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I recently got into a surprisingly heated argument with a friend about what level of boil you should cook your pasta at. He (an engineer) argued that the heat transfer would remain the same regardless of the level of the boil and that anything above a simmer would be a waste of energy. I looked at it less from a heat transfer point of view and argued that a higher boil would increase agitation and cause the noodles to stick less to each other.

So what is it? Is a higher boil actually a waste of (a minuscule amount of) energy?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 13 down vote accepted

You should boil noodles. Simmering is not the same as boiling. Boiling water is 212 ℉ (100 ℃). Simmering water is in the range of 185 ℉ to 200 ℉ (85 ℃ to 93 ℃).

Your engineer friend is under the mistaken assumption that simmering is somehow a weaker boil than a rolling boil, but still 212 ℉. It's not.

You are correct in your assumption that the more vigorous rolling boil will agitate pasta and help prevent sticking.

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4  
And I would add...boil them in abundant water! –  kiamlaluno Aug 1 '10 at 19:31
    
roux has linked to an article debunking these claims (I've repeated the experiment). What are your references? –  iwein Aug 2 '10 at 7:21
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lol. what claims? I stated the temperature at which water simmers and boils. That's hardly a claim, that's called a fact. The claim that vigorous boiling agitates pasta and prevents sticking? That certainly isn't debunked by that article. It provides an alternative. Just because I show you how to use an elevator doesn't mean stairs are invalid. –  hobodave Aug 2 '10 at 7:35
    
Sure enough, simmering and boiling is not the same, but the question is, do we need to boil, and why? I thought the article linked to from daniel's post (cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/3949/…) sounds really solid. I'll try for myself and see. –  Hanno Fietz Oct 22 '10 at 14:13
    
@Hanno: That's actually not the question at all. –  hobodave Oct 22 '10 at 16:46

While either one will cook the pasta, the more convection movement of the water by the rapid boiling will keep the pasta agitated and minimize the chance of sticking.

A large ratio of water to pasta combined with vigorous boiling is your best bet against pasta sticking together. The higher volume of water helps reduce the concentration of starch that is released from the pasta.

Oil added to the water simply forms a grease slick on top.

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I wonder if that's a double-edged sword, though, since the agitation from a boil increases starch release as well. I bet the optimal is inbetween, at 212 but no more roiling than necessary. –  Ocaasi Aug 3 '10 at 3:02

I keep it rolling boil for the whole time. To prevent spaghetti to stick, you have three helping procedures.

The first is: you break them in the middle. This is heresy in Italy, but I find it a good solution to prevent clumping and to fit the spaghetti completely into the water from minute one.

The second trick is to clump the spaghetti together using the index and the thumb of each hand, in the center of the spaghetti, shaping the fingers in a ring. Then you rotate these rings in opposite directions. the spaghetti open in a sort of double cone (here is an example of the shape you should obtain before throwing them in), and the spread prevent them to clump. Then you throw them in the boiling water. This way, they open in a circle, with minimum contact area.

Third, you actually continue mixing them for the whole six minutes.

Regarding energy, the heat you "waste" actually goes into your house, so you are actually heating yourself, and in winter is good. In summer, I personally tend to eat something different.

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If you need to break them to fit them into the pot, then your pot is too small. –  hobodave Aug 1 '10 at 19:35
    
I do it regardless of the size. However, you are right, I tend to use small pots. Takes less time to boil water. –  Stefano Borini Aug 1 '10 at 19:37

Actually you're all wrong. The twin myths that we must use a rolling boil and abundant water have been rather soundly disproved. Most recently by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt over at seriouseats, an MIT graduate who later became a chef.

http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/05/how-to-cook-pasta-salt-water-boiling-tips-the-food-lab.html

is the article in question. I have used his method at home with great success. Have not yet been brave enough to try it at work, as chef doesn't much like it when that sort of dogma gets challenged. But that's all it is, dogma.

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That's awesome. I love me some scientific method in my cooking. –  yossarian Aug 1 '10 at 21:30
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i actually read that article just before posting the question. he adds the caveat that it's more difficult with longer pastas. –  Chris Aug 1 '10 at 21:30
    
That article sounds pretty convincing, I'll definitely try that. –  Hanno Fietz Oct 22 '10 at 14:09
    
Tried it last night worked perfectly. Great link. –  iterationx Mar 23 '11 at 14:55

I understand the theory and practice discussed, I boil with plenty of water and then use some of the pasta water to help in thickening the sauce going with the pasta. This is traditional Italian method taught by my Mother in Law from Sicily. I have noticed my sauce does thicken more and it clings to the pasta better when I do this. This also works when I make a cheese sauce for pasta. Let me know what you try.

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We were actually also interested in this idea. Can you give a little more detail as to how you do this? When do you add the water? How much water? –  Chris Aug 6 '10 at 16:13

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