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Cooking Pasta: How Much Water?

By March 2, 2009

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A few days ago, Harold McGee published an article in the NY Times about cooking pasta, in which he concludes that, though pasta boxes and cookbooks say to boil 1 quart of water per quarter pound (100 g, or 1 gallon per pound) of dry pasta, pasta will cook just fine in considerably less water.

Indeed, he suggests one start with 2 quarts of cold water, 2 teaspoons of salt, and a pound (450 g) of pasta, heating all together while stirring everything around to keep the pieces of pasta from welding into a single, chewy block. And even says that if everyone cooked pasta this way, which is more energy efficient, the nation could save a half million barrels of oil per year.

Truth be told, wife Elisabetta and I have been arguing for years over how much water one needs to cook pasta; she thinks it's ridiculous to heat a gallon of water per pound and cheerfully makes do with much less. I on the other hand prefer to use more water, because I find that the texture of pasta cooked in just a little water suffers -- being cooked in water at a rolling boil that doesn't stop with the addition of the pasta makes for a chewier, firmer texture, and to maintain the boil one has to have more boiling water to begin with.

And why does the pasta remain firmer and chewier? I haven't done a lab analysis, but suspect that the boiling water helps fix the starch -- which gives body -- in the pasta, whereas water that's merely hot draws it out. And indeed, Mr. McGee says his technique yields a starchy water that he finds delicious, and even uses (with olive oil) as a sauce.

The other interesting point Mr. McGee raises is energy savings, and there's no denying that a technique that boils less water will consume less energy. At the stove top. However, if you're cooking pasta in the winter months, the process of cooking will help you heat your kitchen and perhaps your dining area as well. In other words, savings depend upon the time of year.

Bottom line: do try the cold water technique if you want, and if it works for you, fine. However, it may not; I prefer the traditional technique because I find the texture of the pasta cooked using it to be superior.

Share your thougts by leaving a comment!

And, having said all this, a couple of sauces to enjoy with the technique you prefer:
  • Mezze Maniche, and a Chunky Artichoke and Cheese Pasta Sauce
    Mezze Maniche are similar to ziti, but shorter, and work nicely with chunky sauces, especially chunky sauces that also have oil or cream that can slip into the pasta.
  • Spaghetti alla Carbonara
    Though the Romans claim to have invented this astonishingly simple and mouth watering dish, some say spaghetti alla carbonara was developed by Umbrian charcoal burners. Others say it was invented as a way to use bacon and eggs bought on the black market from American service personnel during the Second World War.
  • Pasta with a Tomatoey Olive-and-Caper Sauce
    Tomatoes go extraordinarily well with olives and capers, and make for a perfect pasta sauce.


March 2, 2009 at 1:14 pm
(1) jean zani says:

love your site Kyle, can you tell me how to do pizza dough without yeast, my husbands cousin in Santa Magarita Italy says she never uses yeast to get a thin crunchy base, i have tried but its not good. HELP

March 2, 2009 at 6:30 pm
(2) Mary J Berger says:

I want to say that I prefer using more water that is brought to a rolling boil and then add the pasta and salt. The pasta comes out al dente.
I enjoy your column because you bring such interesting “ricette” to our home cooking repertoire that includes interesting Italian history and culture associated with the recipes.
Thank you,

March 3, 2009 at 3:08 am
(3) Kyle says:

Hi Jean,

I’ve never heard of making pizza with no yeast at all — the dough does have to rise, at which point you roll it out quite thin, and the crunchiness of the crust comes from the heat of the oven, which crisps the bread dough. The ideal for this is a wood-fired oven, which will reach 700 F. With an electric/gas oven, heat the oven as much as possible and use a pizza stone, heating it well.

The only thing I can think of is that your cousin is using some sort of self-rising flour, and not adding anything more to it.

There are some no-yeast Italian breads, for example the piadina romagnola, which is flat and rather chewy (it gains substance and texture from lard), but pizza is definitely a yeast bread.

March 3, 2009 at 3:08 am
(4) Kyle says:

Thank you, Mary! :-)

March 9, 2009 at 10:17 am
(5) mary Ann Esposito says:

Pasta should always be cooked in plenty of water to allow for even cooking and expansion. One way to save energy is to begin with filling the pot with hot water which will take much less time to reach a rolling boil.

March 9, 2009 at 11:02 am
(6) str84wird says:

I just want to point out that using hot water from the faucet (if Mary Ann Esposito really says to) is not a good idea unless you are ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE that you have new plumbing and no lead in your hot water pipes.

I NEVER use a full gallon of water anymore, but I never make a whole pound of pasta either. I find a 2 quart pot is just fine for 6 or 7 ounces of pasta and if you cover the pot while waiting for the water to come to a boil, it will do so much more quickly than it will in an open pot.
:) m

March 9, 2009 at 11:08 am
(7) renaccio says:

Ciao Kyle,
I saw the article too and although I’ve never started the pasta in cold water Piero uses much less water than I do when he cooks pasta..boiling, water that is. I’m always adding some more water when he turns the other way. And then he wonders why the water takes so long.
While others chime in on your great site, I will too. Can’t tell you how many times I look here for ideas and recipes.

March 9, 2009 at 11:09 am
(8) Ed Wilson says:

I guess it is safe to say that I “split the difference”, using about 3 quarts of water to cook a pound of pasta. I NEVER use hot tap water because it sometimes has an off taste and it always contains much higher levels of lead (leached from the water heater tank) than does cold tap water. I never use iodized salt either as I find it imparts a metallic taste to the pasta. I use either sea salt or Kosher salt in sufficient quantity to lightly flavor the pasta but not make it unpalatable.

March 9, 2009 at 11:32 am
(9) Robert Rovegno says:

Many years ago my father imported Agnesi pasta into the United States. They had a energy saving way of cooking pasta that works very well. It used to be printed on the sides of the box, and may still be, it has become very rare to find Agnesi even here in New York City. Anyway bring your water to a boil (salted or not as is your preference), Add the pasta and cook for two minutes stirring occasionally. Then put the lid on the pot and shut off the stove and let the pasta set for the remainder of it’s proscribed cooking time. I have used this method for years the pasta is always aldente. You will also notice that the water is much clearer, showing that you have not leached out a lot of the nutrients.

March 9, 2009 at 4:39 pm
(10) Ed says:

Uh heat a pan with hot water???? How did it get hot? You put it in the sun?

March 9, 2009 at 11:47 pm
(11) joe says:

lots or little water,no dif–soft or firm–what makes the pasta is the sauce or anything your stomach desires and the grade of pasta u use–also water is water bottle or tap, once boiled it is h20

March 10, 2009 at 3:10 am
(12) Kyle says:

I hadn’t thought about the possibility of lead in the pipes, but it is important and a reason to be careful with hot tap water. Simply covering the pot will speed boiling by about 30%.

This is much more important in winter, at least in our house, because our cold water is a lot colder (4-5 C, or 35-40 F) in the winter than the summer, when it’s above 10 C (50 F), and can get as high as 60 F. I discovered this back when I used to develop B&W films and had to calculate development times.

March 10, 2009 at 3:51 am
(13) nero says:

Thank you very much, Kyle, for all your wonderful recipes. I have tried many and quite a few have found their way into my permanent recipe card file. A few of those are in the must-make-every-month section. They are just that tasty.

As to making pasta easily–2 cups pasta (e.g., rigatoni, fusilli, shells) plus 2 1/4 ~ 2 1/2 cups water in an electric rice cooker works perfectly for me. Be sure to “Pan” the inner surface. Flip the switch, and when the cooker resets from cook cycle to warm cycle, open, stir and remove. Cold to warm water is fine; no need for boiling water. Try it. I was amazed the first time too.

March 10, 2009 at 5:36 am
(14) Freya says:

Well, if you really have to, you can leave pasta in cold water overnight and it will be soft, soggy and sort of edible by the time you want to eat. It has nothing to do with great cooking and tastes pretty mushy, but if you are out camping and your stove is out of fuel, it is a last resort. I’ve had to do it on several occasions while I was still young and not easy to put off, and somehow with beautiful Tuscan scenery all around it was quite a decent meal …

March 10, 2009 at 6:31 pm
(15) A. Gauld says:

I think my mother and my aunts (who were all superb Italian cooks) must be spinning in their graves at the thought of starting the pasta off in cold water. I was taught “full, rolling boil” and add the salt just before you add the pasta. As for how much water, I guess I use enough water so that the pasta isn’t crowded. Thanks, Kyle, for all the recipes and information.

March 10, 2009 at 8:30 pm
(16) Sandy says:

I’m not really into gimmick products, but recently I bought a Pasta Fasta because I hate cooking pasts, though I love to eat it. I’m impatient, and I usually either wander off and let it get too soggy or stick to the bottom, or I end up cursing under my breath as I stand over the pot and constantly check, recheck, and recheck again. I don’t know if it really saves more energy because it uses the microwave for up to 14 minutes, which is substantially longer than most things. However, the pasta always comes out al dente, you only use about three to four cups of water, and it’s pretty much goof-proof.

March 11, 2009 at 8:56 pm
(17) Washclaw says:

I don’t know. It seems that most, if not all, Italians have been cooking pasta with lots of water for maybe hundreds of years, and have probably figured out what’s best.

March 13, 2009 at 12:46 pm
(18) the says:

I wonder wether they have always used that much water. Water wasn’t always that widely available, same went for fuel. Shepherds used (and some still do) to cook the pasta in the sauce itself wich to me is the right thing to do. Saves fuel, water, incorporates sauce and pasta.

April 9, 2011 at 10:07 pm
(19) Phil Saywood says:

I accessed this information to see what is the ‘right thing’ to do, having been cooking pasta for some years by judging the amount of water simply on whether the pasta is covered in the bowl; with, it has to be admitted, variable results – now I know why!

First, my method/recipe: 125gm pasta (supermarket own brand fusili tricolori); 125gm frozen mixed veg; 1/2 a medium onion chopped small; 1 or 2 stock cubes; 500ml water + splash of anything not drunk previous day (esp wine, beer or cider). All the above cooked in a 3l glass bowl covered with a plate for 15-20 minutes in the microwave on Medium High. (Purists may be appalled.)

The above was slightly adjusted as a result of the original research on this site; previously I used somewhat less water, and the frozen veg often replaced by a tin of petits pois & baby carrots. The result this time was perfectly cooked pasta ready to eat on its own and with some residual ‘gravy’ not totally absorbed into the pasta. Obviously, this way you get all the starch. These proportions equate roughly to 1 PINT: 4 OZ. Cost: 60p including the electricity (roughly 1/5kwh); serves two hungry people with a decent sauce or one very hungry person on its own.

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