Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Salt Your Pasta Water

Dinner was casual tonight, i.e. my dad's out of town in State College, PA for the evening and my mom and I agreed to each do our own thing for dinner. My go-to easy dinner is pasta with a little butter, olive oil, garlic, and cheese, and tonight wasn't an exception (though I added a side salad to get some healthy greens in my body). Cooking pasta is pretty basic—boil water, add pasta and cook, drain, and serve—but many people forget one key thing: salting the pasta water.

Now, any of you who cook pasta often will likely have heard or seen in recipes that you should salt your pasta water and some of you may be wondering why...is it for flavor? Does it help the water boil faster? Does it keep pasta from sticking? Pasta, particularly dried and out-of-a-box pasta, has very little flavor, and it takes a sauce or some sort of light seasoning to kick it up a notch. Adding salt to water adds flavor to the pasta. That rumor that salt raises the temperature and makes the water "boil better" or boil at a "higher heat" is false. In fact, the salt in the water only raises the temperature by about 1*F or maybe 2*F, which is insignificant. As for salt helping to keep it from sticking, it doesn't. Olive oil can be added to the water to help prevent sticking, but I don't recommend doing this, because the oil prevents sauces from sticking well to pasta after it's been drained—you should stir pasta when it's first put in the boiling water to help evenly distribute starches from the pasta and keep the pasta from sticking.

Now, there are varying ideas about how much salt should be used in pasta water. Some people claim the water should be salted enough so that it tastes like the sea (that's really salty, but you'll be draining all of the water anyway, so not that much is actually absorbed by the pasta), while others say to add just a pinch of salt. I add a small handful (see picture) when I'm cooking a portion for myself or two people, and a larger handful with larger batches of pasta. From what I've read and seen, a tablespoon or two of salt per 4 or 5 quarts of water seems to be the general consensus on the salt-to-water ratio. You don't need to use any special kind of salt—your average table salt (we have a big container of Morton's brand that we use) works just fine, and it's a lot less expensive than using nice sea salt or a fancy salt grinder (though any salt will work). Add the salt to the water right as it's coming to a boil and add the pasta shortly after that, that way, the pasta can absorb a bit of it before the salt dissolves completely in the water.

Small amount of salt for a single serving of pasta (should have taken my claddagh ring off...got salt underneath it :P)

Salt in the bottom of the pot (I added it before boiling so you could see it)

So, next time you make pasta, try adding some salt to the water right before you toss in your pasta and see if it gives the pasta a little more flavor.

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