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Many people (at least in Germany) think that Italians add olive oil to the boiling water for spaghetti. However, Italians tend to tell the opposite (from my experience).

So, can you please state objective reasons for or against adding olive oil to the boiling water for spaghetti?

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8 Answers 8

up vote 36 down vote accepted

Yes, it is true that we don't add oil to the boiling water. I'm not aware of any good reason to waste extra-virgin olive oil that way! Some oil is always added at the end, over the sauce, when the pasta is already in the plate! It has to be raw, so that it retains its fruit nuances and texture.

If you are doing cold pasta salad and want to avoid sticky pasta, adding oil in advance won't help. You have instead to wash pasta under cold water to wash the starch away (you can put the pasta in the colander directly under the running cold tap).

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Is adding a bit of salt to the water good practice, however? I have heard this before, but am not too sure on the convetion/practicality. –  Noldorin Aug 2 '10 at 16:26
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@Noldorin: you have always to add salt to the water, when it started boiling, and before adding pasta. Pasta always had to be cooked in salted water. The correct ratio is "dieci, cento, mille" (ten, one hundred, one thousand): 10 g of salt, 100 g of pasta, 1 liter of water. –  Lorenzo Aug 2 '10 at 20:01
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@Lorenzo: Good, this is pretty much what I've always done, but thanks for confirming it! Easy way to remember too, though I doubt I'll be measuring anything out. –  Noldorin Aug 3 '10 at 9:56
    
@Noldorin: neither I actually measure salt or water, but the rule is useful for pasta newbies and of course when you have to cook huge quantities at once. –  Lorenzo Aug 3 '10 at 12:45
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I am so glad this myth has been debunked. I have tried it a few times but found that it made no difference. The same applies to adding the oil after you've thrown away the water. // Washing the starch away with water sounds like agood idea (with warm water might be a better idea if you want to keep the pasta warm?): I wash my rice with hot water if it is stoo slimey, either because I had it boil too long or because it was the last bit in the carton/bag with lots of powdery stuff. –  Cerberus Mar 21 '11 at 23:39

Using it anti-stick apparently does NOT work. (Just use a large enough pan and stir somewhere during the start of boiling).

Adding oil will also reduce flavor-uptake from any sauce.

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Alton Brown covered this on an episode of Good Eats. There is a legitimate reason, and it has nothing to do with sticking; it's an anti-foaming agent, so you don't have to stir as much to keep down the foam you'll sometimes get.

Any oil will work, it doesn't have to be the good stuff.

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I would still advice against it. Oil in hot water does strange things, not only to foam, but to the pasta itself. After all, no one does that in Italy... –  Lorenzo Aug 2 '10 at 10:33
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@lorenzo : I agree. It's better without oil, I was just trying to explain why it's done, not advocate for it. Rinsing the pasta to remove the loose starch should have the same effect, but I'd only recommend it for when you're planning an oil based sauce and don't need the starch to bind the sauce to the pasta. –  Joe Aug 2 '10 at 11:46
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but the only time you have to avoid the stickiness is cold pasta salad, and the best way to wash away the starch is actually washing it under cold water. –  Lorenzo Aug 2 '10 at 21:30
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I agree with Lorenzo: washing the pasta is a good way to stop over-foaming; however I disagree with him/her in that the oil will not do anything strange, at least in the sense that it will be harmful to the pasta. A little (cheap vegetable) oil will help prevent over-foaming. The oil sits on top of the water and rarely comes into contact with the pasta long enough for the pasta to absorb it. –  sledge Aug 3 '10 at 12:26

The most common reason that I have heard is to help prevent the pasta from sticking together (and maybe to add a little flavor). This is unnecessary on both points, however.

Spaghetti is one of those foods that should be served right away. If it is, you will rarely have a sticky mess. If you do let it sit until it sticks, the pasta can be rinsed to loosen it up.

Adding oil to the water does not add much flavor or anti-sticking power. Most of it will be discarded with the water, and what is left may help prevent the pasta from taking up the flavor of the sauce.

Update: Joe's answer about oil being an anti-foaming agent is a great tip!

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I never used to use oil in the water when I was cooking spagetti but I found that it tended to stick together in a pick clump that was hard and difficult to eat.

I was advised to start using oil in my water and I have not looked back since. It keeps the spaghetti separate and therefore an overall better eating experience.

As for oil, it does not have to be olive oil, it can be any kind of oil...or at least that is what I have found!

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I'm not sure how much the oil has to do with the spaghetti being kept separate. I think there might be other factors at play here. See some of the questions I linked in a comment at the top for more details. –  Sam Holder Aug 2 '10 at 11:35
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Yeah, the pasta is under the water surface, and the oil all floats to the top. What keeps the pasta from sticking is stirring. –  Harlan Aug 2 '10 at 20:13
    
I'm sure how much the oil has to do with the spaghetti staying separate: nothing whatsoever. –  daniel Aug 2 '10 at 21:56
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@roux, I was trying to be polite. –  Sam Holder Aug 2 '10 at 22:06

In my opinion, all else being equal, Italian style water-boiled pasta tastes bland. But I have grown eating pasta and rice boiled with virgin olive oil, so I am certainly biased.

Even after washing with cold water to use for salads as Lorenzo advises, I can tell the difference.

Why, I ain't sure, but I think it might be due to the oil interacting with the starch.

I have also noticed less sticking, but that's not the main reason for me to use it.

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I've never put oil on spaghetti's water and i've never seen anyone doing it here in Italy.
To keep your spaghetti out of trouble (sticking), just have the patience to mix them on the water (just for the first couple of minutes).

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Ok people here you have it. Finally the answer to should there be oil in the pasta. When my family and friends hear I am putting together my macaroni salad everyone asks me to make enough for them to take some home. This tells me what i am doing is the right way. Everyone loves my pasta. This makes me an expert. Therefore in my expert opinion YES you put a small amount of oil in the water to boil pasta. Rapid boil the water add salt and oil. The oil will mix with the rapidly boiling water and not sit on top as some may seem to think. Cook till desired texture. Then remove and drain and rinse in cold water.This stops the cooking process. Leaving the pasta in warm water ends up over cooking the pasta. Some think the oil does not allow your sauce to stay on the pasta. A good rinse resolves that myth. The oil helps with boil overs sticking and clumping and you wont have to stand there and stir, you can go on and cut your veggies or open your wine. Now you know the answer.

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I don't think oil does any of the things you think it does except maybe help prevent boil overs, and those can be avoided with a simple stir now and then and a heat adjustment. –  Carey Gregory Aug 24 at 20:47

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