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Whenever I boil pasta (specifically spaghetti), it always sticks to itself before I'm ready to use it. What can I do to avoid this without it becoming mushy (which happens if I keep it in the water)?

Of course, if I happen to have the sauce done by the time the pasta is ready and am ready to serve it, I can immediately add the sauce and it's a moot point. But I inevitably screw up the timing and have the pasta sitting there cooling, and then it becomes impossible to separate...

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@hobodave, not sure it's a duplicate of that question as this is specifically aimed at adding oil to the water to prevent it from sticking, not just how to prevent it from sticking, by whatever means. Not sure I'm that into it as a question though... –  Sam Holder Aug 2 '10 at 12:29
    
yea, just think it's close enough. this question is answered in that one. –  hobodave Aug 2 '10 at 14:01
    
Care to accept the answer? –  tunnuz Jul 12 '12 at 0:46
    
This is really hard to choose an answer. I am one of the few Americans who do understand al dente, so my particular problem was actually solved by getting higher quality pasta. It turns out it really makes a difference! But, in the interest of spreading the knowledge of how long to properly cook pasta, I will accept @tunnuz's answer as it is probably the correct solution for most people. –  Lee Jul 12 '12 at 8:36

25 Answers 25

up vote 46 down vote accepted

Italian here :) I know that the oil is a well known trick everywhere ... but Italy. The main problem about pasta is that people just tend to cook it too much. The cooking time for pasta should be between 8 and 12 minutes, above this number it will be sticky. Spaghetti is the quickest kind of pasta to get ready, so just cook it around 8-9 minutes and it won't stick.

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Angelhair (Capellini d'Angelo) is even quicker, for the matter :) –  bubu Jul 10 '10 at 14:13
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Yes. The average American is pretty clueless about cooking pasta properly. Most don't know what al dente means either. Yes, I'm American, but neither of those apply to me :) –  hobodave Jul 12 '10 at 20:27
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A decent rule of thumb is to start tasting two minutes before the smaller number on the box, and taste every minute until it's a little more toothsome than you prefer. By the time you get the pot off the stove and the pasta into the drainer, it'll be just right! –  Harlan Jul 18 '10 at 17:49
    
This is the best answer. Indeed, the pasta should not even get to the point where you need to add oil - it naturally should not stick (as long as it is fresh). –  Noldorin Aug 2 '10 at 16:28
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With a little practice, you can tell when pasta is done by stirring it with a wood spoon. (Not so much with ravioli or tortellini.) Nothing beats the taste test, though. –  Neil Fein Aug 15 '10 at 4:10

Don't add oil, it's unnecessary and just adds fat to your pasta.

A better solution is to fix your timing issues by cooking the pasta later. Put the water on to boil before your sauce is done, but don't actually put the pasta in until the sauce is ready to go. Then, lower the heat on the sauce to keep it warm as the pasta cooks (which is only about 8 to 12 minutes, depending on the thickness and cut).

I also add a small amount of sauce to the pasta before serving it, which helps keep things loose once I've plated.

Additionally, as with most things, price makes a difference. Getting higher quality pasta will have an effect on the stickiness of the end product.

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The pasta does not wait. +1 –  Tobias Op Den Brouw Aug 10 '10 at 12:25

You really don't need oil to keep your pasta from sticking.

The water that you used to cook in has a lot of starch in it from the pasta. When you go to drain your pasta, you can reserve a small bit of the water you cooked your pasta in. When the time comes to serve, simply pour and stir the reserved water over the sitting pasta. Not only does this help prevent stickiness, but it also warms your pasta again after sitting for 5-6 minutes, or however long you wait to serve your meal.

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Yes, it's the starch. The canteen i used to work "washed out" the starch using plain water from the pasta and they didn't stick at all. After drying and cooling them in a cooling room over night, they could be warmed up the day after and served to hundreds of guests. –  mhaller Jul 18 '10 at 13:09

Just follow these recommendations (Italian here):

  1. Choose a well-known brand of Pasta.
  2. Use a big pot with a lot of water, this is really important.
  3. Stir pasta for a couple of minutes after pouring it in the hot water.
  4. DO NOT put lemon juice please.
  5. DO NOT put oil please.
  6. Cook it with the proper timing (ex: 8 minutes for spaghetti).
  7. Don't go blindly, use your tooth to feel the "al dente" thing.
  8. Drain your pasta.
  9. Please, DO NOT put your pasta under hot water.
  10. Don't drain your pasta dry, but leave a little bit of hot water when you drain it.
  11. Add virgin oil or sauces (not mandatory but I recommend it).
  12. Add Parmesan (not mandatory but I recommend it, not for all kind of sauces though).
  13. Pasta is ready and looks pretty yummy.

Bonus advice:
If you need to add sauces that need to be warmed, you could cook your pasta "al dente" and finish its cooking with your sauces inside a big pan.

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+1 for the Big Pot advice. Simple but often overlooked. –  Scott Ferguson Aug 10 '10 at 9:41
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+1 for Dont' drain your pasta dry, but leave a little little bit of hot water when you drain it. This works. –  vwiggins Jul 9 '12 at 13:47
    
There's a great article here about why the big pot thing is a myth: seriouseats.com/2010/05/… –  Dan Sep 14 '12 at 17:18
    
Wait... isn't parmesan going to suck water, and make it sticky? Also, virgin oil is oil too! That's cheating. –  Camilo Martin 13 hours ago

After draining it, mix in a little oil, that should prevent it from sticking.

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I'd recommend always using olive oil for this. –  Fczbkk Jul 10 '10 at 5:53
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Olive oil is definitely good, as long as the flavor works with your dish (and its normally what I'd use). Any oil should work, and some like canola will avoid adding much any flavor (other than fat, of course) –  derobert Jul 10 '10 at 14:16
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A small chunk of butter can do the trick as well. –  cyberzed Jul 13 '10 at 8:10
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Oil is not really the correct thing to prevent sticking pasta! Read the other comments about starch –  mhaller Jul 18 '10 at 13:12
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Oil will make your sauce not stick. –  Brendan Long Jul 18 '10 at 18:07

twist the bunch of spaghetti slightly before putting it into the boiling the water. This way they will fall apart and do not stick together.

Also stir the pasta in the first two minutes of cooking (see).

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I always wondered why my mom did that. –  justkt Aug 17 '10 at 17:59

Cooks Illustrated ran an article on this a long time ago. Their trick, which I used regularly with great success for fresh pasta is to use lots of water. For a pound of pasta they used four quarts of water. They also added salt to the water, but no oil. Oil changes nothing but the flavor. Stir during cooking also to help prevent any sticking.

If you are working with fresh pasta that has been coated with flour while making it to prevent the fresh pasta from sticking to itself, make sure to rinse your pasta after cooking while in the colander to prevent it from becoming a gluey mass.

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I usually add just a tablespoon of my sauce to the pasta.

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Agreed -- you want the sauce waiting for the pasta, not the other way around if at all possible. You can also pull the pasta early and finish it in the sauce. –  Joe Jul 10 '10 at 21:21

If you have to add oil, either your pasta is not good enough or you are cooking for too long. Use Barilla if you can.

A good explanation from Barilla's website

Do not add oil to the water.

Olive oil does nothing for the taste of pasta. Barilla uses premium ingredients to guarantee the pasta's superior quality and performance. When poor-quality wheat is used, the pasta releases too much starch and sticks together causing the need for oil. This is not the case with Barilla® pasta.

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I don't know for certain if this is right or wrong, but I'm a little wary of trusting a specific brand's website; could you cite another source? –  Pops Jul 26 '10 at 4:00
    
My actual source was an Italian colleague. I asked a similar question and he explained me the superiority of good pasta. When asked for specific brands he mentioned a few but the only available one for my country was Barilla. I'm using it since then and I'm very happy with it. So, if someone is complaining about sticking I'm pretty sure they are not using good quality pasta. –  Recep Jul 26 '10 at 7:43

To keep pasta from sticking, stir it for the first couple minutes of cooking. The sticking is due to the starch that is released during the first stages. Adding oil will make it impossible for your sauce to stick to the pasta.

A couple References:

Fine Cooking article

Serious Eats article (under "A Sticky Situation").

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If my spaghetti has been sitting in the colander (usually in the sink) and has begun to stick, I just turn the hot tap on a bit and stir it up. Seems to unstick it easily enough.

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One more thought: if you are making your own fresh pasta, be fairly generous in the amount of flour you toss it in while it is waiting around before you boil it. This will dry out the surface a bit and reduce sticking when you add it to the pot. Shake off most of the excess flour before adding it to the pot.

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+1 for the generous flour comment. I also learned to rinse fresh pasta that has been floured like this quickly after cooking to remove any floury water residue. –  justkt Aug 17 '10 at 18:02

I would also add that over the last year or so I've started to cook pasta with just enough water to cover the pasta itself (not the vast amounts I always see being used) - after stirring it initially on a lowered flame, slow boil, the sticking together problem has disappeared....

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Larger amounts of water help keep starch away from the pasta, which reduces its stickiness. Additionally, adding pasta into a large pot of boiling water keeps the temperature from dropping, something that can make pasta go mushy. –  Tim Sullivan Jul 12 '10 at 19:44
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@Tim Sullivan, see seriouseats.com/2010/05/… –  Brendan Long Jul 18 '10 at 17:54
    
Mod parent up! Actually, this technique for cooking pasta, sometimes called the "risotto technique", actually does work. Here are some references: lifehacker.com/5547141/… seriouseats.com/2010/05/… –  Harlan Jul 18 '10 at 17:56
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@Brendan Long: That article very specifically says "except for long pasta", like spaghetti, which was the type of pasta indicated in the original question. –  Tim Sullivan Jul 19 '10 at 15:10
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Harold McGee covers cooking spaghetti the small amount of water thing in a NY Times article. He tries starting it in cold water and hot water and describes how to keep it from sticking. He reports that the pasta isn't stickier than usual and says "And no matter how starchy the cooking water is, the solid noodle surfaces themselves are starchier, and will be sticky until they’re lubricated by sauce or oil". (Bastianich and Hazan also weigh in.) The article is definitely worth a read: nytimes.com/2009/02/25/dining/25curi.html?pagewanted=all –  Steve Jul 10 '12 at 1:25

What i heard is that it's to prevent pasta from sticking to each other after they're drained. Not so much for when they're cooking.

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This was a storage method we used for keeping a large tupperware full of pre-cooked ziti in a pizza shop I used to work in. Basically we could cook the pasta 85% of the way, toss it with some oil in the 2 gallon bin, keep the lid sealed and the bin in a refrigerator. It kept about 2 days, stretching it maybe three but it disintegrates after that to an extent when you begin re-cooking it. –  mfg Oct 27 '10 at 12:19

Here are some of the notes I took at college about cooking pasta. I use these techniques in the workplace quiet often. It applies to dehydrated and fresh pasta.

  • Use 10Ltr of water to every 1kg pasta
  • Water should be boiling furiously before pasta is added
  • Water should be salted but not oiled
  • Place pasta in water all at once spread evenly
  • Water will drop in temperature to below boiling so keep agitating the pasta until it boils again
  • When pasta is cooked strain and quickly wash with water to remove starches
  • Spread out pasta on a large flat tray and lightly coat with vegetable oil
  • Place tray in cool room to dry.

At home you can skip the last two steps if you are serving immediately. The really important point here is that sticking pasta is caused by:

  • Not enough water or
  • Water not hot enough

And that you add the oil after the pasta has been cooked to stop it sticking. Adding oil to the cooking water has no desirable effect.

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The problem of adding oil is that you want your pasta to absorb the sauce so that each mouthful has the full flavor. Adding oil coats the pasta with the oil and prevents the sauce from being absorbed. In addition to the previous answer of using quality pasta, I would recommend adding a ladle of the sauce to the pasta as soon as possible, then stirring to coat as much pasta as possible. You can also try reserving a cup or two of the pasta water when you drain it and adding it to the pasta when you see it's starting to clump.

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Adding oil to the water may help prevent foaming, but not much else. It doesn't prevent the pasta from sticking. See this article on cooking pasta (linked in answers to a few other questions already):

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

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In looking at this question again, it's specifically about dealing with the pasta being done before the sauce is.

The easiest technique is just to pull the pasta a minute or two before it's fully cooked, and then finish it the last few minutes in with the sauce, which will help to re-warm it, too.

If the sauce is already done, and you've fully cooked the pasta, but need to hold them both for a while, you can also just toss a little bit of sauce in with the pasta to help to lubricate it. It doesn't take a whole lot, just enough to coat the strands lightly, not so much that you'd leave it dripping in sauce.

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You may add a little oil (olive) to the boiling water, and just keep stirring the spaghetti while it boils. Oil will stick to the pasta while boiling and keep it from sticking, but the most important thing is the stirring.

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I believe that the oil in the water thing has been shown to not actually work. Oil in the drained pasta does work though. –  Harlan Jul 18 '10 at 17:50
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Oil in the water helps to stop the pot from boiling over, but doesn't actually do anything to the pasta. –  Chris Cudmore Jul 22 '10 at 14:05

According to this answer you could add a little lemon juice to the water to make the pasta less starchy, and so less stickier

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To avoid the problem of a too cooked pasta, add some drops of lemon juice in the water. Any food acid would have the effect to avoid the pasta absorbs too much water, and gets a glue-like aspect.

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I used to do the same thing a few years ago. I was taught by someone with more skill than me that it is pointless to add oil to the water. Sure enough, I don't use oil now and I cannot tell the difference. Stirring the pasta (especially in the first couple of minutes of cooking) is what keeps it from sticking together.

On a side note: I have read that cooking beyond al dente and rinsing the pasta afterwards both contribute to nutrient loss. I was taught to stir a tiny amount to butter into the pasta immediately after straining to keep it from sticking and to lock in the nutrients.

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The sticking is a good thing. When you rinse like that, you are washing away starch, which is what helps sauce stick to the pasta. By covering in butter, you are making the butter cling to the starch, allowing the sauce to slide right off. –  daniel Oct 27 '10 at 1:19

You can use a little olive oil in the water, and it is not full of calories. In fact Evoo is good fat. Next if you want the pasta sauce to stick to the pasta, keep a bit of the pasta water after, drain it and pour back in the water and mix in sauce. Also, the pasta that is pre-packaged in the deli section is major easy to cook. Boil the water, when it boils you'll add the pasta. Usually it cooks really fast. Just watch it, and certain ones will boil and lay on top of the water. Done. Taste is also the best way. Happy Cooking, Ciao!

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If you want good results, you have to toss the pasta with oil or sauce very soon after you take it out of the water. I'd only use oil if oil and parm is your sauce (a little butter is good too), as oil will prevent your sauce from sticking to the pasta.

You could rinse the starch off, but you'll be sacrificing flavor and the sauce might not stick (I'm not sure). Chef Hubert Keller did this on Top Chef Masters (with cold water, in a shower), but he was in a rather unique situation. I wouldn't recommend it if you can avoid it.

If you're having timing issues, wait till the sauce is done before you drop the pasta. You should be able to hold the sauce at low temperatures for a while (cheese sauces can be tricky, if they get too hot, they break). Mario Batali recommends pulling the pasta 1-2 minutes early and finish cooking it in the sauce.

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I am a 65 year old that has cooked more than 50 years and can tell you that region makes a big difference in if your spaghetti is sticky or not.I have tried all the tricks and use Barilla pasta but nothing makes a huge difference in Illinois.It has to do with the wheat used in making the pasta noodles.I do say Barilla is less sticky than others but a good boil to the water and stirring is the best answer to the sticky pasta issue. I never had this problem in Texas but it is a big issue here for me since I married an Italian who loves his pasta and red gravy.Just as making my famous buttermilk biscuits here.If using any other flour than the one I have trouble finding here my biscuits are no more than hard clods of dough.I say it is all in location.Just use salted boiling water to cook pasta and stir at start several times to lessen the stickiness.

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Are you saying that the region the pasta was made or the region the pasta is cooked in makes a difference? Barilla's only US factories are in Iowa and New York, so Illinois and Texas shouldn't make a difference. –  sourd'oh Aug 7 at 18:09

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