In Absolute Best Tests, Ella Quittner destroys the sanctity of her home kitchen in the name of the truth. She's boiled dozens of eggs, mashed a concerning number of potatoes, and seared more Porterhouse steaks than she cares to recall. Today, she tackles pasta.
Nobody likes limp, lifeless pasta.
If you don’t believe me, you could invite my friend Lauren over for dinner and overcook the bucatini. But don’t come crying to me when she gives you her “dente, dente, dente” lecture (essentially just a series of emphatic hand motions and a look of blistering disappointment, which is much worse than it sounds).
Or, you could take my word for it, and cook your noodles just until tender with a slight bite, not a moment longer, then finish them in their sauce with a splash of starchy cooking water and finely grated Parm.
But beyond these well-accepted pasta truths—never boil to a mushy pulp, and finish everything together—the topic of how best to fine-tune your noodle routine starts to get murky as the cooking water itself. Namely, the matters of how much water to add, and how much salt to include.
Some, like the great Marcella Hazan, say four quarts of water are required per pound of pasta. Less, Hazan writes, and “it becomes gummy.” (Don’t get her started on salt, a minimum of 1 1/2 tablespoons of which should make an appearance in the water.) Others, including the not-quite-as-great-but-doing-fine me, have touted less water for a starchier output to aid with sauce binding, and more salt for optimal flavor. Still others call for less salt, or even more than four quarts of water per pound.
So when my editor tasked me with tackling how best to cook pasta for Absolute Best Tests, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t start to sweat. Wouldn’t the nonnas come after me? Or worse, the Twitter users?
After some deep breathing and a gentle reminder that I’d be allowed to eat nothing but spaghetti for two days, I set out to find the ideal amount of water and salt per pound of dried pasta, plus a few miscellaneous factors—oil in the water, or cower in shame for even suggesting it? Please enjoy the results of my tests, brought to you by the consumption of many grams of carbohydrates, and several non-pressing microplane injuries.
(Psst: If you’re looking for a guide to making fresh pasta, head here.)
For all tests, I used the same brand of boxed dried noodles. Shape-wise, I went with spaghetti for “Salting” and “Other Factors,” and rigatoni for “Water Quantity,” and for reasons only marginally relevant to this sentence, I’d like to link you to my favorite pasta-shape comic.
I salted with Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, which I added once the water was at a boil, as I’m terrified of pitting my pots. All noodles were cooked 2 minutes less than the box suggested for al dente, then finished for 2 minutes in their sauce with 1/4 cup cooking water, which was intended to test each batch of water’s ability to help the sauce bind to noodles. With that out of the way ...
If we the people of Absolute Best Tests have learned anything in our maniacal experimentation, it’s that seasoning is everything. Obviously, this applies to dried pasta, which swells to fill with cooking liquid as it boils. I ran three trials, each with 1 pound of dried spaghetti, and 4 quarts of water:
1 Tablespoon Salt Per 1 Pound Pasta (4 Quarts Water)
My only notes from this 1 tablespoon trial—an oft-touted amount—read “blah” and “why bother????” I couldn’t even taste the salt in an undressed noodle, as confirmed when I tasted it side by side against a batch in which I forgot to add salt (which was eliminated from my results).
To my surprise, almost no sauce clung to the noodles, relative to the test batches with higher concentrations of salt. According to Dr. Robert Brackett, a Professor of Food Science and Nutrition at Illinois Institute of Technology (and therefore much more qualified to speculate than me, who conducted all of these tests in pajama pants I stole from an overnight flight), this makes sense.
“The stickiness of pasta is primarily affected by starch gelatinization and adding more salt changes the gelatinization,” Dr. Brackett explains. “It might be possible that lower concentrations of salt may reduce the ‘stickiness’ whereas ‘higher’ concentrations may have the reverse effect and cause more stickiness, as you observed.” Got it—as if I needed another reason to love salt.
“There are food scientists that spend their entire careers doing fundamental research to answer ‘simple’ questions like yours,” Dr. Brackett continues. “But as most things in science, the true answer is rarely simple.”
Ominous. Let’s move ahead.
3 Tablespoons Salt Per 1 Pound Pasta (4 Quarts Water)
These noodles tasted pretty great on their own, and once sauced, were perfectly seasoned. (The sauce on these noodles clung so hard, the whole thing was like a middle school friendship. ) I’d recommend starting with this salt-to-water ratio—aka a heaping two teaspoons per quart—for 1 pound of dried spaghetti, and scaling up if you’re working with a fully unseasoned sauce, for example.
“Salt Like the Sea” Per 1 Pound Pasta (4 Quarts Water)
If you’ve ever cooked dinner with a confident cheffy person, you’re familiar with the imperative to “salt like the sea,” or “until it tastes like the ocean.” (Such people don’t have time for specifics!) I “ran the numbers” on this, by which I mean used the first stat about average seawater salinity I could find, then plugged it into a brine calculator, to determine that for every 1 quart of water, to achieve 3.5% salinity, one would need to add 33.11 grams salt. (So for 4 quarts water, that’d be 132.44 grams salt, which amounts to a sizeable mountain.)
Long story short, the resulting spaghetti was nearly inedibly salty, just like accidentally swallowing while you’re snorkeling. I suppose it could be a life hack for those who wish only to dress their noodles with olive oil and garlic, but any quantity of cheese would’ve taken things over the top. (Note: Subsequently, I came across this piece on Serious Eats, and highly recommend it for a more detailed look at water-salting—it puts my mini trials to shame, with fancy percentages and an embedded chart at the end.)
With a basic salt ratio down—about a heaping 2 teaspoons per quart—I turned to the next question: how much water to use for 1 pound of dried pasta. I ran three trials, each with 1 pound of dried rigatoni (best pasta shape, I won’t apologize for that take), and a consistent concentration of salt:
5 Quarts Water for 1 Pound Dried Pasta
I chose 5 quarts because the box recommended 4 to 6 quarts, and I had to draw the line somewhere. This water trial obviously took the longest to reach boiling point, which was so annoying that when it was finally go time, I furiously dumped the salt in as if rubbing it into a wound. I’d have been willing to forgive this, were there some other obvious advantage—I don’t know, amazing mouthfeel? Cash materializing from nowhere?—but the noodles turned out largely like the 2 quarts batch below, minus the extra-starchy water. Meaning for this trial, the sauce didn’t cling as well to the rigatoni. Not ideal but not a disaster.
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2 Quarts Water for 1 Pound Dried Pasta
My anxieties about this trial (noodle sticking, ad infinitum) were completely invalidated when nary a carby tube stuck to any other carby tube. Despite being sort of annoying to stir with a wooden spoon since things were more crowded, the batch of noodles turned out well, with starchy cooking liquid to boot. The texture of each noodle was standard and pleasant, and not at all engorged or fuzzy like those from the next trial (spoiler!). For the most even cooking, though, I’d recommend starting with closer to 3 quarts—especially with larger noodle shapes—since the pasta absorbs a great deal of the water as it cooks and with just 2 quarts, some of the noodles will then stick out above the liquid’s surface.
Just Enough Water to Cover the Noodles
Speaking of! I’ve written about this method before, in which dried noodles are just covered in water in a sauté pan or skillet, and brought to a boil from cold. The idea is that the cooking water becomes supercharged thanks to a higher starch concentration, which is great for sauces like aglio e olio that largely rely on said liquid emulsifying with grated Parm. However, in these experiments, I found the texture of the rigatoni I’d cooked this way to be unexpectedly gummy, and almost downy. True to form, this method produced the clingiest sauce-noodle combination, but at what cost?
Pretty much everyone, from Lidia Bastianich to Rachel Ray, cautions against adding olive oil to your pasta water, but here at Absolute Best Tests, we’re (I’m) wild!!! We’ll try anything once! Also, I had a childhood neighbor who swore by this “trick” to keep noodles from sticking together, and she was a very nice lady. Unfortunately, this time around, it was a disaster. Always listen to Lidia.
To Rinse or Not To Rinse?
Don’t rinse! You’ll lose valuable starch that helps sauce cling to your noodles. I could bore you with the details of my experiments, but you’ve got pasta to make, so I’ll let you get on with your life.
For cooking water that’s rich with starch without compromising noodle texture, aim for about 3 quarts per pound, or closer to 2 quarts if you can commit to diligently stirring noodles back below the water’s surface. Do not salt your noodles like the actual sea, but do add about 2 heaping teaspoons Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt per quart of water, and scale up or down depending on the saltiness of your sauce. Finally, wield your microplane with extreme caution.