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It may have been disappointing to learn that, beyond salt, there isn't much you can add to your pasta water that will have a pronounced effect (for example, it's more impactful and just as easy to add basil to your cooked pasta rather than to your pasta cooking water).
In Pasta Piselli, you cook the pasta in broth, then eat the broth as soup!
But while there might not be a compelling reason to treat your pasta water like broth (unless you're making Pasta Piselli, in which you turn the whole pot into a starchy soup), there are two less-common pasta-cooking techniques that take the same thought (wouldn't it be fun, and useful, to flavor the pasta at the same time you're cooking it?) but maximize its advantage.
The absorption and risotto-style methods rely on good-tasting cooking liquids that don't get siphoned off at the end—instead, it's all absorbed by the pasta. By the time the noodles are cooked, they're coated in a sauce that's concentrated in flavor and creamy from the starch that's normally dumped out with the pasta water.
Yes, the initial investment might be more of a lift than bringing a pot of water to a boil and dumping in dry noodles, but these dishes sauce themselves (!). Net work = zero.
The Absorption Method
The name comes from the fact that the pasta absorbs all the liquid: No draining! No colanders! The best way to make pasta if you don't have a sink. The best way to make pasta and sauce if you truly only own one pan.
You add dry pasta to a large, wide skillet (you could sauté aromatics or bacon fat or mushrooms or chile flakes in that pot first!) so that all of the noodles are on, more or less, the same level. Add the cold or room temperature liquids, bring everything to a boil, and cook, stirring occasionally, until all of the liquid is absorbed and the pasta is al dente.
In Martha Stewart's Genius One-Pan Pasta—an exemplary version of this method—the liquid is water; in One-Pot Garlic Parmesan Pasta, it's a 2 : 1 ratio of vegetable broth to milk. (Make sure it's a broth you like the taste of, as its flavor will be concentrated in your noodles. And if it's orange-ish like mine was, your noodles will be orange-ish, too.) Stir in vegetables for the last few minutes of cooking; garnish with Parmesan and torn herbs.
You can use different pasta shapes and have fun with the add-ins: Get started with these seven ideas from the developer of Martha's One-Pan pasta, but do note that this might take some trial and error: Different pastas absorb different amounts of liquid. Rather than drown your pasta from the get-go, it's better to start with too little liquid, keep an eye on the pot, and add more as you go.
More recipes in this style to try:
- Cacao & Zucchini Absorption Pasta [Chocolate & Zucchini]
- Absorption Pasta with Asparagus, Pancetta, and Lemon Zest [Design Sponge]
- One Pot Vegan Pasta with Eggplant and Tomato [Minimalist Baker]
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 cups vegetable broth (or chicken stock)
- 1 cup milk (more as needed)
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 8 ounces fettuccine or other long noodle
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
- Chopped parsley, for garnishing
And then there's risotto-style pasta, with an equally fitting name: You start with dried pasta and add warm stock a little at a time—another ladleful as soon as it's almost absorbed. Again, you can begin with sautéing alliums and finish with lots cheese. Again, it's creamy and concentrated and self-contained (pasta and sauce, united from the beginning). It's a little more work than one-pot absorption pasta—you need to involve a second pot of warm stock and to keep a closer eye on the pasta—but what you lose in freedom you gain in control: It's easier to monitor when the noodles are finished and to stop adding more liquid.
Famed French chef Alain Ducasse is a proponent of the method, and defended it in the New York Times in 2002:
After 15 or 20 minutes your pasta is cooked and is coated with just enough sauce—richly concentrated, almost creamy and perfectly seasoned. It is a sauce that has picked up the flavor of the macaroni and blended it with your other ingredients. You have taken advantage of the pasta's natural starch, like the starch in arborio rice when you make risotto.
When Sophie Brickman wrote about "pasotto" for The Atlantic in 2010, she found that a bit of internet research led to "unverified claims that the practice originated years ago in northern Italy, where water was scarce."
These days, it's more likely you have ready access to water than stock, but it's worth going to the store (or making it your own) for a self-saucing pasta dish that comes together in less than 25 minutes.
More recipes in this style to try:
- Risotto-Style Pasta with Cherry Tomatoes, Arugula, and Goat Cheese [The Kitchn]
- Alain Ducasse's Olive Mill Pasta [The New York Times]
- Risotto-Style Seafood Pasta [The Atlantic]
- 5 1/2 cups vegetable broth (or light chicken stock)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 shallots, thinly sliced
- Salt and pepper, for seasoning
- 1 pound short, good-quality pasta (Ducasse recommends artisanal strozzapreti; I used penne)
- 1 bunch asparagus, woody ends removed and sliced into 1-inch pieces if large and burly
- Freshly grated Parmesan
- Zest of 1/2 lemon
- Crumbled feta (optional)
What's the most exciting pasta dish you've made recently? Share it with us in the comments below!