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I have heard one should use a lot of water when cooking pasta; how much water should I use?

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possible duplicate of Pasta: Simmering Water or Rolling Boil? –  daniel Aug 27 '10 at 16:58
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@roux, @attila, I disagree that it is a repeat question. It turns out that the answer to this question exists in another Question (thanks, roux), but the question itself is different. If I were looking for how much water to use, I would not check a question about water temperature for that answer. –  yossarian Aug 27 '10 at 17:27
    
i don't think they travel very different ground, but i'm not going to get bolshy about it. –  daniel Aug 27 '10 at 19:15

5 Answers 5

up vote 24 down vote accepted

This question was answered to some extent in another Pasta cooking question by Roux. This answer, which is basically just a link to a series of experiments by an MIT grad / Chef, dispels a number of myths about cooking pasta. For instance:

  • Water will return to a boil in the same amount of time regardless of how much is in the pot prior to pasta being added.
  • Pasta won't get sticky with smaller amounts of water. It only gets sticky because of reactions in the first few minutes of cooking, and the solution is to stir it. This is necessary even with lots of water.
  • You do not need a lot of water to cook pasta.
  • Water does not need to be boiling to cook pasta. It simply needs to be above 180F.

Some really interesting stuff in the article that debunks quite a lot of kitchen lore about cooking pasta. I have tried this at home with great success.

So in answer to your specific question:

  • No, you do not need a lot of water, it simply has to cover the pasta.
  • The amount of salt is heavily dependent on the amount of pasta, the amount of water, and your own taste. You need to find a consistent way to cook pasta and then experiment.
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It is important to note that the article you link to states outright that for fresh pasta or for long-shaped pasta (such as spaghetti), the "less water is fine" rules do not apply. –  Tim Sullivan Sep 7 '10 at 16:04
    
The only other argument for using more water is that less water is more likely to cause the pot to boil over. Basically the starch in the pasta makes it easier for the water to form bubbles that collect and spill over when not paying attention. I've found that with a very low pasta to water ratio can end in a messy kitchen. –  MeltedPez Oct 7 '10 at 12:00
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@Tim: But the reason given is that the long pasta won't be completely submerged. It only takes 20-30 seconds to get full-length spaghetti to soften enough to bend and submerge. I've cooked plenty of long pasta in minimal water. (You may want to start with the water boiling rapidly, but you can reduce the heat half a minute later with no problems.) –  Jefromi May 11 '11 at 12:34
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I have been using the no-boil method for several month, even for long strand pasta like angel hair. I use cool tap water that will cover the amount of pasta I'm intending to cook, add salt, put on stove on high and stir throughly. I do snap the long pasta in half before throwing it in, to make sure it's entirely covered. Often the water will have just come to a simmer when my pasta is done, which uses less energy and keeps my kitchen cooler in the summer. I can't believe it works, but it totally does. –  Katey HW Oct 3 '12 at 20:07

That is nonsense. The more water per pasta ratio will result in less recovery time, which is more desirable. It's simple. Boil a gallon of water and add an ounce of pasta. The water will not stop boiling. Boil it again and ad a pound of pasta. The water will take time to recover. For dried pasta, every manufacturer recommends rapidly boiling water. Aldente reqires high heat to cook the outside of the pasta, leaving the inside slightly undercooked. This is were the "snap" comes from.

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First, it's not nonsense, and second, you're not entirely wrong. If you've got a 100 gallons of boiling water and add one noodle, then you're right the change in temperature is going to be negligible on a thermometer. However, if you have a 100 gallons at temp x and 1 oz at temp x, and you add a noodle to each, then the change in temperature will be much greater in the second case. The first case may not stop boiling at all. However, the time to get back to temp x (given the same heat source) will be identical in both cases, even if the larger pot doesn't lose it's boil. –  yossarian Oct 7 '10 at 3:03
    
Basically, in both cases, you've got a fixed amount of negative energy in (heat loss from the pasta) and positive energy in (heat increase from the burner). The amount of energy is fixed on both the in and out side, so the amount of water makes no difference in time to regain a certain temperature. What changes is the swing in temperature during the time period. While your example about an ounce vs a pound is probably correct, I don't think that it will make any appreciable difference once you start talking about realistic cooking quantities and the amount of water required (for either method) –  yossarian Oct 7 '10 at 3:08
    
To be honest, I was skeptical of the approach I outlined when I first heard it. I mean, it makes sense, but I didn't quite believe it. So I tested it. I noticed zero difference in outcome. Seeing is believing. –  yossarian Oct 7 '10 at 3:09
    
As I'm re-reading my comment, I notice a slight error. Boiling water is boiling water, but the difference between a strong and slight boil is the amount of energy in the system, not the absolute temperature. Adding the pasta decreases the energy in the system which may or may not be enough to decrease the temp from a boil. So, given enough water, you could add your pasta without ever killing the boil. However, if you read the article I referenced, it points out that you only need 180F to cook pasta, so a boil isn't even necessary. You just want to stay about 180 for the course of cooking. –  yossarian Oct 7 '10 at 3:13

My rule of thumb is 4 qt. of water per 1 lb. of pasta. This comes from a Cooks Illustrated article (I think from around '00) that suggested that this was the best way to keep pasta from sticking to itself.

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I prefer to use more water than is likely necessary, simply because when you add the pasta to the water, the temperature will drop some. The less water you have, the lower it will drop/the faster it will take to bring it back to a boil. Edit: This very likely may be a disproven myth, please read comment below.

Unfortunately I eyeball it based off how much pasta I have, so I can't give you an exact ratio. But I would err on the side of too much. Edit: I just eyeballed and then measured a pot, it looks like I use about 5 quarts of water for a lb of pasta. I still recommend erring on the side of too much, but now only because you don't want to lose too much to evaporation and end up running low on water halfway through cooking. Just enough to cover the pasta a little bit seems to work fine at our house.

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This isn't actually true. It takes the same amount of time to come back to a boil. However, the larger pot will have a smaller temperature decrease than the smaller pot. They'll both get back to a boil at the same time though. Think about it: the pasta has a certain amount of energy to exert to decrease the temperature. It's the same for both pots. The difference in volume affects how far the temp swings. But the burner also exerts a fixed amount of energy to heat it. Because the smaller pot has less volume it increases temp faster. The total energy change to both pots is exactly the same. –  yossarian Aug 27 '10 at 15:31
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Wow, I think you just made my head explode a little. I guess I never sat and thought about it before, but based on simple physics that makes perfect sense. Great comment! Updated my answer. –  stephennmcdonald Aug 27 '10 at 15:40
    
I thought the exact same way you did, but the article that Roux linked a while back that is the basis for my answer in this thread dispelled that. It makes perfect sense, but I'm not sure it's obvious. I hope you didn't get any exploding head on your keyboard. –  yossarian Aug 27 '10 at 17:54

I have found that enough so that upon evaporation, you don't run out is the correct amount. But then again, using too much takes longer to boil. I try to find an optimum based on these two factors.

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