Nigella's Brilliant Secret for Better Bread

She tells all in her new cookbook, “Cook, Eat, Repeat.”

April 20, 2021
Photo by James Ransom

Starchy water. We know by now to always save at least a ladleful of that cloudy, well-salted liquid after boiling a pot of pasta, an ingredient necessary for transforming a skillet of melted fat and beaten eggs into silky carbonara, or for seamlessly melting grated Parmesan into creamy vodka sauce so the mixture becomes a proper emulsion, nary a cheese clump in sight. And what about the water used for boiling potatoes? I’ll never forget a line in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter: “There was no milk but Ma said, ‘leave a very little of the boiling water in, and after you mash them beat them extra hard with a big spoon.’ The potatoes turned out white and fluffy.” I haven’t made mashed potatoes with milk since—just butter and starchy water.

The point is clear: Be it science or magic, that cloudy water left over from boiling pasta or potatoes holds the key to a lot of deliciousness. And where there is deliciousness, there is usually also the work of Nigella Lawson.

“In considering the elemental enjoyment of eating, I have to start with bread,” writes Nigella Lawson in her new cookbook, Cook, Eat, Repeat. “In life, there can be no pleasure without pain.” This observation is key (and much less intense if you’re familiar with French). One of the most popular bread recipes out there, observes Lawson, is Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread. With all-purpose flour (no need to buy fancy rye or spelt), instant yeast (no finicky starters required), and, well, no kneading (duh), it couldn’t be more straightforward. And no one loves straightforward, no-nonsense, they-just-work recipes more than Lawson. Which is why Cook, Eat, Repeat features an adaptation of Lahey’s recipe, with one major, starchy tweak. Instead of plain water in the dough mix, Lawson suggests using pasta or potato-cooking water.

“I had experimented in a much earlier book (my second, [How to Be a Domestic Goddess,] published a couple of decades ago) with using potato-cooking water (which led me to try using pasta-cooking water, which also works well),” Lawson shared in an email. “But until I started using Jim Lahey’s no-knead method, I had largely forgotten about it. But I tried it again, and was bowled away about the springiness it gave to the loaf and how much longer it kept it fresh.”

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I don't typically use potato water or slurry or pasta water, but I do keep potato flour and add that to sandwich loaves, buns, focaccia ... any recipe that I'd like a bit more softness.”
— Liz S.

Lawson likens the addition of starchy water to bread dough to tangzhong, the romanized Chinese term (roughly translating to “water roux”) for a bread-making technique similar to Japanese yudane, both of which involve a slurry or paste of cooked or heated flour and water or milk—hence the common catchall term for these loaves, milk bread. Once heated to a certain temperature (even if cooled after), flour’s starch gelatinizes, creating a fluffier, more tender bread than the average country loaf, qualities that are more typically found in enriched doughs, like brioche or challah. Lawson found that adding starchy water to raw flour in a dough mix imitates the products of this technique.

Formally, Lawson’s adaptation of Lahey’s recipe calls for 1 1/4 cups cold tap water and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, and she explains in the recipe’s headnotes that when she first started playing around with this recipe, she began making the acidic addition to assist with the rise. However, subbing in last night’s pasta- or potato-cooking water (and reducing the amount of salt in the dough mix) cancels the need for lemon juice. And you don’t even have to think that far ahead: Just save the water post-cook—in an email, Lawson noted that “if you keep the starchy water in the fridge, it will be good for five days.”

And if you have neither starchy water nor lemon juice? Of course, Lawson has yet another solution for pillowy loaves, which you may happen to have in the back of your pantry already: instant mashed potato powder (she recommends 2 tablespoons instant mashed potatoes powder mixed in with the flour). Now that I have to try.

Try Nigella’s Starchy Water Trick in Your Next Loaf

No-Knead Sandwich Bread

Alexandra Stafford's No-Knead Peasant Bread

No-Knead Sourdough Bread

No-Knead Country Loaf

Have you tried adding starchy water to bread dough? Do you have a trick like this you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments!

This post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by our editors and writers. As an Amazon Associate and Skimlinks affiliate, Food52 earns an affiliate commission on qualifying purchases of the products we link to.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Lablea
  • Jackie Nobles
    Jackie Nobles
  • judy
  • Liz Summers
    Liz Summers
  • Rebecca Firkser
    Rebecca Firkser
Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. These days, you can keep your eye out for her monthly budget recipe column, Nickel & Dine. Rebecca tests all recipes with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.


Lablea November 1, 2021
The best yeast rolls I have ever had had plain fresh mashed potatoes in them.
Jackie N. April 25, 2021
At the very end of the article it was suggested you could add instant mashed potato flakes to the water used for baking no knead bread....anybody have an idea what the correct ration of flakes to water should be?
Rebecca F. April 26, 2021
In the recipe in her book, Nigella recommends 2 tablespoons instant mashed potatoes powder mixed in with the flour, to 1 1/4 cups tap water in the dough mix!
Jackie N. April 26, 2021
I made Alexandra Stafford’s peasant bread. I used 3 T of mashed potatoe flakes to 2 cups of water. The resulting bread was good but I really couldn’t tell that it made any difference. Next time I try it I will do 1/4 cup to 2 C water,
Donna R. April 28, 2021
I usually add 3-4 tablespoons to a 4 cup flour recipe.
judy April 23, 2021
Well, for those of us who don't get it. Is the potato water to replace the liquid in the bread recipe? need to b 100% replacement or is it a partial replacement? the article calls for using potato water, or pasta water. But does not explain HOW. I am not a skilled bread maker, but I have somewhat mastered the no-knead version fairly well. So do I replace the liquid in my no knead with potato water 1:1 or can I use what ever av=ount I have and bring it up to full amount recipe calls for with balance of other liquids--usually milk? Thanks for responding.
Rebecca F. April 26, 2021
Correct, in the recipe in her book, Nigella recommends swapping in the amount of called for tap water with cooled pasta- or potato-cooking water!
Liz S. April 20, 2021
As a bread baker for something like 44 years, no knead and then sourdough ... I clicked eagerly on this article. YIKES! Using potato water or a potato slurry is a technique that has been used for many, many years as in over 100 years maybe longer! It has made a bit of a comeback in recent years and keeps being presented as if it is a new thing. I believe that it was more common when there were fewer refined flours, so it was used to get a softer bread from whole grain. I like Nigella Lawson and her recipes and don't want to take away from that, but still ... I don't typically use potato water or slurry or pasta water, but I do keep potato flour and add that to sandwich loaves, buns, focaccia ... any recipe that I'd like a bit more softness.
Liz S. April 20, 2021
AND!!! I just went to check The Perfect Loaf website, Maurizio, the Food52 "resident bread baker" ... I searched on potato. May 2020, a lovely bun recipe and he explains the WHY of starch in bread recipes. Sorry ... I think I am just very disappointed that a "brilliant secret" was not a brilliant secret :(
Liz S. April 20, 2021
I also regularly make Romel Bruno's (he did 2 Food52 "At Home with Us" videos) Sweet Potato Bun recipe. Sweet Potatoes are much lower in starch than "white" potatoes, but they do have starch and so do similar: tender crumb, lengthen freshness. Ok. I think I am done.
Carla October 21, 2021
As they say.. everything old is new again! :) :) :)