What’s the best way to cook pasta? Fascinating question.
“Best,” as my colleague Sarah Jampel pointed out, is an increasingly meaningless label these days, especially as it's bandied about by food media. The use of this term carries a gloss of objectivity, but it usually rings hollow. What's the use of shilling one method as the best and truest? Everyone cooks differently. Let’s just accept that fact, move on, and find joy in what unites us: a shared love of cooking.
Well, not so fast. Earlier this week, the American Chemical Society partnered with PBS to release a surefire guide on how to cook pasta the “scientific” way, which, by extension, is deemed the best. It dispels certain pernicious myths that guide casual pasta-cooking.
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Condensed into a three-minute video, embedded below, this scientifically-sound methodology calls for careful manipulation of the protein-starch interaction. The guidelines:
Keep the water at a rolling boil.
This will ensure that the noodles don't stick together.
Don’t add oil.
This is a wildly divisive issue. Alton Brown and Lidia Bastianich advise against it. Gordon Ramsay swears by it, claiming that it prevents the pasta from clumping together. The video's conclusion? Skip the olive oil. It’ll likely wash away after the excess water is drained post-cooking.
Salt, the ACS claims, is a potent flavoring agent, and it can enliven a potful of pasta significantly when placed in water. Be generous with it. It's also crucial for the next step.
Embrace pasta water.
Keep a ladleful of salty pasta water before draining your pasta, then add it to your sauce. The starchy water helps sauce stick to the cooked penne, or spaghetti, or any pasta shape of your choosing.
Don’t rinse your pasta after cooking.
That risks eliminating your pasta of starch.
And there you go. For some home cooks, these steps are probably no revelations. But for cooking a dish that’s deceptively simple, here's as close to an objective standard—bolstered by science, no less—as we'll probably get.
Do you add oil to your pasta? Cook your pasta differently? Let us know in the comments.
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.