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Why so much water for pasta?


paulraphael
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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

Bud,

That is a great idea and I think I will adopt it as my 'summer' method. When it is hot and you don't have AC, adding heat and humidity to my living space is not my favorite thing to do. On the flip side, in the winter, before I start cooking in my kitchen, I often start a cast iron pot half full of water, and bring to a boil to take the chill out off my 60 degree kitchen.

The other benefit to little water/lots of pasta is the ability to use homemade stocks or other flavorings for the pasta to absorb as it cooks. I wouldn't waste quarts of homemade stock for a small amount of pasta, but if I would sacrifice a quart or two to cook my pasta in if the pasta was going to absorb it.

Lots of possibilities!

-sabine

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  • 4 months later...

I read McGee's article when it appeared, and the main point that I took away from it was that pasta boiled in less water probably isn't dreadful, but no one seemed ecstatic about the results from a culinary standpoint.

I've generally cooked pasta, about 1/2 pound to a pound in a four or six quart pot, but lately I've been asking whether this is really enough water and have been experimenting with a larger pot--about 12 quarts (the very pot in my avatar, in fact). It takes longer to boil and uses more energy for only one batch, of course, but I have to say, it's a big improvement as far as the gradation of textures goes, at least with commercial pasta, and the difference between boiling in 6 quarts and 12 quarts is much more significant than the difference between 3 quarts and 6 quarts. Presumably this is because 12 quarts of water doesn't take as long to come back to a boil, so the outside of the pasta cooks more quickly, leaving a firmer core, as long as you don't let it boil too long.

I'll have to make a batch of fresh pasta soon to try it out in the larger pot.

The extra time to boil isn't active cooking time, so it just requires a bit more planning. I don't think twice about starting the rice cooker an hour before dinner, so I suppose I can manage to put the pot on to boil a little sooner and save energy elsewhere, for instance by not going out for dinner.

Edited by David A. Goldfarb (log)
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Presumably this is because 12 quarts of water doesn't take as long to come back to a boil

I can't remember where one of our resident experts on everything noted this, but I think the arithmetic says that, all other things being equal, it takes the same time to come back to the boil because more water requires more energy to heat. The real difference, then, is that the temperature drops less in the first place.

In any event, just this past weekend I experienced pasta cooked in too little water at a friend's house and it had everything wrong with it that could have been predicted.

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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Interestingly enough, as the summer's hazy, hot and humidity has descended upon us, I've tried what I think is a variation on the technique. Or maybe it is the technique.

I figured if the directions call for boiling a pound of pasta in a minimum of 4 quarts of water, and I'm only cooking 1/2 pound of pasta, doesn't it make sense then that 2 quarts of water will work?

While I haven't done a side by side test, the Setaro pasta I cooked up the other day for a cacio e pepe dish seemed just fine - perfectly cooked and a bit of the pasta water helped with the dish's creaminess.

For lunch today, I'm going to try an uncooked tomato and basil sauce again using just 2 quarts of water to cook the pasta...I have a box of De Cecco cavatappi that will be the subject of the test.

I have a feeling this may work decently with the smaller amounts of pasta that I'm cooking (for 2) as opposed to when you start cooking a pound or more.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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Is it a straight pasta weight to water ratio or does shape play a factor? I always use three quarts of water in a big pot to cook half a pound of fettuccine but will use a smaller two quart pot for the same amount of penne, because I figure the noodles need more space because they're long while penne doesn't. Does that make sense?

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At one time when I was doing a lot of traveling for my job, and living out of a van with a 2 burner Coleman stove for a kitchen, I invented a chicken dish that was a whole chicken, cut into serving pieces and cooked in well seasoned water (about 2 quarts). After the chicken was mostly done, I'd add a half pound of elbow macaroni to the pot and let it simmer until the pasta was done. The result was a lovely damp bog of pasta, not soupy, not dry, with plenty of richness from the chicken fat and seasonings. I wish I could remember the proportions better, though! :rolleyes:

"Commit random acts of senseless kindness"

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It definitely helps to have enough water in the right kind of pan so that strand pasta can be completely immersed in boiling water from ths start.

So, for cooking noodles, if I want to avoid heating up three quarts in an upright pot, could I use a deep casserole that could hold two quarts? The casserole would be wide enough so that the noodles can lay in there flat and be submerged.

I actually tried this with a pyrex casserole on the stove and the whole thing shattered after being on the fire for 15 minutes. That was quite a mess to clean up. I'm not even sure why it happened, but I would try this with a metal casserole in the future.

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I actually tried this with a pyrex casserole on the stove and the whole thing shattered after being on the fire for 15 minutes. That was quite a mess to clean up. I'm not even sure why it happened, but I would try this with a metal casserole in the future.

See: http://www.pyrexware.com/index.asp?pageId=104

Pyrex® Glassware Safety and Usage Instructions

[...]

DO NOT Use On or Under a Flame or Other Direct Heat Source, including on a stovetop, under a broiler, on a grill or in a toaster oven.

So we finish the eighteenth and he's gonna stiff me. And I say, "Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know." And he says, "Oh, uh, there won't be any money. But when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness."

So I got that goin' for me, which is nice.

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  • 1 year later...

It seems like every place you read about pasta, everyone says you need lots of water to boil your pasta. Even AB talks about using at least gallon of water for a couple of servings (if memory serves..).

Why is this?

Less water means more starch in the water and generally, I want to incorporate some of that in with the sauce and pasta at the end to get the sauce to help stick to the pasta. Bittman even talks in his book about how the best pasta at Babbo is produced at the end of the night because that's when the pot of boiling water they use to finish the pasta has become thick with starch.

At home I used to use this big stock pot to boil pasta in but now I see no point. Other than the pasta water dropping a few more degrees when i dump the pasta in, it would seem to have the reverse effect from what I want.

Is this just more cookbook lore stuff or is there something more to it?

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But they don't start the day with purposely starchy water and really if you make the sauce right you shouldn't need to add any water, starchy or not. Although if you do need to thin it out starchy water isn't a bad thing.

The reasons for a lot of water are usually given as faster recovery time (to boil)which helps with more even cooking and less sticking of the pasta to itself.

Can you cook pasta in other ways.. Sure you can cook it risotto style, pilaf style. Soak it over night as was mentioned. But boiling in well salted water works consistently well and is pretty easy.

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just did a pound of De cecco linguini fini#8 in a 3 3/4QT sauce pan with salted water for about 25 minutes or so, started in boiling water. turned out perfect (at 5K+feet, so water boils at less than 200deg)

Bud

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But boiling in well salted water works consistently well and is pretty easy.

Agreed. But I was more talking bout the quantity of water. Since I don't have a super-high powered range, boiling 2 liters of water is certainly quicker than a couple gallons.

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Too little water and it's hard to get that movement.

A little stirring, especially, right at the beginning, will take care of it. I've always cooked my pasta with reduced amounts of water, never had a problem.

"I think it's a matter of principle that one should always try to avoid eating one's friends."--Doctor Dolittle

blog: The Institute for Impure Science

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The reason for so much water was stated above--better recovery.

Think of a pot of water as a battery, but instead of storing electricity, the water stores heat. The more water you have, the more heat is stored and when room-temp dry pasta is added, the water quickly comes back to a boil. The same principle is used for commercial deep-fryers.

You also have to bear in mind that it is only in the last 30 or so years that we have "faster" stoves. A typical "top of the line" restaurant range had 17,500 btu burners or about half of what is the normal 30-35,000 btu burners, household stoves had burners that equaled a Coleman Campstove burner, and many households still had wood burning stoves.

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McGee's article demonstrated that it was possible to make dry pasta soft with less water, but it didn't make much of a case for doing so, because the resulting texture was less desirable. Yes, the starchy water is a positive byproduct of making a lot of pasta in a restaurant kitchen, but if you want starchy water at home where you only plan to make one batch of pasta in the big pot, maybe it's better just to make some starchy water by overboiling a small amount of pasta in a separate pot, rather than ruining the pasta you plan to eat by boiling it in an inadequate amount of water.

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As I recall, he asked various experts and chefs and the fairly uniform reply was that, well, you could do it, but you wouldn't really want to, if you wanted the pasta to come out well. I read that as a very lukewarm recommendation for boiling pasta in not enough water.

Something interesting to try is boiling pasta in more water than usually recommended. It comes out soft on the outside and even firmer in the center--more al dente if you will.

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how is it a moot point? the time it takes to boil the water initially is irrelavant. It is the time it takes for it to return to the boil after adding the pasta that is important. Most package directions give timings for how long to cook after the water returns to the boil.

If it takes 30 secs to return to the boil with a large amount of water vs 90 secs with less water it definitely affects the timing. Just because the water isn't to a boil doesn't mean the sub-boiling water isn't cooking the pasta during that 60 secs. I wouldn't disregard free movement either. The water at the bottom of a pot is hotter than the water at the top, the hot water at the bottom boils to the top while the cooler water at the top sinks in a convection current. If the pasta can't move freely, the pasta at the bottom will be overcooked when the pasta at the top is cooked properly.

"Why is the rum always gone?"

Captain Jack Sparrow

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how is it a moot point? the time it takes to boil the water initially is irrelavant. It is the time it takes for it to return to the boil after adding the pasta that is important. Most package directions give timings for how long to cook after the water returns to the boil.

If it takes 30 secs to return to the boil with a large amount of water vs 90 secs with less water it definitely affects the timing. Just because the water isn't to a boil doesn't mean the sub-boiling water isn't cooking the pasta during that 60 secs. I wouldn't disregard free movement either. The water at the bottom of a pot is hotter than the water at the top, the hot water at the bottom boils to the top while the cooler water at the top sinks in a convection current. If the pasta can't move freely, the pasta at the bottom will be overcooked when the pasta at the top is cooked properly.

The only way the drop in water temp could be significant is if you time your cooking based on "duration in water" only, and not by texture. Or, you could claim that the drop in temp _in itself_ has an adverse effect, but I think you'd be on shaky ground.

And if you say that the time it takes to boil the water is irrelevant, my guess is that you don't boil pasta too often?

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