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Cooking Pasta: How Much Water?


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, 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 salted water and a pound (450 g) of pasta, heating water and pasta together while stirring everything around to keep the pieces of pasta from sticking together and welding into a single, chewy block. And even says that if everyone cooked pasta this way, which is more energy efficient, the nation (the US) 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 perfer 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 lab analyses, 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 stovetop. 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.

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.

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.

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