100 Techniques

Technique #10: Make Flavorful Pasta Sauce from the Cooking Water

Want to emulsify a creamy sauce? Use water.

Published Oct. 22, 2023.

This is Technique #9 from our 100 Techniques Every Home Cook Can Master.

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Italian home cooking features countless dishes that taste like far more than the sum of their simple parts. Possibly the most well-known example is the ultrasimple pasta called aglio e olio, which features just spaghetti, garlic, and olive oil. It’s not alchemy that transforms these basic ingredients: It’s water.

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Not Al Dente, but Al Chiodo

Adding a cup (or more) of starchy pasta-cooking water is what actually creates the unctuous texture of aglio e olio, bringing together the seasoned oil and the cooking water into an emulsified, creamy sauce.

You may be familiar with the term al dente, or “to the tooth,” as a way to describe pasta’s ideal doneness. However, with this technique, the pasta is traditionally cooked only halfway (known as al chiodo, or “to the nail”). It is then drained, added to the pan with other ingredients (which typically include some form of fat) and a lot of starchy pasta water, and simmered until al dente and the liquid has reduced into a creamy sauce. This last step in the process is known as mantecare.

We have learned in the test kitchen that this is more art than science.

As the al chiodo pasta finishes cooking, it absorbs some of that pasta cooking water, and at the same time it releases even more starch, helping to emulsify the water and fat.

How much pasta water to add depends on knowing how much more cooking the pasta needs and how much water it will absorb. Since success depends on the emulsion of starchy pasta water and fat, you need to end up with just enough pasta water to maintain the emulsion. Not enough and the sauce will break and be greasy; too much and it will be thin and watery.


Big Flavors from Italian America

An homage to the generous, gutsy, red-sauced family-style cooking born in Italian American kitchens from coast to coast. This is food we never tire of—simple, hearty weeknight meals, baked pastas and roasts fit for Sunday dinner, and a baker’s assortment of rustic breads and sweets.

Removing the Pasta Water Guesswork

We removed the guesswork of how much cooking water to include by creating a more foolproof approach. We simply combine al dente pasta with a smaller amount of the cooking water (and other sauce ingredients).

But we still need the same amount of starch in the water as in the original method in order to achieve an emulsified sauce. The trick? We scaled back the amount of water for cooking the pasta from the standard 4 quarts water per 1 pound pasta to 2 quarts water—less water, same amount of starch. We think even an Italian nonna would approve of the results.

Watch how using less water helps create a luxurious sauce in our Garlicky Spaghetti with Lemon and Pine Nuts recipe.

Step by Step: How to Use Cooking Water to Make Pasta Sauce

Here are the key steps to make a luxurious pasta sauce using the leftover, starchy pasta water.

Step 1: Start Sauce

Start sauce in skillet with oil, aromatics, and other ingredients while water for cooking pasta comes to a boil in separate pot.

Step 2: Drain Pasta

Cook 1 pound pasta in 2 quarts (rather than the usual 4 quarts) water until al dente. Drain pasta in colander set in bowl to reserve extra-starchy cooking water.

Step 3: Add Pasta Water

Return pasta to pot and add sauce ingredients along with amount of reserved cooking water specified in recipe.

Step 4: Toss to Combine

Stir until pasta is coated with sauce and no water remains in bottom of pot. Finish by tossing in remaining ingredients, such as herbs or cheese. Adjust sauce consistency with additional pasta cooking water, if needed.

Recipes That Use This Technique

Use your newfound pasta-making knowledge with any of these recipes.


Aglio e Olio (Spaghetti with Garlic and Olive Oil)

Would we be able to create a silky, creamy pasta dish without the added cheese?
Get the Recipe

Garlicky Spaghetti with Lemon and Pine Nuts

For a quick weeknight pasta sauce, we balance garlic’s sweet and fiery sides and then add a few pantry staples—all in the time it takes to boil spaghetti.
Get the Recipe

Pasta alla Gricia (Rigatoni with Pancetta and Pecorino Romano)

The porky-peppery flavors of pasta alla gricia deserve big recognition.
Get the Recipe

Pasta with Arugula, Fresh Herbs, Olive Oil, and Garlic

Pasta is a standard go-to for a quick dinner, and you can never have enough recipes in your arsenal. We turned to fresh herbs and arugula for a refreshingly different dish.
Get the Recipe

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