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There are almost always guidelines on pasta packages for the amount of water you should use when boiling. Sometimes I'd like to use a pot that's on the smaller side, and that got me wondering; what actually happens to pasta if you use too little water (assuming it's at least fully submerged)?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

See:

Short answer: if you stir once or twice at the beginning to prevent sticking, and all of the pasta is submerged, you can very successfully make pasta in a reasonably small quantity of water.

Here is a direct link to the Serious Eats article both of the answers above cite.

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Anytime you boil a starchy food, like pasta or potatoes (or yuca :), some of the starch ends up in the water (or broth/stock) and thickens it a bit. Now when you're making a stew, you want that thickening to happen, so you use somewhat less liquid to pasta/potatoes. But generally when you're just making pasta alone, you want the pasta noodles to remain separate and you don't want any more thickening than necessary.

Also important is that if you're talking about dried pasta, the pasta needs sufficient water to rehydrate.

At the extreme, if you used just barely more water than pasta, the pasta would heat but never fully rehydrate and/or you'd end up with a sticky, underdone mass.

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Actually, the Serious Eats article referenced in the accepted answer debunks most of your claims. The one about the starchier water ends up making no difference for cooking pasta, and proves to be even handier for use in thickening your sauce later. –  janeylicious Feb 12 '13 at 21:20
    
Cute article. But it doesn't debunk anything I said. The author points out the increasing concentration of starch-in-water if you use less water. Whether starchy water is something desirable or not depends on the cook/sauce/application. And when he used the bare minimum of water, he did in fact have to stir the pot a fair bit, and check doneness frequently - not necessarily something everyone feels like/has time to do. –  MandisaW Feb 14 '13 at 20:05
    
@MandisaW As you said: "At the extreme, if you used just barely more water than pasta, the pasta would heat but never fully rehydrate and/or you'd end up with a sticky, underdone mass." This was definitely debunked regardless whether you had to stir the pasta a lot or not. And this is the very extreme. If you cover your pasta with enough water, you only need to initially stir the pasta. –  Jay Mar 6 '13 at 7:22
    
@MandisaW Fom my reading of the article (and from experience), pasta has to be stirred to begin with regardless of how much water is used. –  Chris Steinbach Mar 6 '13 at 9:23
    
@MandisaW The point is that you can use substantially less than is commonly used and everything will be fine. The starchy water gets poured down the drain. The question does say "assuming it's at least fully submerged", and as long as it is, it will cook fine. –  Jefromi Mar 6 '13 at 17:37

One of the reasons for using lots of water to cook pasta is that the temperature of the boiling water does not drop drastically when adding the pasta when it is proportioned that way...the water will just keep boiling...or reboil very fast.. however, using little water for lots of pasta...will drop the water temperature too low and then takes longer time to reboil..the result is starchy, sticky, and gummy pasta that was sitting in lukewarm water too long.. The standard for Chefs is one liter water (4Cups) per 100 g pasta (around 3 oz)...and of course salt..lots of room for the pasta not to be crowded..

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Unfortunately, while I have no doubt about the standard practice, the science behind it has been debunked. As Kenji Alt has pointed out in his article on pasta, has pointed out, the amount of energy required to bring water back up to temperature is not proportional to either the amount of water or its temperature before the pasta was added, but rather the volume of pasta and how much energy it absorbed. See the link for more. –  SAJ14SAJ Mar 6 '13 at 2:50

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