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Why so much water for pasta?


paulraphael
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With Shaw on this one - I use about 4 qts. water per pound of dried pasta. I would imagine the incremental amount of time to boil 4 qts. vs. 3 is minimal - though I'm sure some scientific types will say I'm wrong.

I conserve by driving less than most Americans, and using lots of public transportation.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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Well, the point of conserving isn't necessarily that it saves the individual an appreciable amount of money or resources, but that the cumulative impact of millions of people using more energy than they need to can be substantial. Per the article:

After some experiments, I’ve found that we can indeed make pasta in just a few cups of water and save a good deal of energy. Not that much in your kitchen or mine — just the amount needed to keep a burner on high for a few more minutes. But Americans cook something like a billion pounds of pasta a year, so those minutes could add up.

My rough figuring indicates an energy savings at the stove top of several trillion B.T.U.s. At the power plant, that would mean saving 250,000 to 500,000 barrels of oil, or $10 million to $20 million at current prices. Significant numbers, though these days they sound like small drops in a very large pot.

But hey, whatever floats your boat. Or your pasta.

Christopher

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Most non-foodie types I know already use too little water when cooking pasta. That's one of the many reasons their pasta always sucks. Where is McGee's substantiation for the assumption that people are using all this water? Gourmets are using it because it makes the pasta better, but the average American is already using too little water in too small a pot. I think it would be worth an extra $20 million if everybody would double up on pasta cooking water so I wouldn't have to eat spaghetti that tastes like it came from a can.

Anyway, McGee's arithmetic seems to assume that people's stoves are powered by oil. In fact many people have gas stoves, and many people get their household electricity from coal, nuclear, hydroelectric and other power sources.

In addition, there are about 20 million better ways to save $20 million on energy. Energy used for cooking is a tiny slice of the household energy pie. If everybody turned the hot water heater down a few degrees, or weatherized, it would save something like a zillion dollars a year. But it's personal transportation, not pasta making, where we'll need to look in order to make any progress on the oil front.

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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I should add that after cooking pasta in boiling water, I use that water to bathe and, after that, I filter it using reverse osmosis and make it into ice cubes for use in my specialty cocktails.

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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I should add that after cooking pasta in boiling water, I use that water to bathe and, after that, I filter it using reverse osmosis and make it into ice cubes for use in my specialty cocktails.

Mmmmm. That sounds like quite the delightful "specialty" cocktail, indeed.

I actually have been guilty of using smaller amounts of water to cook my pasta many times in the past, but, to be fair, I don't really like pasta that much, so it probably makes less of a difference to me.

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There's (at least) one more method for cooking dried pasta which differs markedly from the ones tested and I don't think anyone has mentioned it above. Elizabeth David says, in Italian Food:

An alternative, but little known, way of cooking manufactured pasta is to calculate one litre or 1 1/2 pints of water to every 125 gr. or 1/4 lb. of dried pasta. Bring the water to the boil; add a tablespoon of salt for every 2 litres or half gallon of water. After it comes back to the boil let it continue boiling for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the saucepan with a towel and the lid, leave it for 5 to 8 minutes according to the thickness of the pasta [...].

I learned this excellent method from the directions given on a packet of Agnesi pasta bought in the early 1970s. I find it infinitely preferable to the old-fashioned way. [p69, my emphasis]

I use this method occasionally and it's certainly possible to get the textural contrasts from surface to centre. However, the surface texture takes a little getting used to. It feels a little clammy (unsurprisingly), a little more like fresh pasta, and sauces adhere well. And it's certainly low energy!

I can't find mention of this technique in any of the books in my collection. Perhaps Adam has seen something like it?

Edited by lamington (log)

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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.

There was some evidence presented in the article that the cold-start technique resulted in a quality loss. But no evidence that merely cooking in less water results in a quality loss. Indeed, as the article points out, it's a gain because you now have some very nice pasta water.

Saving water is good, saving energy is good, even saving the salt would be nice. However, the big gain, in my opinion, is the time to boil the water. Also, it would be quite nice to not have to haul out the stock pot to more than the usual quantity of pasta.

All in all, the low-water technique seems like a pretty useful thing to try out.

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Mmmm....

After reading through this thread, I find it strange that everyone accepts "pasta" as just that,"pasta".

I'm not talking about the shapes, I'm talking about the ingredients and manufacturing methods. A "Good" pasta like Barillo or DeCecco is only made with semolina flour and water, and extruded through bronze dies. No manufacturer will tell us exactly HOW the pasta is dried prior packaging either.

There is of course, pasta made with eggs as well, and cheaper pasta made with different types of flour and extruded through nylon dies, leaving a very smooth surface texture which results in not much sticking on the pasta.

I imagine there'd be quite adifference in texture and taste using a "cold start, minimum water" method with a high quality pasta, and a House brand Supermarket-type of pasta..........

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The more I think about this the less I can imagine that the volume of cooking water could matter from the point of view of the pasta. It will absorb as much as it can so long as there is excess water and whether it is one cup more or a gallon more makes no difference.

Low volume might have a greater drop in temp when the noodles are added, but only briefly.

I could see how starting cold might be different though.

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I'm not talking about the shapes, I'm talking about the ingredients and manufacturing methods.  A  "Good" pasta like Barillo or DeCecco is only made with semolina flour and water, and extruded through bronze dies.  No manufacturer will tell us exactly HOW the pasta is dried prior packaging either.

I've always thought it was interesting to hear Barillia described as a top pasta brand, considering that it's the "Ronzoni of Italy." It's also worthy of note that not all "bronze die" processes are the same. De Cecco pasta has hardly more external texture than pasta coming out of a teflon die, and certainly nowhere near to the surface texture of pastas such as Latini, Setaro, etc.

For all intents and purposes, any industrial extruded dry pasta made with durum flour and water will behave reasonably similarly for the purposes of evaluating a technique such as this. I cannot imagine that this technique would be "bad" when using Ronzoni and "good" when using Rustichella d'Abruzzo, for example. If anything, what makes the artisanal pastas so great is precisely the gradation of textures Lidia mentions, and the rough external texture is a bag part of that. You start with cold water, and you take this away.

--

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The whole "Ronzoni of Italy" issue interests me. Is this good or bad? Do we assume that the taste of the masses is flawed or are we to assume that Italians know their noodles?

May be time for another pasta thread.

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For all intents and purposes, any industrial extruded dry pasta made with durum flour and water will behave reasonably similarly for the purposes of evaluating a technique such as this.  I cannot imagine that this technique would be "bad" when using Ronzoni and "good" when using Rustichella d'Abruzzo, for example.

Is all Durum flour created equal, or is some higher in protein than others? Also, what about the mixing techniques, water temperature, used in manufacture, etc.? I wonder if any of these factors can have an effect on the way the pasta cooks.

It seems to me that some durum pastas hold their texture better than others. Some crappier ones I've used are a bit tricky to cook properly while the better ones seem almost invincible.

Notes from the underbelly

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The whole "Ronzoni of Italy" issue interests me.  Is this good or bad?  Do we assume that the taste of the masses is flawed or are we to assume that Italians know their noodles?

What I meant by "Ronzoni of Italy" is just that Barilla is the most popular pasta brand in Italy, and by no means considered "something special."

I probably should have said that it was like the "American Italian Pasta Company of Italy," since AIPC makes more pasta than any other American company (although New World Pasta also claims they are "leading branded dry pasta manufacturer in the United States and Canada").

It's a perfectly decent quality industrial pasta, but not something I'd hold up as being oustanding in its class.

There is, in my opinion, a pretty large leap in quality from industrial dry pasta to artisanal dry pasta. Really only De Cecco, in my experience, has been able to meaningfully distinguish itself from other industrial dry pasta brands.

For all intents and purposes, any industrial extruded dry pasta made with durum flour and water will behave reasonably similarly for the purposes of evaluating a technique such as this.  I cannot imagine that this technique would be "bad" when using Ronzoni and "good" when using Rustichella d'Abruzzo, for example.

Is all Durum flour created equal, or is some higher in protein than others? Also, what about the mixing techniques, water temperature, used in manufacture, etc.? I wonder if any of these factors can have an effect on the way the pasta cooks.

It seems to me that some durum pastas hold their texture better than others. Some crappier ones I've used are a bit tricky to cook properly while the better ones seem almost invincible.

This is definitely true. But I think that the cooking technique variable is so radical in this case that it would obscure these differences. It's likely, for example, that Rustichella d'Abruzzo cooked using this technique would be better than Ronzoni cooked using this technique, but I am still betting that Rustichella d'Abruzzo cooked using a conventional technique would be far better than either one, and by a much larger magin (it's also likely that Ronzoni cooked using a conventional technique would be better than Rustichella d'Abruzzo cooked using a "cold start/low water" technique).

Edited by slkinsey (log)

--

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Chadzilla chimes in.

"Slow cooked spaghetti is freakin' awesome. I've begun to adopt it as my main cooking method of pasta at home. Also, if you think that's good then try slow cooked elbow macaroni tossed in just a little whole butter."

I might have to actually try it one of these days.

Notes from the underbelly

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There's (at least) one more method for cooking dried pasta which differs markedly from the ones tested and I don't think anyone has mentioned it above. Elizabeth David says, in Italian Food:
An alternative, but little known, way of cooking manufactured pasta is to calculate one litre or 1 1/2 pints of water to every 125 gr. or 1/4 lb. of dried pasta. Bring the water to the boil; add a tablespoon of salt for every 2 litres or half gallon of water. After it comes back to the boil let it continue boiling for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the saucepan with a towel and the lid, leave it for 5 to 8 minutes according to the thickness of the pasta [...].

I learned this excellent method from the directions given on a packet of Agnesi pasta bought in the early 1970s. I find it infinitely preferable to the old-fashioned way. [p69, my emphasis]

I use this method occasionally and it's certainly possible to get the textural contrasts from surface to centre. However, the surface texture takes a little getting used to. It feels a little clammy (unsurprisingly), a little more like fresh pasta, and sauces adhere well. And it's certainly low energy!

I can't find mention of this technique in any of the books in my collection. Perhaps Adam has seen something like it?

As I mentioned privately, I am going to give this technique a go over the weekend and then I will report back.

The Interweb reports that many people have tried the Agnesi cooking technique over the years and generally with positive results. Agnesi is a company that is founded/based in Liguria, so I wonder if the technique they describe is a reflection of the Ligurian pasta cooking techniques that I banged on about earlier.

As to why a lot of water is "tradionally" used to boil pasta, I think that it comes back to the more widespread use of dried durum wheat pasta in the late 19th/early 20th century. In discussion Neapolitan macaroni Artusi says;

“Quanto ai maccheroni, insegnano di farli bollire in un recipiente largo, con molt’acqua, e di non cuocerli troppo.”

(As for the maccheroni, they [Neapolitans] instuct to make them to boil in a wide container, with a lot of water, and not to cook them too much.)

Which I think is drawing attention to how to cook a relatively new/unusual product (

click here to see what this pasta looked like). This is also about the same tome that "al dente" first is used to describe the texture of well cooked pasta.

When talking about how to his local fresh pasta Artusi, doesn't really mention volumes of water, more he is concerned with cooking it "poco" (a little). In modern English translations this is translated as "al dente", but I'm not sure this is what he means, especially in regards to fresh soft wheat pasta.

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For me the issue is about saving time, not energy. It is also about finding out what the truth is. All sorts of time honored practices can be shown to be based on false assumptions and a lack of critical thought. I strongly suspect that this is one of them.

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When I first saw this thread I thought someone snarky like me would respond to the question, "How much water does pasta need?" by saying:

A lot. End of thread.

Hah. It's amazing how easy it is to just keep on doing things the way you were taught. I make pasta the way my mom did, with lots of water in a big pot. No measuring. Rolling boil. I had a roommate who learned to cook pasta at a simmer in a small pot, stirring frequently. That made the pasta gummy, which made it stick together; hence the need to keep stirring. Even if you cook your pasta at a rolling boil, if you have too little water in the pot it takes too long for it to come back up to a rolling boil after adding the pasta, and you still get pasta that's being soaked instead of cooked.

Does the low 'n' slow method mean that the pasta releases a lot more starch into the water? Perhaps losing too much starch results in degradation of taste and texture? If I wanted thick pasta water I'd probably toss out the pasta too.

No one has mentioned the direx on the back of the Japanese udon package: bring water to a boil, add udon, bring it back up to a boil, add a glass of cold water. Bring back to a boil, do it again. And again. Then remove from heat and let sit. I follow the first steps, but find that letting it sit has no advantage over continuing to boil another couple of minutes. And I only do the glass of water thing because it makes me feel so very Japanese. Does anyone have any insight into this technique? I find I like my udon a little toothsome; not quite so al dente as I like my s'ghetti, but not too soft, either.

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I think we could use a new topic on which are the good artisanal brands of pasta.

...

In addition, there are about 20 million better ways to save $20 million on energy. Energy used for cooking is a tiny slice of the household energy pie. If everybody turned the hot water heater down a few degrees, or weatherized, it would save something like a zillion dollars a year. But it's personal transportation, not pasta making, where we'll need to look in order to make any progress on the oil front.

...

Of course I am but a guest here, but seriously can't we get the hyperbole under control?

Whether Steven intended it as hyperbole or not, I think the argument is completely sound. $20 million is a pitiful amount of savings versus the many other ways families could save energy, with the very real disadvantage of eating poorly-cooked pasta. I think as environmental issues have come to the fore of media attention, writers try to tie any story they can come up with to saving energy, the environment, etc.

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One last reply, and I promise I'll go away. I know I won't change any opinions, and there are a lot of analogies of the usefulness of arguing on the Internet. So with that in mind:

* I'm operating on the very critical assumption that Harold McGee doesn't want us to eat poorly cooked pasta. If that assumption is incorrect, then please disregard everything I've said on the matter.

* The entire point of conservation is to add up otherwise inconsequential advantages into something substantial.

* In my opinion, assuming McGee is using energy conservation as a hook, angle, or agenda is a bias. While I don't advocate trying out every technique written about in the NYT, I do believe that McGee is in a rare circle of experts that should be evaluated fairly before being disregarded out of hand.

Bottom line--in my opinion the argument is not sound. It doesn't mean the end result isn't true, I don't know the answer to that. But from an intellectual standpoint I cannot accept your arguments based on their own merits.

And now I'll go away :)

Please delete my account from eGullet

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Because I have sinned - I have reheated pasta at work - I'm exploring other alternatives: boiling the pasta just-in-time, and reheating the sauce.

So the question is: would it be possible to boil pasta in a microwave oven or in a small electric toaster-oven, which according to the dial heats up to 475? These are the only two appliances I have at work.

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Interesting thread.....

I remember reading about Alain Ducasse writing about the same technique a couple years ago (I believe he attributed it to olive pickers in Italy). In fact, he even paired up with Alessi to design a special pot to cook the pasta in. Funny it is only a 2 quart pot: http://www.alessi.com/en/3/2021/pots-and-p...ta-cooking-unit

I'll save my $200 and buy one of those 'on-sale' $70 Thermopens first and continue to use my Creuset cast iron for my pasta pot.

I am always intrigued when someone comes along and turns convention on its head, especially when it is hundreds of years of convention. Jim Lahey did a similar thing when he and Bittman told the world about No Knead Bread. Did he invent it? Maybe, but probably not. Suzanne Dunaway wrote a book 10 years ago called No Need to Knead, so the technique had been documented for at least that long.

As far as the energy angle goes; I can't dismiss it out of hand. It may appear miniscule in the big scheme of things, but it is the cumulative effect of exactly those sorts of small conservation steps that will get us closer to where we need to be. To be conscious of the little things is crucial to developing the mindset that we need as individuals to make a difference.

-sabine

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Because I have sinned - I have reheated pasta at work - I'm exploring other alternatives: boiling the pasta just-in-time, and reheating the sauce.

maybe i should keep it to myself, but i reheat pasta all the time. and i like it!

never have issues with it getting mushy. it dries out if you keep it too long is the only issue.

what's worked best for me is warming it a bit in the microwave, then tossing with very hot sauce.

wouldn't do it for guests, but home alone, with no one looking ...

Notes from the underbelly

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I have been using this technique quite a bit lately with excellent results. I'm a convert. In addition, I don't mind saving the energy or the water, even if it is just a little bit each time after all, every little bit helps. Adding the pasta water from this technique to the sauce is a plus too. I think this water adds more to the sauce, then that of more conventionally cooked pasta.

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At the risk of being drummed out of EG I will confess..

.since it takes 25+ minutes to cook pasta here,.

I cook a whole pound(usually DeCecco Linguini fini#7) in a couple of quarts of water , then take the resulting well drained, 3 pounds, and divide it into meal sized portions and place them into gallon plastic bags so they are in a thin layer, not a big gob, and freeze them..

The thin layer makes it easy to thaw under hot tap water and drain.

Then off to the large fry pan, to toss, with garlic,pancetta,and OO. then the suitable grated hard cheese and egg yolks to finish...

Bud

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