But how much water should you cook your pasta in? Chances are, you’re cooking your pasta in too much water. But it’s not your fault.
To understand why we need to strike a balance with the amount of water we cook pasta in, first it’s important to understand why we’re doing it.
As you cook pasta, the starches gradually release into the water. (We’ll skip the super scientific discussion of starch molecules here, but trust us on this one.) So what you get after cooking pasta is a salty, starchy liquid — if you generously salted your water, which you should.
When mixed with sauce, this slurry of sorts will emulsify it to create that restaurant-quality sheen and help the sauce adhere to the noodles. This is the case whether you are making spaghetti carbonara, cacio e pepe, pasta with pesto or a classic pasta with tomato sauce.
Following this logic, it becomes clear that cooking pasta in less water results in starchier liquid and thus a silkier sauce. But where is the sweet spot?
For ages, the conventional wisdom has been to cook pasta in “plenty” of salted water. In one of our favorite cookbooks, “The Art of Italian Cooking,” author Maria Lo Pinto, says to cook one pound of pasta in anywhere from 5 to 8 quarts of boiling water. That was the ironclad advice at the time the book was published in 1948 — and often still is.
Indeed, we’ve advised in the past that not using enough water when cooking pasta can be problematic. This is also true. You don’t want so little that the pasta is not fully submerged or that the noodles stick to the pan.
How much water you should use depends on what you’re cooking. You’ll need to use a little more for longer pastas like spaghetti and less for short noodles like penne. The pasta should be fully submerged with an inch or two of water above it. Long noodles may stick out at first but can easily be fully submerged once they soften enough to bend. Either way, be sure to stir often so nothing sticks together.
Just before you drain your al dente pasta, use a glass measuring cup or other heatproof vessel to save a cup or two of that liquid gold. Chances are you won’t use the full cup, but it gives you options.
Then you can mix a few tablespoons into your sauce then simmer it a bit more, or toss it with the pasta to allow the noodles to finish cooking in the sauce, absorbing even more flavor.
If you’re using jarred sauce, pour some pasta water into the jar after you’ve emptied it then put the lid on and give it a good shake to loosen up all the extra sauce. Yes, pasta water even improves store bought sauce.
Besides the improved texture from the pasta water, there is one more reason to use less water: it saves water and energy. Pretty simple, but imagine how much water we’d save if everyone used half as much water to cook their pasta? And because it takes less time to bring less water to a boil, that saves electricity or gas too. It’s a real win-win. So salt your water, use less of it and go forth and find a new favorite pasta dish that’ll be ready in less than half an hour.
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