitchen manager) should cook 100 or 150 g of *DRY* pasta and record what it weighs after cooking. I guarantee you that it will be *WELL* over 1.8x the dry weight.

Yeah, I have the same revised McGee book, and I previously owned a softback version of the original edition (the one with the blue and red cover). It's a good book, but there are a lot of shortcomings with this book, plus McGee isn't a particularly eloquent or disciplined writer.
Sarah J. June 15, 2016
Thanks for pointing that out. And yes, I saw your comment below and will do that experiment—thanks for the good idea.
702551 June 15, 2016
Let's make it clear that McGee is a writer by education, not a food scientist.

McGee certainly is not as disciplined as J. Kenji Lopez-Alt who is in fact an MIT-trained scientist and applies scientific methodology way better than McGee.

I like the McGee book, parts of it are fascinating, but I do not consider it an authoritative scientific treatise on food. It's way too sloppily written for that.

Whenever you see McGee being quoted, it pays to be skeptical about the McGee quote and as well as the person who is quoting him. This has always been the case since On Food and Cooking came out in 1984, thirty-two years ago. The first edition was even sloppier than the current one.

Far wisely to view McGee's book as a starting point for additional investigation, not the authoritative answer to a particular topic.

Personally, I trust Kenji over Harold. Plus, Kenji has also slaved away in front of restaurant stoves for years. He's heard years of misinformation as a culinary professional and he is rightful suspicious of many old adages that cooks have taken for granted over time. McGee is not a particularly capable cook.
702551 June 13, 2016
"... that pasta just doesn't really hold on to anything, it doesn't really retain much water. If you compared a cooked piece of pasta to a raw piece of pasta, you would notice that the size is almost exactly the same."

This statement is only relevant to *FRESH* pasta.

If you cook dried pasta, it absorbs *LOTS* of water. 150 g of dry pasta will weigh close to 400 g when cooked, about a 165% increase in weight, all due to water absorption.

A piece of dry DeCecco penne rigate is about 47-48 mm long. The same cooked piece of pasta is about 65 mm long.

Heck, anyone who has *EVER* cooked pasta should note that dry pasta expands substantially.

702551 June 13, 2016
But don't just take my word for it. Get your kitchen manager to cook up 100 g of dry pasta and measure it after cooking. It should be about 250 g.

Enough of this "pasta doesn't absorb water" nonsense.
Smaug June 13, 2016
Some of us don't even know the importance of "seasoning" pasta water with salt. Some might even see it as ruining perfectly good plant water. And pasta does so swell when it cooks; not as much as rice, but quite noticeably.
M June 13, 2016
Perhaps use flavoured salt?
Sarah J. June 13, 2016
That's intriguing!!
Julie June 13, 2016
I don't recall where I saw it, but I once saw a recipe that used something like a 2:3 cup ratio of red wine to water for boiling pasta. I personally haven't tried it, since I couldn't bear to pour that much of my wine into the pasta water. However, it did look intriguing. The pasta took on a bright red/pink color, and a portion of the water was reduced down, thickened with butter, and seasoned with herbs to be a sauce. Supposedly the pasta was supposed to have a subtle wine taste that paired well with piles of Parmesan cheese.
Sarah J. June 13, 2016
Yes, I've heard of that! Over at Pop Sugar, they declared the recipe "amazing": I have yet to try it myself but can admit that I'm a bit skeptical. Think the red wine would probably be put to better use if the pasta is transferred to a red wine sauce at the end, like in Mark Bittman's recipe: