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Why so much water for pasta?


paulraphael
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I thought McGee was really stretching for a story. I can't imagine using these methods (constant stirring, making pasta like risotto); and can't imagine they could save all that much energy, either.

Marcella and Lidia were good sports...but there's no way you'll ever see them doing that on their cooking shows, their cooking classes or in their cookbooks.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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I thought the most telling comment was from Lidia Bastianich, who observed that the "low water" and "cold water start" pasta was lacking the gradation of texture and nutty flavor of "a good semolina pasta cooked properly."

One thing I often find wrongheaded about cooking experiments. I feel the same way about the pasta comparisons done by Cook's Illustrated (or was it Consumer Reports) which rated Ronzoni #1. These things are often done by people who are relative rubes when it comes to an understanding of what properly cooked and sauced pasta should be like. Who wants a strand of spaghetti that is just as soft in the center as it is on the outside? Not me!

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I thought the most telling comment was from Lidia Bastianich, who observed that the "low water" and "cold water start" pasta was lacking the gradation of texture and nutty flavor of "a good semolina pasta cooked properly."

One thing I often find wrongheaded about cooking experiments.  I feel the same way about the pasta comparisons done by Cook's Illustrated (or was it Consumer Reports) which rated Ronzoni #1.  These things are often done by people who are relative rubes when it comes to an understanding of what properly cooked and sauced pasta should be like.  Who wants a strand of spaghetti that is just as soft in the center as it is on the outside?  Not me!

Right - and he even tried whole wheat pasta - like any true blooded Italian grandma is cooking whole wheat pasta.

By the way, in another testing of pasta that CI did, I believe Mueller's came out on top...I think that's a noodle MY grandma used to make - and I don't think she was very Italian.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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To be fair, I'm not sure that McGee is saying that it is a better tasting product, more an investigation of the cooking technique.

What is an interesting question is that as cooking pasta is in a large volume of water is water and fuel inefficient how did it become the standard technique? If you are cooking over coal or charcoal this is an important consideration. Many recipes for cooking pasta pre-1800's, the pasta is cooked in broth (fideos style) (similar to the McGee technique), which makes more sense from an energy and water point of view. In most older recipes the pasta is cooked in broth, not water, so the volumes are likely to have been less also.

There is good evidence that pasta was eaten by the poor in Naples during the late 19th century and dried pasta became a staple for much of the rest of Italy from this period onwards.

Is this cooking technique a consequence of using dried durum wheat pasta, where 'graduation of texture' is hugely important. With fresh past made with soft wheat flour this isn't so much of an issue, the overall texture is more important.

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Is this cooking technique a consequence of using dried durum wheat pasta, where 'graduation of texture' is hugely important. With fresh past made with soft wheat flour this isn't so much of an issue, the overall texture is more important.

Interesting question, Adam. I don't have an answer or even a hypothesis.

But I can say that my experience is that fresh pasta needs lots of water -- perhaps even more than dry, although for different reasons. Fresh pasta tends to be well dusted with flour to keep it from sticking together, and I think that boiling in lots of water is a good idea if the cooking medium is not going to turn into sludge. Also, fresh pasta is often far more likely to stick together in the pot if it is not given sufficient room to separate and expand. Stirring, in my book, is something that I generally want to avoid as I like my fresh pasta very thin and delicate, and stirring is likely to break the strands of pasta -- better to gently agitate in lots of water so that the strands can find their own way. Cooking fresh pasta in too little water, in my experience, is a recipe for "clump o' boiled dough." Of course, one expects that McGee was likely using store bought "fresh" pasta for his experiments.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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Is this cooking technique a consequence of using dried durum wheat pasta, where 'graduation of texture' is hugely important. With fresh past made with soft wheat flour this isn't so much of an issue, the overall texture is more important.

Interesting question, Adam. I don't have an answer or even a hypothesis.

But I can say that my experience is that fresh pasta needs lots of water -- perhaps even more than dry, although for different reasons. Fresh pasta tends to be well dusted with flour to keep it from sticking together, and I think that boiling in lots of water is a good idea if the cooking medium is not going to turn into sludge. Also, fresh pasta is often far more likely to stick together in the pot if it is not given sufficient room to separate and expand. Stirring, in my book, is something that I generally want to avoid as I like my fresh pasta very thin and delicate, and stirring is likely to break the strands of pasta -- better to gently agitate in lots of water so that the strands can find their own way. Cooking fresh pasta in too little water, in my experience, is a recipe for "clump o' boiled dough." Of course, one expects that McGee was likely using store bought "fresh" pasta for his experiments.

This would be my experience too. I do wonder if I am missing something though, in terms of how these pasta where cooked historically. I've a few Italian recipe collections and will look at them to see if they mention volume of cooking liquid. Since the pasta is cooked in a broth, I don't think that we would be taking about very large volumes.

One final thing that was missed in the McGee article. Historically a lot of pasta was cooked in broth (as I've banged on about above), there was a whole range of this style that was called fideos, fideus, fides, alfideus etc etc, the geographic range of the dish was Spain, North Africa, Arab world, Jewish world, Southern France (up to Grenoble), Liguria, Sardinia and Northern Italy, especially Liguria. Some of these pasta where like small fine dumplings made out of soft wheat flour (of chestnut flour), but a lot, especially extant recipes are made from dried durum wheat pasta.

One traditional way of dealing with them is to fry them in oil, then cook them in broth (until you get a thicken soup or a dry dish), but an easier modern method is to coat them with a little olive oil and toast them in an oven and then cook them in minimum broth (like a paella). Using this pre-cooking method, the pasta never sticks together. You can even cook them on top of the stove using the same method as the rice absorption (I'm sure you could use a rice cooker, but I haven't done this). If you are interested in saving fuel, but don't want to stir pasta for ever, then I think that this technique is a big improvement of anything in the McGee article.

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I'm skeptical of the cold water start, and the idea of making a pound of pasta in 2 quarts or less water. Especially fresh pasta, which seems to tolerance little abuse.

But I agree that bringing 6 quarts of water to a boil is huge waste of time and energy. I'd be inclined to do things a bit more restaurant style and reuse the water for consecutive batches. Instead of 6 quarts for a pound, boil 3 quarts, and then use the same water for two half-pound batches. Only disadvantages are that it's more labor intensive, and the first batch will have to sit for several minutes waiting for the second. But I find that once tossed with oil or sauce, pasta isn't going to self destruct in such short order. At least if it's decent quality dry pasta.

I'd like to try McGee's idea of rinsing pasta with cold water first to keep it from sticking.

Edited by paulraphael (log)

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I'd like to try McGee's idea of rinsing pasta with cold water first to keep it from sticking.

But those goes against all convention which says that you shouldn't rinse pasta - not rinsing allows the sauce to adhere to the pasta, as well as helps to thicken the sauce, as does adding a ladleful or more of the cooking water to the sauce.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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It's always a good idea to revisit how we do the basics. For dry pasta, I always boil the minimum amount of water that will do the trick (cook without sticking) whether I'm camping or not.

At home we make fresh pasta less than once a month and usually do the Orecchiette thing meaning hand-formed, no rollers, quick to cook in a broad and shallow pot of water.

Fresh pasta broth seams more appealing than dry past broth.

Great, now I'm going to have to explain to my family why I'm steaming the spaghetti for dinner.

Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .

Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .

Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

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I'd like to try McGee's idea of rinsing pasta with cold water first to keep it from sticking.

But those goes against all convention which says that you shouldn't rinse pasta - not rinsing allows the sauce to adhere to the pasta, as well as helps to thicken the sauce, as does adding a ladleful or more of the cooking water to the sauce.

I think he's referring to rinsing prior to cooking, not afterwards. McGee says it prevents sticking in the pot.

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What I learned from this article is that if I want really good, starchy pasta water to thicken a sauce I'm going to 1- boil a lot of pasta in a little water, 2- save that water and throw the pasta in the garbage, 3- make new pasta the right way and 4- combine. I don't think that's a good way to save energy and water, though.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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One traditional way of dealing with them is to fry them in oil, then cook them in broth (until you get a thicken soup or a dry dish), but an easier modern method is to coat them with a little olive oil and toast them in an oven and then cook them in minimum broth (like a paella).

Apropos of this method, a recipe from Roz Gold's Recipes 1-2-3. No broth in it, only the puree from canned tomatoes. I scratched my head when I first read this recipe, and wondered how the dish would turn out. Although I'm curious about it, I've never tried it.

Gold says Giuliano Bugialli found this recipe in an 1841 Italian cookbook. Bugialli says any short tubular pasta will do.

A Very Old Neapolitan Recipe

Macaroni and Tomatoes

adapted from Recipes 1-2-3

8 oz dried cavatelli

6 TB olive oil

1 28-oz can imported plum tomatoes in puree

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a large shallow casserole dish.

In a bowl, mix the pasta and the olive oil, and let stand for 20 mins. Then add in the tomatoes, 1 tsp coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Mix well. Place the mixture in the casserole dish. Bake for 45 mins, stirring occasionally so the pasta doesn't stick. Serve immediately.

Anybody ever try anything like this? What was the texture of the pasta like?

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One traditional way of dealing with them is to fry them in oil, then cook them in broth (until you get a thicken soup or a dry dish), but an easier modern method is to coat them with a little olive oil and toast them in an oven and then cook them in minimum broth (like a paella).

Apropos of this method, a recipe from Roz Gold's Recipes 1-2-3. No broth in it, only the puree from canned tomatoes. I scratched my head when I first read this recipe, and wondered how the dish would turn out. Although I'm curious about it, I've never tried it.

Gold says Giuliano Bugialli found this recipe in an 1841 Italian cookbook. Bugialli says any short tubular pasta will do.

A Very Old Neapolitan Recipe

Macaroni and Tomatoes

adapted from Recipes 1-2-3

8 oz dried cavatelli

6 TB olive oil

1 28-oz can imported plum tomatoes in puree

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a large shallow casserole dish.

In a bowl, mix the pasta and the olive oil, and let stand for 20 mins. Then add in the tomatoes, 1 tsp coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Mix well. Place the mixture in the casserole dish. Bake for 45 mins, stirring occasionally so the pasta doesn't stick. Serve immediately.

Anybody ever try anything like this? What was the texture of the pasta like?

Ducasse likes the technique (link). The result would be superior to the methods discussed in the McGee article, but isn't trying to emulate the technique of cooking pasta in a large amount of water, draining, then dressing with a sauce, it is another technique entirely and therefore produces a different result.

I'm pretty sure that the technique that Ducasse came across is the fideos technique that I discussed above. Liguria was and is a real strong hold of the style, in the 16th century pasta making guilds sprung up in Liguria, one often quoted example is the "Regolazione dell'Arte dei Maestri Fidelari"(Rules for the Art of Pasta-Masters Corporation) which was publish in Savona. Now this pasta making style is locally called Fidelanza/Fedelini (and other variations)

It would be interesting to know what cookbook Bugialli go the recipe from and what it is called.

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Getting away from historic stuff for the moment, it is still not clear to me what people are refering to when they say that can cook dried "pasta" easily in a small amount of water. Pasta is a general term for a huge range of products, I would find it hard to see how you could cook Ziti in a small amount of water for instance. Small shell pasta, maybe.

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I guess I'm just not curious enough to care about the answer to the question, especially since the method results in a quality loss. The argument that we could all save water this way seems incredibly weak. Of all the ways to conserve.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Gas is included in my rent and it's a minimal amount anyway. I just don't care enough.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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