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I frequently make wagon wheel (rotelle) pasta (Racconto brand and probably others) for my kids, but the shapes rarely stay intact. Pieces of the outer edges often break off of most pieces, and some wheels are completely severed in two.

I noticed that pieces are already breaking apart during my initial constant stirring to unstick it from the bottom of the pot. I do stir it fairly frequently, especially at the start. I also use plenty of water--three or four inches above the pasta, about three quarts water and one cup pasta.

What can be done to cook the rotelle and help keep it intact?

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What brand of pasta are you using? –  MandoMando Apr 21 '13 at 16:03
    
I'm not really sure that I'd call 2-3 inches of water "plenty". As others have pointed out, you don't need much water if you're willing to stir constantly, but otherwise you want a pot that is mostly water (and well-agitated). –  Aaronut Apr 21 '13 at 20:35
    
@Aaronut you misread (or mistyped)--it's not two to three inches of water, it's two to three inches above the pasta. –  Jeff Axelrod Apr 23 '13 at 16:06
    
Do you get Dececco (dececcousa.com/Pasta/Short-Shapes/Rotelle-54/?Product=65) where you are? I think they are a bit overpriced, but probably represent a widely available pretty high quality comparison point. –  SAJ14SAJ Apr 23 '13 at 17:05
    
@Aaronut sounds like you missed the update on how pasta cooking works...it's not necessary to stir after the initial sticky phase, even with little water. You can even use so little water that there's hardly more than a couple tablespoons to drain at the end of cooking, and the pasta still won't clump up in the pot. It only clumps very early in the process as the starch is being liberated. The extra starch coating the pasta can be easily rinsed off after it's drained, with no ill effects. Extra water is purely a waste of the energy and time it takes to heat it. –  Theodore Murdock Apr 23 '13 at 22:40

9 Answers 9

When I fix stuffed shells, I rinse my shells with cold water for two reason. One is to clean them. Second reason is to wash any excess layer of starches that may be on my shells. You can't get all off until you start cooking but you get the access off. I put enough water and just little more to make sure the water is cover all my shells.

Then I add butter, not oil. I have found that butter works better for me. After it starts to boil I add my shells and stir for one to two minutes, then reduce the heat. I'll maybe stir one more time before my shells get to soft. If you try to stir when they are soft you might as well forget it because they more likely going to tear apart. After cooking I rinse my shells and fix them up.

I don't know if this will help you or not but maybe your water is boiling too much for the type of pasta that you are fixing.

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I find that for those delicate types of pasta, it's best to bring the water to a boil, add the pasta and reduce the heat to a simmer, stirring just once or twice. The lower flame (or heat if you are electric) will help the pasta not stick to the bottom of the pot, the lower slower cooking allows the pasta to soften without being agitated by boiling water AND you don't have to stir (which can contribute to breaking).

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I'm not the downvoter, but I'd just let you know that this won't help in my case since the pasta sticks to the bottom of the pot almost immediately and pieces break upon stirring to unstick. It happens so quickly that there would be no time for the lowering of the heat to make any difference. –  Jeff Axelrod May 1 '13 at 18:01
    
@JeffAxelrod: It's really sticking immediately? Exactly how much pasta are you adding? That generally only happens to me when there's a very dense layer (or several layers) of starchy something-or-other. If you're dumping an entire package in, or a few of them, maybe you should try making smaller batches. –  Aaronut May 2 '13 at 2:06
    
@Aaronut I mentioned almost immediately--within about 10 to 30 seconds, stirring constantly. I definitely dump the entire batch in at once--and of course these are dense noodles. If you re-read the original post, I did mention that it's about a cup of noodles--not exactly a big batch. –  Jeff Axelrod May 2 '13 at 20:23

Have you tried a larger/flater non-stick/glass pot? When you constantly use the same stainless steel pot to boil water, it will start sticking no matter what, I compensate by frying something in the pot once in a while (Which sticks like crazy...)

Also, I am going to recommend something crazy, try boiling it in the microwave in a glass bowl. You just need enough about twice the amount water to pasta in size (not weight). The texture gets a bit weird, but the pasta always stays intact.

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Try starting with the pasta in cold water. This lets you stir it to wash the starch off the surface of the pasta while it's still completely hard, so you can't possibly damage it. Then it'll stick way less as it cooks, so you shouldn't need to stir nearly so much, and hopefully it's not breaking just from cooking.

This works because the starch doesn't actually get sticky until it's heated, so this way you have all the starch dissolved before it's sticky. On the other hand, when you add pasta to hot water (even if it's boiling) the starch instantly becomes sticky, and it's only the motion of the water and your stirring that saves it from all sticking together. (And as you've seen, if there's enough starch, sometimes this isn't enough.)

If you still have trouble with sticking, I suppose you could even remove some of the starchy cold water, effectively partially rinsing it. Some brands and shapes of pasta do seem to have more starch on the surface, so I could see that being necessary. You could also simply try using more water (but still starting with cold water!) so that the starch is more diluted; this is roughly equivalent to rinsing a little.

And if all of that fails, you may want to try another brand, as suggested in various comments here. The fact that it breaks during the initial stirring, before it's had time to soften much, is not promising.

(And before someone comes along and says "no, the water has to be at a full boil when you add the pasta!" yes, I have done this many many times, it works fine, and Harold McGee says it works too.)

For one more bit of evidence, simply starting with cold water even keeps orecchiette (dry, not fresh) from sticking - and that's by far the worst-sticking pasta shape I've ever tried. They fit together so that once they're stuck, the water can't even get in to rinse off the starch.

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The cold-water washing technique is recommended for certain types of rice, so I could see it working on unusually starchy pastas. Of course, if they're allowed to stick as any other pasta, then all bets are off - once they "tear" and the interior is exposed then they're just going to keep sticking. –  Aaronut Apr 21 '13 at 13:17
    
I'll try this technique as well as @MandoMando's ideas and see if either of them help and report back. –  Jeff Axelrod Apr 21 '13 at 18:11
    
never pasta in cold water –  violadaprile Apr 24 '13 at 7:12
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@violadaprile I can't stress this enough: it works. I know it's not the tradition, and I know a culture as proud of its tradition of pasta as Italy doesn't like changing it, but really, it works. This is exactly why I put that last sentence in there. Pretty much all of us have always been told that the water must be boiling, but it really doesn't have to be. Have you actually tried this, or are you just repeating the traditional advice? –  Jefromi Apr 24 '13 at 14:05

The proper way to cook 100 grams of PASTA:

  • use at least 1 litre of water with 10 grams of salt
  • bring the water to boil
  • put the pasta into the boiling water and stir it for a few seconds, then add to the water a little of oil to maintain pasta separate without steering continuously
  • keep the water boiling until the end of the cooking time (usually for that pasta format no more than 9 minutes)
  • drain pasta and immediately add your sauce, or butter, or oil

Enjoy your meal!

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Hello Giulia and welcome to the site! What in your answer would help the person who asked the question? I think he said the problem was that he stirred. You mention stirring as well, while he does not want to stir. –  Mien May 1 '13 at 12:47
    
@Mien I think you misread something. Nothing in my question says I don't want to stir, only that stirring doesn't solve the problem. This answer does add some new ideas--adding oil to the water--though I'm not sure how good of an idea that is if that makes the pasta unable to hold as much sauce after cooking. Either way, I'd take away the down vote. It's not a bad answer and we should encourage new users. –  Jeff Axelrod May 1 '13 at 18:00
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@JeffAxelrod The down vote wasn't mine, I agree to encourage new users. Nevertheless, search about the oil trick on the site. IIRC, this actually doesn't work. –  Mien May 1 '13 at 18:56
    
Hello all! I'd just like to add that I'm Italian and I've cooked pasta since years. Oil helps in avoiding pasta from sticking together. To maintain the shape, the important thing is to keep water boiling until the end of cooking time, otherwise pasta would absorb too much water and loose his starches. –  giulia_in_the_kitchen May 1 '13 at 20:07
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@giulia_in_the_kitchen Letting the water stop boiling (but still keeping it hot, say at least 85°C) does not cause it to absorb too much water or to lose starch. And apologies for not having time to explain, but the downvote was mine: the question is quite clear that adding the pasta to boiling water then stirring is causing it to break, so suggesting doing that is not useful (which is what downvotes mean). I know it's the traditional advice, but it's clearly not working in this case. –  Jefromi May 1 '13 at 20:50

You say "rotelle" - what do you mean? Dry pasta:

rotelle

or filled fresh pasta:

fresh filled rotelle

I talk more about the difference in this answer.


The first ones, dry pasta, must be cooked with plenty of BOILING water; occasionally stir gently (not all the time) and drain it "al dente". If you cook them too much they break into pieces.


The second ones are "pasta fresca di grano tenero". Form is as lasagne. They are cocked separately, let dry a bit, filled with a filling with eggs, rolled, cooked again separately for a few minutes wrapped tightly in gauze. Then they're removed from the water and cool. When they are cold, they're removed from the gauze, cut into wheels and arranged as shown, covered with a little tomato sauce and parmesan and gratined in the oven.

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Yes, the question is about cooking plain, dry pasta, like the first picture. But the OP has already tried cooking with plenty of boiling water, and found that it sticks together a lot. –  Jefromi Apr 24 '13 at 14:08
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In the future, you may want to use the insert image button instead of manually typing image markdown - it uploads them to imgur, which in turn lets you put an "m" at the end of the filename to reduce the image size (see my edit). (Also, I think it was pretty clear from the question which of these the OP meant, so the actual answer here is just the couple sentences about cooking dry pasta, but I've gone ahead and left the rest.) –  Jefromi Apr 24 '13 at 18:48

I had about three inches of water above the pasta.

Use way more water. Start with nearly a full stock-pot of boiling water to minimize the starch concentration in the water and eliminate sticking (you still need to stir for the first 60s). Then start with less water in future batches to find optimum amount.

Some brands of pasta are lower quality (to my eyes glassy is undesirable, chalky is good). So you'll need to find optimum amount for each type/brand. I recall nearly 10 to 1 water to pasta by weight ratio.

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Doesn't chalky appearance mean that there's more powdery starch on the outside, so there's likely to be more sticking? –  Jefromi May 1 '13 at 21:58
    
@Jefromi it might, what I've noticed is the outside stuff wash off the second it hits the water. The lower quality pasta has an imbalance of starch to protein (gluten) where starch granules not well supported by the gluten network and swell (absorb water) too much and break the shape. It's not the stickiness I'm all concerned with, since even if you make 1 single low quality rotelle it's likely to break on its own. –  MandoMando May 2 '13 at 13:55

If you're having to unstick it from the bottom of the pot even once, then you're making a fundamental error of cooking pasta and that's why your rotelle gets broken.

The water should be at a roiling boil when you add the pasta.

There should be enough water that the pasta you add doesn't bring it to a complete standstill. It should at least maintain a simmer immediately after you add the pasta.

You should stir it right away to prevent sticking.

You should let it come back to a roiling boil, stirring a couple times until it does so to prevent sticking.

Once the water has returned to a boil and the pasta is moving around without sticking, you can turn down the heat a bit so it's at a vigorous simmer. But the water must keep moving the pasta. Don't let it sink to the bottom.

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Why the down vote? –  Jeff Axelrod Apr 21 '13 at 18:09
    
I got one too... I have learned that down votes are kind of like random background noise. You just cannot pay them much attention unless there is a comment or they come in groups. –  SAJ14SAJ Apr 21 '13 at 21:14
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@Jefromi No, it doesn't have to be a roiling boil, but doing so will prevent the sticking since it keeps the pasta moving. And that was the question. –  Carey Gregory Apr 22 '13 at 15:45
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I can confirm that none of these suggestions decreased the sticking. I just made a new batch--full rolling boil 3q water to 1 cup pasta, maintained boil upon dropping pasta, stirred constantly but pasta already stuck and broke during initial constant stirring. –  Jeff Axelrod Apr 23 '13 at 17:02
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@CareyGregory That's because there's a fundamental error in your advice. The thing that causes sticking is heat. The heat gelatinizes the starch. When the water's at a rolling boil, this happens very fast. Some of the pasta will stick together immediately, and stick well enough that although your spoon and the water are trying to move everything around, they won't break apart. –  Jefromi Apr 24 '13 at 14:07

You have already said that you stir it frequently, but the most important time to stir is in the first 60 seconds after you add it to the water. If the pasta doesn't stick to the bottom of the pot then, it is unlikely to stick later.

While it is very feasible to cook pasta in reasonably small amounts of water, or even water that is not quite boiling, these methods require more attention and stirring. I like those methods, since less water to boil means faster time to dinner, but the price is that you have to watch more closely. If you are having trouble with sticking, you might want to make sure you are cooking in plentiful water at a full boil.

The second likely cause is that you are simply overcooking the pasta, and it is becoming very fragile. The recommended time on the package from the vendor is often a good place to start, although there is usually some room for longer cooking if that is to your taste.

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No, it happens well before the pasta is done, and it does certainly stick after it's been freed even several minutes into cooking. I'm afraid I might have to stir the entire 10 minutes or until done! –  Jeff Axelrod Apr 20 '13 at 22:27
    
Once the starches dissolve from the surface of the pasta, there should be little cause to stick. Is the pot, to quote Julia, impeccably clean (and smooth on the bottom)? Are you using a quality brand of rotelle? Do you have this problem with farfalle, my own personal favorite shape? Or rotini or penne? Any of these can serve in most applications where rotelle would be used. –  SAJ14SAJ Apr 20 '13 at 22:31
    
I can't vouch for the quality of the rotelle brand, though I vary the brand I'm sure and haven't noticed any change. I don't have the problem with any other shape including the ones you've mentioned. My pots are impeccably clean in between uses. I had about three inches of water above the pasta. I've also experimented with higher (boiling) and lower cooking temperature to see if that would make a difference, but no dice. –  Jeff Axelrod Apr 20 '13 at 22:33
    
Then as the doctor says, "don't laugh." :-) –  SAJ14SAJ Apr 20 '13 at 22:33
    
I assume you mean "don't do that,", but my kid thinks they're train wheels and I doubt I could convince him that bowties are train related. –  Jeff Axelrod Apr 20 '13 at 22:35

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