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Pasta cooking water

This has been bothering me for some time. Many recipes advise reserving pasta cooking water to loosen up a sauce. Why is pasta cooking water superior to plain old water? Does the pasta starch leach into the cooking water & have some positive effect? It can't be a question of flavor -- pasta doesn't have much flavor.

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  1. Yes. The starch in the pasta water can help bind the sauce. It is also helpful to have hot water to loosen the sauce if it is a little too thick.

    1. yes: Starch and salt = yum and add body, whereas plain water won't

      1. Quite right. Another thing to note is that apparently a lot of recipes are adapted from restaurants kitchens - and the pasta water you find there is quite different then what you have accessible in your kitchen. Simply because they have boiled dozens, if not a hundred, plates of pasta in the same pot, hence more starch. That said I do think that using the water does help bind the sauce and the heat is probably a factor.


        1. Pasta cooking water has starch and salt. It helps to emulsify the sauce and glaze the pasta properly if you finish cooking the pasta in the sauce and add the water and reduce.

          1. So this means that if you are having pasta in a restaurant late in the service you will get pasta water in your dish with a lot more starch than at the beginning of the service since restaurants use a pasta cooker. Will the dish be more flavorful? Probably.

            1 Reply
            1. re: ngardet

              completely right. pasta later in the evening from GOOD restaurants will have the most starch-filled water tossed in with the pasta right before plating. i say this only having seen it done from my station in the pastry kitchen of one of Batali's biggest places:)

            2. Agreed with the above, except to note that there is only salt if you salt the water before cooking the pasta. Many people skip this step. If, on the other hand, you heavily salt your pasta water, be careful to not oversalt the pasta.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Grubbjunkie

                Oh, well, pasta boiled in unsalted water tastes flat. I guess if you add enough sauce so that the taste of the pasta doesn't matter, then it doesn't matter, but the reasons Italians always salt their pasta cooking water (almost like sea water) is because their pasta tends to be the star and the sauce is just the backup condiment.

              2. This is a subject that was beautifully addressed by Bill Buford in his book Heat.

                1. After reading many threads on this subject I tried a few months ago. I take a measuring cup and scoop out some pasta water right before i drain. It works great and the sauce does stick better. Karl S converted me, thank you.

                  I have also tried the salted versus unsalted test and find the pasta is better cooked in lightly salted water.

                  1. Thanks, all. To coconutz, I think I "asked and speculated" rather than "asked and answered." In any event, now I know, and now I also know about the Buford book.