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This shape of pasta easily nests inside each other. A lot of times if you just pour it directly from the bag/box into boiling water, you will get stacks of them together.

Once they are cooking this way it is a major endeavor to separate them. The pasta won't cook evenly because they are stacked together. The ones stacked in the middle will have more al dente centers.

How do we prevent this? (One way is to make sure they are separated before entering the water.

Once they start cooking and some of them are stacked, what is the best way to separate them?

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Do you find the orecchiette are notably different than other pasta in their tendency to stick? – SAJ14SAJ Feb 19 '13 at 4:36
Their shape I think makes them pile together easily... – milesmeow Feb 19 '13 at 6:09
Well, I will press post on what I typed, and you can decide if it is helpful or not. I find that other than when shells nest inside of each other it has been very effective, but I haven't ever done little ears (cause I cannot spell that again). – SAJ14SAJ Feb 19 '13 at 6:16
I can say without a doubt that the orecchiette I've had (the Trader Joe's brand) are by far the worst pasta I've ever seen in terms of sticking. I think the shape is fun, but wow, if you give those things a chance, they'll just stack up and glue themselves together. Maybe there's a reason Wikipedia just mentions it as a homemade pasta shape. – Jefromi Feb 19 '13 at 15:46
Detail: what do you stir them with? – Mien Feb 19 '13 at 19:12
up vote 7 down vote accepted

Adding your pasta to cold water before boiling it may help. You will need to stir more often overall, but the shells won't initially stick together as soon as you add them to the water, and then you can stir to prevent the sticking as they become softer.

Harold McGee in a New York Times column wrote this:

I prefer starting with cold water, because the noodles don’t stick together at all as they go into the pot, and because I don’t notice a difference in flavor once they’re drained and sauced.

As Jefromi said, what happens is that the starch on the noodles gets rinsed off in the water before it can gelatinize and stick to everything. So you will have to stir even before the water gets warm.

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This works because it rinses the starch into the water before it can gelatinize and stick everything together, so be sure and stir before heating. – Jefromi Feb 19 '13 at 15:44
Just wanted to say thanks for this answer, for years I've had hit and miss results with orecchiette and last night I used this technique and they came out perfectly. – Stefano May 1 '13 at 14:12

It's a kind of silly answer, but if all else fails, try a different brand. I've tried everything (including plenty of rinsing) on the Trader Joe's orecchiette, and never had much luck: they're smooth and identically shaped so they just stick anyway. But other brands have some variation in shape and ridges, so they can't stick as easily.

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If you stir the pasta a couple of times in the first minute or so in the water, it should then finish cooking without undue sticking.

This is because the surface starches gelatinze and become gluey and sticky first, but are not yet dissolved into the water. At this early stage, it is easy for sticking to become permanent. If you agitate a couple of times before they can stick together, once the surface starch dissolves into the main body of water, the pieces won't be so sticky any more, and will tend to stay separate.

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Hi @SAJ14SAJ. I tried that as well and for some reason this doesn't work for this pasta shape. This works for the other pasta shapes that I like...penne, farfalle, spaghetti, etc. – milesmeow Feb 19 '13 at 7:33
The problem is that orecchiette are similars to "sucker cups" and they will stick together. – Napolux Feb 19 '13 at 9:27
Ah, the trick then is to use a mini-muffin tin. You set your oven to 400, and preheat the water so it is about 180 F. This will cook pasta just fine, as Serious Eats has shown. You then put one piece of pasta into each cup in the tin :-) :-) :-) – SAJ14SAJ Feb 19 '13 at 12:53
Are we really sure that "orecchiette" doesn't really translate to "little sucker cups"? That's my experience as well! – Kristina Lopez Feb 19 '13 at 18:54

Add little olive oil to the water. Having some oil (a spoon or two) will not change the taste and will make sticking harder.

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This turns out to be a myth, sadly. The oil just sits on top of the water, and doesn't interact with the pasta. – SAJ14SAJ Feb 19 '13 at 11:46
Oil does however prevent sticking of pasta if you pour it in that pasta after cooking, but this ruins the texture of the pasta, and sauce doesn't really stick to the pasta any more. – daramarak Feb 19 '13 at 12:46

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