The Absurdly Easy Pasta Trick for the Most Swoon-Worthy Spaghetti

A 15-minute noodle dinner that checks every single box: creamy, cheesy, garlicky...

January 21, 2019
Photo by James Ransom

Conventional pasta-boiling wisdom for much of my life was along the lines of: the roomier the pot and the more water, the better—like, way better. And the water should already be at a rolling boil when the noodles are added (butta la pasta and all that). I was always told that a standard box of dried spaghetti needed about five to six quarts of water, to keep it fully submerged, and to provide enough space so that it wouldn't clump together into a sticky ball.

Somewhere along the way, I was clued into the fact that after cooking spaghetti super al dente, I should finish the noodles along with the sauce, plus a hefty splash of the starchy cooking water, for maximum emulsion and sauce binding. Which is a neat trick—and one I'd later learn to take even further.

In 2009, food scientist Harold McGee posed a question in The New York Times that changed my life: How much water does pasta really need? So heartened by his experiments with less cooking water (no sign of the feared-for glueiness) was McGee that he actually reached out to pasta legends Lidia Bastianich and Marcella Hazan, to ask them to give it a go. Ultimately, McGee found that he actually preferred not only cooking his noodles in less water, but even starting with cold water, so that the individual noodles didn't stick together too much. He noted that the resulting cooking water was much thicker than what you'd get with the old-school quarts-upon-quarts boiling method, calling it "almost a sauce in itself."

Some months later, Serious Eats' J. Kenji López-Alt got on the case after he walked in on his wife—gasp—cooking noodles at a mere simmer, in a small saucepan. He explains the science behind starchy pasta water of any kind in the first place:

Pasta is made up of flour, water, and sometimes eggs. Essentially, it's composed of starch and protein, and not much else. Now starch molecules come aggregated into large granules that resemble little water balloons. As they get heated in a moist environment, they absorb more and more water until they finally burst, releasing the starch molecules into the water... The starch eventually washes away into the water (assuming that you separated the pieces of pasta by stirring), and the pasta pieces become individuals again.

So, it makes sense that less water equates to a higher starch content for the same quantity of noodles. And, as López-Alt explains, starch acts as an emulsifier as well as a thickener—meaning it helps to keep fat molecules dispersed and suspended in a sauce, creating something light in texture and creamy-seeming, which coats the noodles as best as possible.

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Top Comment:
“Today's dried and fresh pasta has little or no surface flour, so it produces very little starch in the cooking water - just enough to be useful in the sauce...!”
— mdelgatty

Ten years after McGee wrote about his initial tests, I'm still turning to this method of cooking my noodles whenever I need extra emulsion insurance. Like, when I want a thick, creamy coating for my pasta without any cream or butter—just pasta water—and I want it to come together quickly. I place my noodles, a bunch of salt, and cold water in a shallow skillet or saucepan, and bring it to a boil. From there, it only takes a few minutes to achieve a perfect al dente, with super starchy water to boot.

When I recently had mind-bogglingly creamy and delicious aglio e olio—spaghetti with just garlic, red pepper flakes, olive oil, and Parmesan—at New York's I Sodi, I knew I had to call in this trick to assuage my cravings at home. Most versions of aglio e olio ask you to cook down the pasta water for the sauce, so using a shallow skillet for the thickest, starchiest version of that water was a no-brainer.

The rendition I came up with riffs on the classic by adding deeply browned Italian sausage, and using some of its rendered fat along with the oil to cook the garlic. It's creamy, satisfying, and slightly spicy—and best of all, it takes only 15 minutes:

What's your go-to weeknight pasta? Let me know in the comments!

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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.


Gardener&Cook May 2, 2020
I, too, have been cooking pasta a la Harold McGee 2009. It's a superb technique.
mdelgatty April 25, 2020
I remember when my Mom used to make pasta by hand on the farm, and the copious amounts of flour she used to make it easy to work. So the pasta was still pretty floury when it went into the water, and I think that was what called for the vast amounts of water to cook it in. Today's dried and fresh pasta has little or no surface flour, so it produces very little starch in the cooking water - just enough to be useful in the sauce...!
Winness June 21, 2019
I started using much less water decades ago after being frustrated countless times cooking ravioli or tortellini in boiling water. Despite "the look" from my mom, I not only reduced the quantity of water, but I would also only let it reach the simmer point before slowly lowering the pasta into the water. Worked perfectly without getting that murky water from exploding filled pasta.
Has anyone tried the cold-start method with filled pasta?
Ingrid F. February 18, 2019
I saw this method of Good Eats Re-wound with Alton Brown. It's so good this way, begin with cold generously salted water about 1 inch covering of water over the pasta, bring to boil, cut back to simmer in a few minutes stir like heck to bring out the gluten and hence thickening into the surrounding water. I think his video is on YouTube if you want to see for yourself. I watched on cable TV. Enjoy, I'm sure you will.
Cinnamin January 26, 2019
I used to add pasta to cold water (ages ago), then I read that one has to toss it in when the water is at a rolling boil. I’m going to try this method for our weeknight pasta. I love a one-pot pasta, so this should work!
Ella Q. January 27, 2019
Great! I hope you enjoy the technique :)
Linda P. January 24, 2019
Can't wait to try this, thank you; I had also read J. Kenji López-Alt's take on this method, but haven't tried it yet -- now I will! My current go-to pasta is Alison Roman's Roasted Tomato and Anchovy Bucatini. I keep a jar of olive-oil roasted tomatoes in my fridge at all times, so that it is a week-night breeze to make.
Lisa C. January 25, 2019
Sounds delicious! For the very novice here - how do you do your olive oil roasted tomatoes ? Step by step please-
Type of tomatoes and cut them up? Any seasoning ? How long to roast and what temp?
Thanks! I’m new to the site and loving all this info!
Gail January 28, 2019
I do roasted tomatoes all the time, often as a way to use up tomatoes that are past their prime or grape/cherry tomatoes that have started to shrivel a bit. It's so easy - throw them all on a roasting pan (quarter larger tom. and maybe cut larger cherry tom.), drizzle evoo, season w/s&p and any dried herbs you like (I usually do thyme, oregano, garlic powder...), toss w/your hands (no need for an extra bowl) and roast at 400 until your desired doneness (I usually let them go until at least all the liquid is gone). You can even do a super small amount in your toaster oven - you'll be surprised at how far they go. Then use them in pasta, on crostini, flatbreads, in tuna melts, in eggs...endless possibilities!
kcinmn January 24, 2019
I’m guessing that using this method needs some adjustment to the amount of salt added to the pasta cooking water (if you plan on using the starchy water for your sauce). Anyone have a good tip for scaling that back? Although I suppose it makes sense to keep the ratios the same - if you’re using 1/3 of the normal amount of water, you should use 1/3 your normal amount of salt to keep the solution at the same salt-level.
Markus January 22, 2019
This may help
witloof January 22, 2019
My go to is a riff on Marcella Hazan’s butter tomato sauce: a small can of Italian cherry tomatoes, a chunk of butter, a chopped onion, a clove of garlic, and a bay leaf simmered while the pasta boils. These days the noodles are usually Explore Asian mung bean edamame fettuccine. If I have Parmesan I will grate some on top, if not, it’s fine without.
Ella Q. January 27, 2019
Sounds delicious!
[email protected] February 2, 2019
Love this,,,,Simplicity Rules💃
Markus January 22, 2019
Traditional Aglio Olio e Peperoncino does not call for Parmigiano Reggiano (or Grana Padano)...Parmesan is all too often used for abominations that destroy the quality and history of the actual product. Use of the starch in the reduced cooking water for the pasta is the same approach that is used for traditional Cacio e Pepe to melt the Pecorino Romano. As to starting with placing the pasta in cold comment... Why change what has worked for centuries.
Eric K. January 21, 2019
Can't wait to try this, Ella!
Pat E. January 21, 2019
For the past several years I have been cooking my pasta in a rectangular plastic dish (with the unfortunate name “Fasta Pasta”) in the microwave. What seemed heretical to me at I am not typically a microwave cooker... has now become my “go to” weeknight method. Minimal water, no big pot to drag out, no waiting for the water to boil, very starchy water sauce additions, and really good al dente pasta. Although it’s perfect for our usual two- three servings it is not a good method for making large quantities.
P L. January 25, 2019
I s there a charge to join?
Paul G. January 28, 2019
Yes, the cost of the device in question. I found one made by lekue ( in the shopworn remainder table at bed bath & beyond for $12 this New Year’s Day and am using it as I write this. It is as useful as the comment noted.