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Why won't my sauce stick to my pasta?

We've used jarred marinara, made slow-cooked homemade sauces with canned tomatoes and tomato paste, and homemade fast-cooked sauces with fresh tomatoes...and my sauce never seems to stick to the noodles. I've tried to find the answer to this online, but the only responses say not to rinse the noodles, not to add oil to the water, and not to add too much oil to the sauce. We don't do ANY of those things, and still, I can never seem to get a spaghetti noodle with sauce clinging to it the way I have in restaurants. Any hints?

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  1. Definitely no oil in the pasta water. Try finishing the noodles in the sauce. I use a skillet on med-low heat, ladle some sauce into the pan and then throw in a serving or two of noodles that are just 1 or 2 minutes shy of al dente. Add a little pasta water (the starch thickens the sauce) and cook until the noodles are al dente.

    7 Replies
    1. re: soypower

      Yes, finish in the pan.

      My sense is that adding some of the pasta water to the sauce means that the starch molecules in the pasta will "hold hands" and link up with the starch molecules in the sauce.
      Once linked, the two stick together.

      1. re: maria lorraine

        Hmm... I tried that this evening and wound up with a watery sauce...that wouldn't stick to my noodles. Is your sauce extremely thick before you add the water? Do you let the noodles cool a little or toss them in hot? I can't understand why I have such trouble with this.

        1. re: thursday

          2 servings
          sauce ladled from pot into small skillet.
          add al dente pasta
          and *small* amount of pasta water -- 2 T. about
          cook tlll sauce is again thick
          serve

          1. re: thursday

            Why don't you reduce the liquid in the sauce until it's not watery? At some point it will have to start sticking. The problem is probably that there's too much water in whatever sauce you're cooking. It could be that you are using really bad pasta, but you should be able to solve your problem without investing in artisan-quality pasta.

            1. re: cornflower55

              I'm going to try this again, but I'm not sure I can have less water - I've reduced it down until it's almost a paste... I'm not sure why I'm having such difficulty with this. I've tried it with fancy pasta (though granted, I don't know the brand) and it still slips right off.

              1. re: thursday

                You're probably overcooking your pasta, then. Don't trust the time on the package take at least one minute off if your not cooking it further in the sauce and more if you are.

                I wonder if you might also be undersalting the water and if that might have an effect on your sauce stickiness.

                My last hypothesis would that you may have too high expectations regarding the behaviour of your sauce and pasta. The condiment isn't really supposed to stick to the noodle. The noodles should be coated in the sauce. You may also just be adding too much sauce.

                1. re: SnackHappy

                  I second this, as well as using pasta that has been extruded through bronze dies for a rougher surface.(my hands-down favorite is Rustichella d'Abruzzo, which I bought for years at Zabar's until I found it cheaper at Whole Foods, followed by De Cecco, which is readily available, inexpensive, and REALLY good for the price). It finally occurred to me at some point that one of the reasons pasta should be cooked al dente is because the hot, firm (and well-drained) pasta is still cooking and thirsty when it meets the sauce. The more liquid element of the sauce is absorbed--making for perfect, not-too-chewy texture--and the richer solids meld with the cheese and cling to the rough pasta. Mop up what little's left with bread.
                  BTW, I ususlly add a drop of oil to my cooking water and have never had a problem with the sauce not adhereing. The trick is probably to use just that--a drop. More than that is overkill anyway.
                  You can also add your pasta to the sauce with a bit of the retained cooking water and cook it over medium heat for about a minute, or you might want to try Rustichella d'Abruzzo's suggestion--tossing the hot pasta with cheese prior to saucing it.

      2. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in your sauce but in your pasta.

        Try buying pasta that has been extruded through bronze and see if things change. It will say this on the label. De Cecco is a good brand, but you can do better in specialty shops. Latini is great. Cavalieri too. And there are numerous other very good brands available.

        Certainly, you don't add oil to the water and don't rinse the pasta. Add as much oil to the sauce as you like. What you actually want is not for the sauce to stick to the pasta but for the pasta to absorb the sauce. Anything that gives the pasta a slick surface will prevent this from happening. Extrusion through bronze dies (as opposed to stainless steel or even Teflon) imparts a rough surface to the pasta that, among other things, makes the pasta absorbent.

        The trick of using pasta water to make your sauce creamy really only works right if your pasta was decent in the first place.

        10 Replies
        1. re: mbfant

          Amen!

          I find bronze-die pasta that's advertised as such to be prohibitively expensive (as in, $6 or $7 per pound!!), but I've gotten comparable results from Whole Foods' brand organic pasta, which has a rougher surface even than their non-organic variety. For all I know, it IS bronze-die-extruded, but it doesn't say so on the package and the price is sure right -- less than $2 per pound where I live. Anyway, you're right, the key is to stay away from pasta that looks shiny or slick, and stick with pasta that looks both opaque and rough-textured. I would call it a velvet look, maybe?

          1. re: LauraGrace

            "I find bronze-die pasta that's advertised as such to be prohibitively expensive (as in, $6 or $7 per pound!!)[...]"

            De Cecco uses bronze drawing and only costs about $2 a pound.

            1. re: SnackHappy

              Barilla also makes excellent inexpensive pasta. The even make special ridged ("rigati") versions of some of their spaghetti and linguini for extra sauce-holding capability.

              1. re: BobB

                I second the Barilla brand. Also, as Silverhawk mentions below, different shapes hold the sauce better than others. Long thin pasta shapes simply do not hold sauce as do the shaped pastas.

                If you're making a tomato based sauce I would Not add water to the finished sauce. I might "rinse" out the can of tomatoes with a bit of wine or water at the start when I'm adding the tinned tomatoes to the pan, but never at the finish. Pasta water is only incorporated into "white" sauces...those not tomato based.

              2. re: SnackHappy

                La Romanella have both teflon and bronze extruded packages for the same price.

            2. re: mbfant

              Bronze-die pasta adds a whole new level of pasta detail that I never knew before.

              How did you learn about this mbfant?

              So pasta cut this way is microscopically "nubbier" than pasta cut another way or extruded? And it's those nubs that "hook" the sauce? Wild.

              Could it also be the dough itself -- some doughs are more continuous and homogeneous in texture, others are less so, with "grainy" flour bits, etc. Then
              the "grainy" bits would be the source of the nubs that hook the sauce. Or perhaps
              it's a combo.

              1. re: maria lorraine

                Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Italian Cooking, p. 25 explains...

                1. re: maria lorraine

                  I don't know how I first learned about it, but it's no secret. Try running one piece of Latini spaghetti between your fingers and then a piece of Barilla. The Latini will feel like sandpaper and the Barilla will be smooth. It makes a huge difference.

                  The dough is industrially mixed, so it's all smooth. The texture comes from the material of the dies. Other variables are the quality of the flour and the temperature/time of drying. Slow drying at low temperature is best.

                  1. re: mbfant

                    As I recall, I started buying DeCecco years ago because I was trying to decide on a brand and reading the blurbs on the boxes so I could compare. DeCecco explained that their product was die-extruded and why that was desirable. Made sense to me!
                    Incidentally, I'm a noodle devotée--spaghetti, fettucine, and such. My sauces never contain meat and they always stick.

                    1. re: MacGuffin

                      bronze-extruded. They are all die-extruded (except the shapes that are rolled and cut). The issue is the material of the die.

              2. As others have hinted at, the problem is not with your sauce. The problem is with your pasta.

                Sauce your pasta when it is still warm, and then add some more of the hot/warm pasta water and reduce accordingly.

                Always works.

                1. this isn't a very exotic notion, but you might prefer a different pasta shape, too. some shapes are pretty much designed to hold sauce--eg shells, radiatori, penne.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: silverhawk

                    different shapes are designed for different *types* of sauce, i.e. a short stubby pasta like rigatoni is for a chunky meat sauce, so bits of meat will get "inside" the tubes, a flat thin noodle like linguine works with a simple olive and basil dressing and a fettucine gives surface area for a creamy sauce.

                    don't use cheap or any american pasta
                    get the water to a high boil
                    don't overcook.
                    stir a few times while it cooks so it doesn't stick
                    don't add oil to the water -- it's absolutely pointless since oil and water do NOT mix
                    use plenty of salt in the water.
                    drain well by shaking it in the colander
                    depending on the sauce, you may want to hold back a 1/4 cup of the cooking water
                    add the sauce to the hot pot you used for the pasta, keeping the burner at low heat
                    add the pasta back to the pot and mix very well
                    let it sit a minute and turn off the heat.
                    i usually cover it now and get be everything else plated
                    check that the sauce is the consistency you like, if it needs it add some pasta water a bit at a time

                  2. And also make sure you are draining your pasta well. Leave it for a few moments in the colander to air dry and let some of the water evaporate. If your sauce is dry and the pasta wet, very shortly your sauce will be wet.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Stuffed Monkey

                      Use a salad spinner to get your pasta REALLY dry.