Absolute Best Tests

The Absolute Best Way to Cook Pasta, According to Too Many Tests

Absolute Best Tests columnist Ella Quittner is back to tackle noodles.

March 16, 2020
Someone buy me a ruler, please. Photo by Ella Quittner

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.

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Top Comment:
“Decades later, when reading Hazan's memoirs, I remembered reading before how she recommended making your pasta water taste like the sea. Checking the map, I noticed that Cesenatico is even closer to the freshwater plume from the Po River than Pesaro is. A bit of research confirmed that indeed, the water from the Po does make that part of the Adriatic less saline. In fact, scientific studies based in Cesenatico show that the water there, at the surface (the water one would taste), can be less than half of the average salinity of sea water worldwide - which means that perhaps Marcella's rule is probably not far off the mark, when "the sea" refers to the sweet transitional water where she swam. ;o)”
— AntoniaJames
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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.)


Controls

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 ...

What if the noodles were tiny individuals and the cheese were their hair??? Photo by Ella Quittner

Salting

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.

Salt finally gets its close-up, and kind of blows it by being boring. Photo by Ella Quittner

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.)

Had to remind my boyfriend three times not to accidentally drink these. Photo by Ella Quittner

Water Quantity

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.

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?


Other Factors

Adding Oil

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.

POV: your head is on the table because too much pasta put you to sleep. Photo by Ella Quittner

In Summary

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.


What should Ella test next? Let us know in the comments, or send her a message here.

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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.

35 Comments

Jeremy H. May 17, 2020
I know it is heresy, but most of the time I prefer Spaghetti with only olive oil and parmesian reggiano. The result is that I get a MUCH better product if I both salt the water, add oil to the cooking water, and cold rinse al dente pasta (because starch is not your friend when you don't have a sauce you are trying to bind). I also finish is good olive oil and then sprinkle cold parm on top. That said, when making sauces, I use both the pasta and pasta water prior to rinsing.
 
John B. April 3, 2020
I Love this site. Science about food is awesome.
 
Gerardo C. March 31, 2020
Samin Nosrat says to salt "like your memory of the sea" since mimicking actual sea water salinity would be unbearably salty as you showed.
 
Scott S. April 1, 2020
Memory. How much salt do you need to remember the sea?
 
Anne J. March 24, 2020
Dear Ella, you are the best, an absolute brick. You spent so much effort and produced definitive answers. I’m particularly appreciative because they sort of validate my slap dash method of preparing pasta, I don’t measure exactly but I know the dimensions of my pots so approximation is easy, I use sea salt from Brittany and regulate my pinch according to the quantity of water, had a major, nasty, salty failure two weeks ago, had to trash it sadly. Had my mind on something else, a mistake in the kitchen always. Usually I get a good pasta, firm and sticky for the sauce. Adding oil to the water is something I have seen many Italians in New York do but I don’t. You did a wonderful job, you are a patient and enthusiastic woman, carry on with your important work!!! The research and results are valuable!!!
 
Deborah J. March 21, 2020
Loved, loved, loved this effort. Thank you!
My geese gave me their first egg [172 grams, oh my!] of the season yesterday. Goose-egg pasta is on my radar big time, no-salt in the dough, dried overnight.
CV-19 updates can take a back seat today!
 
Marina March 19, 2020
I adore pasta, I import pasta and I’ve cooked a lot of pasta. I was lucky enough to learn of the traditions passed down from my Nonna from Parma, but the best teacher is just to cook it yourself. I detest overly salted water, so my tip - just taste it. If the water is slightly salted, you’ve put in enough. It should not taste like “the sea”, that’s too much salt. Don’t forget that your sauce and your 24 M grated Parmigiano-Reggiano will add some salt too.
 
Barcham March 19, 2020
If you want your sauce to cling to the pasta, use dry pasta that is bronze extruded. I discovered this when I tried Delverde pasta a few years ago and recently came across a Canadian brand of pasta, Italpasta, who also market a line of bronze extruded pasta. This gives the pasta a much rougher texture which really does improve the way sauce adheres to the pasta. I'm sure there are other companies with similar products on the market but I won't buy anything other than bronze extruded now unless I am getting fresh pasta. I think it is really worth seeking out.
 
Matt H. March 30, 2020
Delverde <3 for some reason my grocer stopped carrying their spaghetti.
 
Barcham March 30, 2020
I noticed recently that all their websites, other than the Italian one, are no longer functioning. They used to have both US and Canada websites; both give a 404 error now. I think this may be a sign they are having problems of some kind. That would be a shame because they have an excellent product. At least I came across the Italpasta bronze extruded pasta and I hope that will continue to be available as it is the only other pasta of that type I have found in Montreal grocery stores.
 
thelastmike March 19, 2020
I find the cold-water/just-enough-to-cover to not work as well for me with thicker shapes like rigatoni. But for elbows or spaghetti or angel hair I dig it. It's also so quick and so versatile. I can measure 4oz pasta and 10oz water and have a large single or small double serving of whatever on the table lickety split. Few pans to wash to boot.
To be clear there is no pasta water leftover from this. I do it as an absorption method.
I do 4cups water to 1lb pasta in a closed system like a pressure cooker and 5cups water to 1lb in an open pan. Dried pasta of course.
I'll cook a little protein. Reserve it. Pasta and water in same pan. Cook. Add whatever for sauce and protein back in to reheat at the end. Done. Simple. Fast.
Sometimes the protein doesn't need precooking and just goes in to heat with the pasta in the latter stage of the cook. For instance a can of tuna in oil goes in with some capers and whatever else I feel like. Leave a little more water at the end for a nice sauce and mount with butter perhaps. A million ways to do it.
Disclaimer: I often add a splash or more of water again at the end to get the pasta just where I want it with just the amount of retained water/sauce I want for whatever I'm doing.
 
d W. March 20, 2020
I am with you on this. I have hung out in Italy and then gone off on my own and done what works best for me. I usually have a time constraint and starting in cold water saves time and using a sparse amount of water is a factor, too. I have recently tried making the long pastas in the microwave containers and love it. They require less water and tap water. I don't' use a lot of salt...a couple teaspoons of sea salt works. When I make alfredo sauce, I use the pasta water and cheese as I learned to do in Italy. I also throw in a little butter to make it richer.
 
thelastmike March 23, 2020
I've never tried the microwave containers. I'll have to give it a go as fast and easy to clean is me all over. LOL. Thanks for the tip.
 
Andrew W. March 19, 2020
Aside from the ludicrous idea that rigatoni is the best pasta shape in a world where radiatore exists, this was a very helpful and informative article. Thank you.
 
Annagon March 19, 2020
Wait, why was adding oil a disaster?
 
Nabeela March 19, 2020
I was wondering the same thing
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. March 19, 2020
It completely prevented the sauce from clinging on to the noodles.
 
Jason C. March 19, 2020
I've found that a 2-2.5% salt ratio based on the weight of the water is actually pretty decent. A quart of water in most of my experience is between 760 and 800 grams, which means 18-20 grams of salt per quart of water, for the ease of math, I've defaulted to the 20 gram guestimate. I like the weight based method, personally, and might see how much 2 heaping teaspoons of Diamond weighs in at for comparison
 
Rekrab82 March 19, 2020
Can you share measurements in Metric as well? 😣.
 
Elle E. March 19, 2020
Just an edit, right after the Water Quantity heading, it states 2 heaping TBS per quart not lb. Thank you so much for doing this!
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. March 19, 2020
Hi Elle! That's actually what I meant to say: a heaping 2 teaspoons per quart. The ratio from my salting trials came out to about 3 tablespoons of salt for 4 quarts, aka 9 teaspoons for 4 quarts, so to provide it on a per quart basis (since I recommend starting with three quarts), I converted to a little more than 2 teaspoons per quart (2.25 teaspoons per quart to be more specific). Hope this helps!
 
Laura S. March 18, 2020
Thank you so much for toiling on our behalf ;). In your conclusion, you recommend two TEASPOONS of salt, but in the tests you were using TABLESPOONS. Could you clarify?
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. March 19, 2020
Hi Laura! The ratio came out to about 3 tablespoons of salt for 4 quarts, aka 9 teaspoons for 4 quarts, so to provide it on a per quart basis (since I recommend starting with three quarts), I converted to a little more than 2 teaspoons per quart (2.25 teaspoons per quart to be more specific). Hope this helos!
 
HalfPint March 17, 2020
Along the same vein, I would love Ella Q to next test the best way to cook non-wheat pasta. Thanks!
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. March 17, 2020
Ooh! Challenge accepted. I have so much whole wheat rigatoni in my cupboard.
 
AntoniaJames March 16, 2020
May I offer some additional insight into the "it should taste like the sea" point? Many years ago, I had the great fortune to spend an afternoon swimming in the Adriatic off of Pesaro, just to the south of Cesenatico, where Marcella Hazan spent her summers. I was a competitive long distance swimmer at the time, but was there just to relax. I immediately noticed how much less salty the water was there. (One floats more easily, the saltier the water. Swimmers notice such things.) Decades later, when reading Hazan's memoirs, I remembered reading before how she recommended making your pasta water taste like the sea. Checking the map, I noticed that Cesenatico is even closer to the freshwater plume from the Po River than Pesaro is. A bit of research confirmed that indeed, the water from the Po does make that part of the Adriatic less saline. In fact, scientific studies based in Cesenatico show that the water there, at the surface (the water one would taste), can be less than half of the average salinity of sea water worldwide - which means that perhaps Marcella's rule is probably not far off the mark, when "the sea" refers to the sweet transitional water where she swam. ;o)
 
thelastmike March 19, 2020
Now I wouldn't have learned that on Food Network. Probably not even on Youtube. LOL. Thanks for posting and adding the benefit of such a niche piece of information. I appreciate it. It's what makes comment sections as good as the articles.
 
Mara R. March 19, 2020
Antonia always has something interesting to add regardless of the disagreement which sometimes follows. I'm not sure which pasta cooking team I'm on but I am definitely Team Antonia. Thank you!
 
Stevie T. March 19, 2020
That is brilliant. Science in the kitchen. Thank you, Antonia!
 
AntoniaJames March 23, 2020
I'm glad you found this interesting . . . . It's a fun fact that I've been wanting to share for years. Stay well ;o)
 
Sarah O. March 16, 2020
I love your column, Ella! Did you mean to advise not to drain, or did you intend to say don’t rinse?
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. March 16, 2020
Thank you so much Sarah! I am advocating not to rinse, once you've reserved water and drained. :)
 
amanda March 16, 2020
So rather than draining, did you have better results by scooping the pasta out of the water, and placing it directly into the sauce to finish (along with 1/4 cup of retained cooking water)?
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. March 16, 2020
Hi Amanda, Apologies! That should have said, "don't rinse!" It's been corrected.
 
amanda March 16, 2020
Ah, that makes more sense. Thanks!