This Is the Scientific Way to Cook Pasta. But Is It the Best?

March 23, 2017

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.

Don’t skimp on salt.

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.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Desmond Dee
    Desmond Dee
  • kareema
  • RHo
  • allison969
  • Linda
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.


Desmond D. April 6, 2017
I'm cooking pasta right now. I use a 1.5L pot which I fill to about 1.2L. Wait for the water to boil, put in half a of 500g package of spaghettini (dried) and wait for it to be al dente (usually the amount of time on the package, maybe a bit less). Get it out with a fork. Really good pasta and I'm using less water. I don't salt because I am sensitive to salt and my sauces have enough salt in them. What I do notice is that after I fish out the pasta, the amount of water left is half of what I put in. So I figured that the pasta absorbed it, which means the water re-hydrated it. If I take the pasta out al dente and combine it with the sauce then the sauce is absorbed into the pasta. My friend who is from an Italian background cannot understand me using such a small pot, but it works.
kareema March 29, 2017
Actually, Alton Brown walked back his 'no oil' stance in a later episode of 'Good Eats'.
RHo March 27, 2017
Always salt the pasta water. Rolling boiling water before you add the pasta is a must. Only add oil to pasta water if you don't want the pasta to absorb too much sauce (like Alfredo). Stir pasta many times to prevent from sticking to the bottom of the pot/sticking together. Cook until Al dente (less, if you're making baked macaroni). Drain well, always reserving a big mug of pasta water. Only rinse pasta if you're using it in pasta salad.
allison969 March 27, 2017
As far as salted cooking water vs. not, I use Lidia Bastianich's guideline of adding enough salt that the water tastes like the sea. For those who DO like the flavor-enhancing qualities of salt (and I do especially on a blank canvas like pasta), putting it in the cooking water is both far more effective than trying to season after cooking and generally amounts to less net sodium than post-cooking seasoning. If I'm "holding" the cooked pasta while I finish the sauce or salad (my timing is not always perfect) I stir in a splash of olive oil or a pat of butter to eliminate clumping but decided against adding it to the water for all the reasons stated in other posts.
Linda March 26, 2017
This guy needed an Italian grandmother. That's exactly how my grandmother, a native of Italy, taught us all to cook pasta. No oil. Plenty of salt. Keep the water boiling. Don't overcook it. Taste often toward the end to make sure it's not hard and not mushy. Al dente. Well drained, but don't rinse. And forget that pretty picture of white pasta with a bunch of sauce poured over the middle. coat your pasta completely with a little of the sauce. Serve the rest of the sauce on the side. :)
Stephanie B. March 25, 2017
Lol you'll lose starch if you rinse your pasta? It's pasta, It IS starch! I think I can spare whatever gets lost in a brief rinse. But I appreciate that ACS is trying to be accessible.
Smaug March 25, 2017
Finally watched the video, which I rarely do. Precious little science, debunking or any of that stuff involved, just more opinions. Which is fine, other than giving the author an opportunity to brutalize a word (in this case "scientific"), something he seems to make a part of each essay; "Elements of Style" for the modern age, perhaps.
BerryBaby March 23, 2017
No salt, no oil. Have been making pasta this way for over 40 years. My sauce is flavor enough and I agree with smaug, slready too much salt in this world. Restaurant food has become so salty that it covers the natural flavors.
Grew up with no salt shakers, fresh vegetables right out of the garden, nothing tastes better IMO.
kareema March 29, 2017
I'm a habitual watcher of food porn on Food Network and such, but it *always* drives me buggy when the professionals criticize a dish as having too little salt. Maybe some is needed during cooking, but I'd rather let people decide how much salt to use vs. how much a recipes says they should use.
scruz March 23, 2017
i have had more than a few boil overs because i don't use a huge pan and a lot of water but keep the pasta swirling with a fork, especially in the beginning. what i do to prevent boil overs is to put a small amount of oil on a paper towel and rub it around the inner circumference of the pan just below the top of the pan. prevents all boil overs and doesn't add any extra oil to either the pasta or the sink drain.
Deedledum March 24, 2017
@scruz: If you lay a wooden spoon across the pan, pots won't boil over. Maybe faster than adding oil.
Noreen F. March 23, 2017
I don't always bother with the rolling boil unless I'm cooking long pasta. Stirring a few times will usually keep shorter shapes from sticking together. That gives me more time to pull the sauce together without overcooking the pasta.
kamileon March 23, 2017
What Smaug said about oil. I don't oil the pasta water to keep the pasta from sticking, I do it to keep it from boiling over. It breaks up the starch at the surface, and keeps it from forming big bubbles.

Pasta water is a key component in fatty sauces like carbonara or aglio olio, it acts as an emulsifier for the oil, raw egg, cheese, etc, so you don't get scrambled eggs. It's not a thickening agent.
MoreFoodPlease March 23, 2017
I see comments doubting the use of pasta water as a thickener/enhancer. I'd agree that if you are boiling your pasta in a large pot with an equally large quantity of water (4-8qts), then starch content of the pasta water you might add to the sauce is likely to low to do much good. However, if you reduce your amount of water to 3 qts. or even less, you will find the "concentration" of starch can add body and be used to enhance a sauce, especially cream and or raw egg sauces (like Carbonara) or be used to add a bit of body to "no sauce," pasta dishes like ones with just olive oil with a tablespoon or so of pasta water added to enhance the texture and mouth feel.
As for the rejection of each his or her own...add a bit of salt and water becomes an ingredient, not just a cooking medium.
Bonnie March 23, 2017
Salt your water! Salted water flavors the pasta from the inside out as the pasta absorbs the water, leading to tastier pasta. Period.
Smaug March 23, 2017
It'll probably taste more like salt; whether that's a positive or not is another question.
Eileen W. March 23, 2017
I have always added oil and salt -- so does the Barefoot Contessa. I save at least a cup of pasta water, too. How you feel most comfortable cooking is the actual key to how you cook pasta -- becomes your style.
PS007 March 26, 2017
I would, but I can't get GOOD olive oil like Ina uses...
Whiteantlers March 23, 2017
I never add oil or salt to pasta water and I admit that I often stand and watch the pot boil, testing the pasta every now and then for doneness. I think adding pasta water to anything but the sink drain is a waste of time and effort.
creamtea March 23, 2017
Durum, not Durham. Spelling counts!
Smaug March 23, 2017
I usually add oil- I doubt it makes much difference, but it does no harm and helps keep the water from boiling over, which it tends to do as it gains some starch. I seldom salt it- far too much salt in the world as it is and you can't feed it to plants. Adding pasta water to sauces is ridiculous, especially if you salt it- it certainly won't thicken anything; if you feel starch will make it stick better (highly dubious) there are more controlled ways to add it.