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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

          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


          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.

                    2. It all begins with the quality of the pasta. The pasta in Italy is much different than the pasta most Americans are used to. The many shapes and sizes of pasta have caused it to become trivialized by most American cooks who often choose pasta on how it looks rather than how it pairs with a particular sauce. My friends from Perugia (Pinota and her son Luigi who has a doctorate in agronomy) gave me my best lesson yet on pasta - Not all pasta is created equal. A high quality pasta is a roughly textured pasta because the rougher the outside of the pasta the better the sauce will adhere giving a more uniform and consistently delicious flavor to each bite.

                      1. Look for the word "rigate" on the label. Regular penne is smooth but penne rigate has ridges that the sauce can adhere to. I second the idea of finishing the almost done pasta in with the sauce and I only add pasta water if it needs thinning...which it usually doesn't.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: sparkareno

                          I don't find that cooking a minute with pasta water thins the sauce it all. You use just a little and it seems to make everything creamier and more cohesive. However, the presentation isn't as nice, so while I might do it just for myself, I wouldn't serve it to guests that way.

                        2. I always rinse my noodles or they'll overcook (not good with my time lol), Alton Brown debunked that oil thing and oil also helps keeping the water from foaming too much.

                          Are your pasta dry-ish? Not like being hard and brittle of course but like they are cooling off and they stick to each other? Cause that's the only way I can make the sauce stick. Also, it doesn't make the sauce too watery...

                          13 Replies
                          1. re: AngelSanctuary

                            1) Rinsing of noodles in Italian cooking is generally frowned upon.

                            2) I don't see how foaming water is a negative so no need to waste oil by adding it to the water.

                            1. re: KTinNYC

                              rinsing is counter-productive, not just frowned upon. with quality pasta, rinsing washes the starch down the drain and the sauce doesn't cling as well.

                              honestly, it's not rocket science. spend the few extra cents on a good box, boil it in salty water and don't overcook it. the end.

                              1. re: KTinNYC

                                foaming water is not so fun when it spills over your pot and onto your stove...and it's like a few drops I think I can spare a few drops of oil

                                and shhhhhh if no one tells them, they won't know ;)

                                    1. re: KTinNYC

                                      Any bigger, it'll hit the ceiling of my exhaust fan =.=.

                                    2. re: AngelSanctuary

                                      I stir the water right before adding the pasta--that seems to counteract the foaming.

                                  1. re: AngelSanctuary

                                    set a timer?

                                    if you didn't rinse your pasta the sauce would stick, no problem. further, it shouldn't be sitting around, cooling off. drain it well in a colander and sauce it right away, while it's still hot.

                                    1. re: hotoynoodle

                                      yea but cooling them in cold water when they're already at the doneness I want is a lot more reliable than anticipating how much they will continue to cook while they're hot.

                                      and my pasta still sticks to the sauce so meh~ And by the time you drain all excess water and then sauce it, it's not really "right away"

                                      1. re: AngelSanctuary

                                        pot to colander, good couple of shakes to drain, back to pot... 30 seconds?

                                        1. re: hotoynoodle

                                          ...if that. It hasn't been my experience that pasta that's been boiling for 10 minutes or so cools off all that quickly when it's drained, and a few tosses/shakes dry it off just fine.
                                          As to anticipating how much pasta continues to cook when added to hot sauce, it's not rocket science. It hits the sauce a little firmer than one would like, it sucks up some sauce, and voila!--it's perfect. It's pasta with sauce--very elemental food that should be easy.

                                          1. re: hotoynoodle

                                            30 seconds? how much pasta do you cook at a time?!

                                            and my sauce usually finish later so it doesn't matter anyways...

                                            1. re: AngelSanctuary

                                              generally i cook a pound, sometimes only half. why is your sauce finished so late? maybe it's your meal prep timing and not your pasta cooking that's the issue, lol! ;)

                                    2. The other points about die-extruded pasta and finishing the dish in a frying pan are all good ones, but can I add that if you serve the pasta into a hot dish or plate, it might solve your problem? PAsta comes out of the pot, steaming hot, sauce clinging seductively, and when it hits a cold plate, the steam condenses and then you get that watery, bland juice on the plate, no matter how thick your sauce was to start with. A hot plate or bowl keeps everything hot and certainly solved the watery problem for me re: spag. bolognese. HTH.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: kookiegoddess

                                        I question that one - I don't heat plates at home and never have watery soup under the sauced pasta. On the other hand, restaurant pasta usually comes on a hot plate but unless I specifically request that the pasta be well-drained, it will almost always be sloshing around in a puddle. If it's my first time at an Italian restaurant I sometimes omit the request, because it helps me judge their commitment to their food. If they can't be bothered to spend the extra minute to drain the pasta, I am unlikely to return if I have any input into the choice of restaurant.

                                      2. I use "cheap" pasta and still have no issues with this. You don't *have to* buy pasta that's extruded through bronze to get your sauce to stick. I buy Luigi Vitelli brand pasta, Trader Joe's pasta, and Barilla. I don't usually pay more than $1/pound, many times I stock up when the Luigi Vitelli is on sale for $.79.

                                        You do need to finish your pasta in the sauce. Your pasta should be **just barely** al dente before you put it in the sauce. I give it a good 5+ minutes in the sauce at a low simmer and then turn the heat off and let it rest just a bit. I also incorporate the sauce thoroughly. Don't just set the pasta in the sauce. "Mix it up" so the sauce coats the pasta. I don't add pasta water unless my sauce is already very thick, but I do use a pasta "spoon" to scoop the noodles straight from the pot into the sauce (I suppose this adds pasta water in the process) rather than draining them first. My sauce always clings with this method.

                                        1. My initial hunch before reading the other comments was that you are overcooking your pasta.

                                          The pasta should be removed from cooking water (and take a mug of the pasta water out beforehand to reserve if you are dumping the pot into a colander) at the point when there is a bit of a white core remaining in the center of it when you bit it. Don't dry it too thoroughly, but do finish it briefly (don't overcook, again) in the sauce, so that the pasta will draw in the sauce as it completes cooking. If the pasta soaks up too much sauce in finishing, you can add some of the pasta cooking water bit by bit to make it smile, as it were.

                                          2 Replies
                                            1. re: Karl S

                                              Good assessment and great advice, Karl.

                                              And I love that last line... "to make it smile." It made me smile. :)

                                            2. Two things: (1) Don't overcome the pasta. You have to experiment by taking small amounts of the pasta out of the water and eating it. When it seems a little harder than you'd like, drain the pasta;

                                              (2) return the drained pasta to the (now relatively dry) pan and cook it over low heat, moving the pasta gently with tongs. Very soon there will be no water left in the pan and the pasta will take on a tacky feeling. If you mix that pasta into the sauce, trust me, the sauce will stick! (I also use this pasta for removing the lint from suits--okay, just kidding about that last part, but it becomes really sticky.)

                                              2 Replies
                                              1. re: gfr1111

                                                Also very good instructions.

                                                Like the part about "no water left in the pan and the pasta will take on a tacky feeling."
                                                That's exactly it.

                                                That "overcome" part is good, too, whether you meant the pasta was overcome with water, overcooked or overwhelmed.

                                                1. re: gfr1111

                                                  Great advice, gfr1111. I 've seen Lidia Bastianich handle pasta with tongs and mix the sauce together with the pasta in some of her shows, so you're right up there with the pros! Bravo.

                                                2. I've always found that this makes the sauce stick better to the pasta: I cook my pasta in plenty of water with a teaspoon or so of salt. Don't neglect the salt! When the pasta is cooked to your liking, drain it well in a colander and tip it back into the still-warm cooking pot. Toss it with a tablespoon or two of butter (depending on your quantity of pasta.) Then put on some of the sauce. Allow it to sit for a minute or so in the pot to soak up the sauce. Keep adding the sauce a bit at a time until you have reached the saturation you desire without overloading the pasta. Unless your sauce is particularly thin, this should help a lot.

                                                  1. This problem of your sauce has come to mind now everytime I make pasta.
                                                    I don't have that problem you describe, so I'm trying to see what if there's anything I'm doing that's different.
                                                    I use many different brands of pasta. DeCecco, Barilla, Trader Joe's etc. that are more pricey, but for angel hair and thin spaghetti, whatever is on sale. Regardless, my sauce is absorbed. I use a lot of salt, handful in the water as it boils. I quit using oil years ago, just because I didn't see a need.

                                                    the other thing is that learning when to pull the pasta is crucial to making a good pasta dish. It should taste like its not done yet. It can go from that bite to mush so fast. All the pastas are different so you need to keep practicing with different pasta shapes. I never go by what the box says. When it's perfect to my tooth, then I drain the pasta well. Let it sit about 5 mins, I'll moveit around or pull it up with tongs so it doesn't stick. Then I'll usually put the pasta in a lower large saute like pan, and toss with sauce. I reserve sauce for the table, I sometimes add a little pasta water to the sauce, but be careful, not too much. I always cook my pasta al dente, and by the time it hits the table its always perfect.
                                                    Personally I think you're having trouble with timing the al dente pasta. It will continue to cook after you remove it and put it in the sauce.
                                                    Also try making your own pasta for a real treat, the pasta really absorbs the sauce wonderfully. The pasta is like silk!
                                                    I hope this helps, I know how frustrating this can be, perhaps you've figured it out by now!

                                                    1. In restaurants, they use fresh pasta which has been tossed with flour to keep it from sticking together before cooking. That extra flour all over the outside thickens the water (almost to the point of being a light gravy) and it's that starchy gravy-like water that causes the sauce to stick to it in restaurants.

                                                      If you're using fresh (or storebought "fresh" pasta), toss and sprinkle it with flour then shake off excess before boiling.

                                                      Another tip - contrary to popular belief, you do *NOT* need a huge amount of water to cook pasta. The correct amount of water is about 4 cups (+ 1 tbsp kosher salt) per 2 pasta servings. If you boil 2 gallons of water, the water will never be starchy enough to get that delicious creamy coated effect you're looking for.

                                                      Also, never drain your pasta - scoop it out of the pot soaking wet. Again, it's that super starchy water that makes the sauce stick.

                                                      Here's a link to my blog where I made a video on the A to Z of making pasta, from the dough all the way to cooking it and storing leftovers: http://christophercooks.blogspot.com/...

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: JetLaggedChef

                                                        It's really simple: Quality commercial pasta makers who use bronze extruding dies use best quality flour. Otherwise what's the point right?
                                                        This extruded pasta is meant to have a 'tooth' which holds............wait for it! STARCH!
                                                        What does the starch do on the surface of the pasta....if it's not rinsed off? It acts like a glue which holds and absorbs any sauce. It's really easy to figure out.
                                                        Cheap flour used in cheap pasta using cheap extruding methods equals a crap pasta.
                                                        Buy some best quality pasta. HARD SIMMER IT!!!!! until el dente. Drain and reserve cup of the pasta water to get the 'finish' right visa vi the texture.
                                                        Add the pasta to some HOT! pasta sauce. Gently fold in the pasta and if it's getting a bit too thick add some of the pasta water.
                                                        Plate topped with some chopped cilantro or parsley and grated PR and serve immediately.
                                                        Doesn't get easier than that. This is the most basic method of cooking any pasta.......which is always the 'star' never the sauce in Italy. Example: Two cups of plain old best quality marinara sauce is more than enough for ten cups of cooked spaghetti.
                                                        Any pasta you find in any 'bulk' section of any store is crap and not worth buying IMO......and tens of millions of others who eat pasta like Asians eat rice.

                                                      2. I'd forgotten I'd started this thread, but I'll update it for anyone interested: an episode of Chopped solved the dilemma! I credit one of the judges (Scott Co...something), who said never cook your pasta until desired doneness in the water, finish it in the sauce. I never do that, or never did. I always cooked it in the water until the texture I liked, then put it in a bowl and poured hot sauce on top, because I liked the way it presented with the pale noodles and blob of sauce. Then we mixed at the table.

                                                        We now finish the pasta in the skillet - in just the sauce if it's tomato or something saucy, with a splash of pasta water if we're having something along the lines of a primavera, or oil and garlic without a proper "sauce." Never had a problem since! Delicious, sticky sauced pasta.

                                                        4 Replies
                                                        1. re: thursday

                                                          So you ignored all the advice we gave you and ended up doing exactly what we suggested because someone on TV told you?

                                                              1. re: Puffin3

                                                                I agree, BUT she said she forgot she started the thread so maybe she never saw your replies.

                                                        2. Sorry, I didn't ignore all the advice everyone gave me - none of it worked. Soypower and maria lorraine and a few others years ago had suggested finishing in the pan, but I did not quite know what that meant - I thought it meant boil until done, and then put it in the pan, which obviously led to overcooked pasta on my end, but I didn't make the connection because I only tried it the once, and after trying many of the other suggestions here, I gave up. I only updated my results now because someone revived this thread and I thought it would be helpful. I didn't think it was helpful to come back multiple times over the years and say, "None of this is working for me." I only mentioned the Chopped thing because I thought it was funny that I would actually get something useful out a TV show.

                                                          8 Replies
                                                          1. re: thursday


                                                            My advice to you back then was precisely to remove it before it was done (even telling you how to tell that), and not overcook it.

                                                            1. re: Karl S

                                                              That's what most of us wrote. In fact, it's in the very first reply.

                                                              This just reminds me why I don't make much of an effort on CH, anymore. There's no point in giving advice to people who ignore it, don't engage with you or don't give any feedback. These threads always end up being a bunch of board regulars all agreeing with each other or getting into geeky arguments about minutia.

                                                              1. re: SnackHappy

                                                                Ya that's pretty much where I've come to on CH.
                                                                Why waste band width/time on people who ask for advice then don't bother to even read the advice accurately.

                                                              2. re: Karl S

                                                                FWIW, I stopped reading this thread after about 8 comments because I felt like an idiot that I couldn't get it right, so I never saw your previous comment, KarlS. I've admitted that I didn't understand what people meant when they said finish in the sauce - I think I got overly bogged down in the bronze cut discussion or whatever it was and missed some of the other points.

                                                                Oh well. I was simply trying to be helpful to other newbies like myself who may have also been confused. Sorry if everyone felt ignored.

                                                                1. re: thursday

                                                                  The very first comment


                                                                  tells you exactly what the TV chef told you, so even if you "stopped reading this thread after about 8 comments", you still would've seen at least 3 posters who explained *in detail* what finishing in the pan means and how to do it.

                                                                  1. re: linguafood

                                                                    Fair enough. A thousand lashes with overcooked noodles for me. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa for my poor reading comprehension skills, my refusal to try noodles mixed in sauces until this year, and most especially for revisiting this thread. I am thoroughly chastised.

                                                                    1. re: thursday

                                                                      lol, you don't enjoy a virtual brow-beating?