Pasta water is more than just water—it’s a free ingredient that can do extra work, if you know how to handle and employ it. Here are four tips to help you get it right.
Making Your Pasta Water Work for You
Get It On the Boil Early
When I’m cooking pasta at home—and with two active teenagers living under my roof, I cook a lot of pasta at home—the first thing I do when I walk into the kitchen is grab the pasta pot, fill it with cold tap water, and put it on the stove to boil. This often happens before I know what kind of pasta I’m making (two family favorites in our rotation are Cook’s Country’s Meatballs and Marinara and Linguine with Chickpeas and Zucchini).
Getting the pasta water to a boil definitely helps get dinner on the table faster—there’s nothing worse than dead time when you have everything ready to go but you’re waiting for the water (or “the stupid water,” as the teenagers prowling the kitchen might say) to come to a boil.
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Salt It for Real
“Salty like the sea” may sound corny, but it’s accurate; once it comes to a boil, add plenty of salt to the pasta cooking water to properly season the pasta as it cooks. Salting the pasta only at the end will make the seasoning taste superficial, because it is superficial.
And please, don’t put oil in the pasta cooking water; it does not help prevent the pasta from sticking to itself. A good hard boil and proper stirring, especially at the start of cooking, are what prevent the pasta from sticking to itself as it cooks.
Blanch Vegetables in the Water
Making a pasta that features green beans, corn, peas, spinach, broccoli, etc.? You can blanch (quickly boil) these vegetables right in the seasoned pasta water. You can add quick cooking vegetables like green peas to the water when the pasta is almost done and drain the pasta and peas together before saucing. With vegetables that need a little more time, like broccoli or broccolini, you can blanch and remove them before the pasta goes in. We use this technique in our recipe for Linguine with Broccolini, Pancetta, and Parmesan.
Add Cooking Water to Drained Pasta—and Stir
Pasta contains a lot of starch, and some of it ends up in the cooking water, making that cooking water a smart (free, flavor neutral) thickener for many pasta sauces. Adding a bit of the cooking water to the drained pasta is good, but giving it a firm stir—sometimes a few minutes of vigorous stirring—can help that starchy water emulsify into the sauce creating a "creaminess" that coats and clings to the noodles.
Click below for our recipe for Linguine with Broccolini, Pancetta, and Parmesan, a recipe that uses these techniques with delicious results.