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Dec 3, 2007 08:52 PM

Pasta & Stock Cooking Science--Tall Pot Necessary?

Every reference I've checked says to use a tall stockpot w/an insert, or a pasta pot, with a 5- to 6-quart capacity, to cook a pound of pasta.

I understand the pasta needs sufficient room to move around freely, but why do so many sources say the pot should be taller than wide?

Asking because I bought a (wider than tall) stewpot today whose volume is actually half a quart or so larger than the taller stockpot I have, but don't love.

I'd like to donate the stockpot, since the volume of the two pots is nearly the same, unless cooking pasta or stocks would *noticeably* suffer. Eventually, I'll probably look for a new stockpot, too, but why wouldn't this suffice for the interim?

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  1. The boiling point of water is 212 degrees at sea level. The air in your kitchen is lower than that. When the boiling water touches that air, it looses heat, so the more surface area that touches that air, the more heat it loses. Hence, the narrower the top of the pot, the less surface area by volume is exposed to the air, the water stays closer to the boiling point and your pasta will cook at a more even temperature.
    How much does this really matter? Depends on how strong your burner is, how wide and big the pot is, how much water and pasta you've got in the pot, and how cold your kitchen is. Pasta will get gummy and starchy if the temperature drops too low.
    As an interim solution, you may do fine. When I've been lazy, I've thrown 2 oz. of pasta in a saucepan. It came out OK. No sense in letting the perfect be the enemy of the good enough on a short term basis. Give it a try.

    5 Replies
    1. re: MakingSense

      I KNEW there must be science to it, Sense. Fascinating! TY. I, too, have done small portions in my three-quart saucepan and lived to tell the tale (enjoyed the pasta, too). I think I'll measure both diameters in question, but considering I usually only boil 6 oz. of pasta at a time, have a 16,000 BTU burner, and got what I know is a good heat-distributing and -conserving pot, I think I'll chance it.

      Thank you. It's always a great day when I can get bulky clutter OUT of this house!

      1. re: MaggieRSN

        1. Any container that your stove can keep water boiling in can be used to cook pasta.

        2. Tall merely makes it easier to submerge spaghetti all at the same time so it cooks evenly, although I've even cooked a couple of servings of spaghetti in my 12" wide by 3" deep frying pan when my tall pots were preoccupied.

        1. re: puzzler

          I admit to having done the same with tubular types--e.g., penne--with my fairly deep 12" skillet, which is still lighter and easier to handle that my larger stockpot.

          Also, if it's just family, I generally break my spaghetti in half before it goes in the pot. The prevents me from having to spend what should be a relaxing meal reminding the kids that, no matter how fun they think it is to slurp up single -long footstrands of spaghetti one-by-one, it is generally considered poor form to behave like a central vacuum system at the table.


      2. re: MakingSense

        The concept of a narrower diameter pot losing less heat to the air is correct in theory, but has no practical significance. The biggest source of heat loss in a pot of boiling water is the heat needed to convert water at the boiling point into water vapor at the same temperature (known as the enthalpy of vaporization), which is 540 calories per gram for water. (This is, for example, why we sweat when overheated - every gram of sweat takes 540 calories of heat energy with it as it evaporates.) Compared to that kind of heat loss, losses via the 212 degree water surface being in contact with, say, 70 degree air are negligible.

        1. re: FlyFish

          Well, I think what you're talking about here (especially the last sentence) is where having a pot that has sides with good heat retention properties would matter, right, Fly?

      3. Science aside, a taller pot will have more headroom so that you are less likely to have the pot boil over.

        1 Reply
        1. re: jzerocsk

          I don't tend to cook large quanities at a time, but I can see your point would be relevant on occasions when I'm cooking for a bigger group. I may yet keep the larger pot and stick it in the pantry or someplace, out of the way.