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Why cook pasta in water and not the sauce?

A simple question, but why cook pasta in one pot and the sauce in another? Some chefs seem to finish pasta by folding it into a sauce, but since most pastas (especially dry) only need only a short hit of moisture/heat, why not marry them earlier?

If you make a nice clam sauce, for example, why not simmer/prepare the noodles in that same sauce where they might absorb more flavors, rather than match them at the last minute? Contrast is a valid point.

I ask because I saw a recipe for lasagne where they said to not bother with boiling the noodles... they'd cook and get moist. So it got me thinking outside the box.

Dipping crusty bread into an over easy egg is a divine, last minute merger. But merging an egg and bread before cooking delivers an also-delish french toast.

Thoughts?

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  1. Because the starch released by the pasta in the water will make your sauce gummy, not yummy. (I can't believe I wrote that.)

    The pasta releases starch in the water, and needs quite a bit of water to dilute the starch. THen, when pasta's not quite done, plop it in the pan with your sauce and some of the water, and the pasta finishes cooking and and then can soak up the flavors of the sauce.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Ideefixed

      Ditto - emphasis on "quite a bit of water".
      "Gummy, not yummy"? That's a winner :>)
      When it comes of lasagna, some recipes suggest using it without cooking. However, a lot of those use fresh pasta rather than dried. I will sometimes use fresh pasta in a lasagna without pre-cooking but I would never use dried pasta without at least par-boiling it.

      1. re: todao

        I have used dried pasta successfully in lasagna, both regular and no-boil noodles. I use extra red sauce. The lasagna come out a bit less saucier than if I precooked the noodles, but I like it that way. I have also used fresh pasta.

        based on my lasagna experience, as to other pasta being cooked in the sauce, it seems like it would be hard to have the pasta cook properly in the right amount of sauce and have it then be in the portions you want for the final dish, at least dried pasta. and why? boiling pasta separately is not hard.

        1. re: cocktailhour

          I have also very successfully made lasagna with dry lasagna noodles without cooking the noodles first. However, lasagna is baked in the over, and I do use extra red sauce, and also cover the lasagna with foil,for part of the cooking time which I think has the effect of sort of steaming the noodles. I don't think cooking pasta on top of the stove in sauce would have the same effect, although I have never tried it.

      2. I don't agree with some of the other posters..Most pasta is only in water for about 8-10 minutes so there is not that much starch released that would render a sauce too starchy, especially if you're going to add some of the cooking water at the end. I have cooked pasta in sauce before, particularly, something like penne in a tomato based sauce and angel hair in clam sauce without any problems. You do have to allow for extra thickness from the pasta somewhat and adjust the liquid in your sauce but it can be done.

        1. Of course you can cook pasta in the sauce, as long as you dilute the sauce accordingly. I've since forgotten how much water a pound of dry pasta absorbs - I think it may have been a quart but this is easy enough to measure by weighing the cooked pasta. Dilute your sauce by that amount minus 3-4 ounces (you can always add more water once the dish is nearly done, if need be). There will be some additional thickening of the sauce.
          Some folks cook small pasta shapes like orzo in broth, which creates a riceless "risotto" when the proportions have less liquid than you'd want for a saucier finished dish.

          A few years ago the big name tomato sauce manufacturers marketed a diluted sauce intended for baked pasta dishes but it didn't seem to catch on - people figured out that it was cheaper to buy the regular and dilute it. It was not extremely diluted, but it was designed for use with no-bake brands of pasta like Barilla lasagna, which is rolled a lot thinner than regular lasagna noodles.

          The main reason not to cook the pasta and sauce together is when you are making enough sauce for extra batches to save for future dishes. Stovetop dishes would require frequent stirring and diligent monitoring to prevent drying out, but baked dishes are no-fuss. I really like the egg noodle flavor and texture of the Barilla no-bake lasagna sheets and no longer buy anything else for manicotti and lasagna.

          1. Clotilde Desoulier did this entry on what she calls "absorption pasta" years ago. http://chocolateandzucchini.com/archi...

            You can do it equally well with a tomato-based sauce. It's a unique method and works quite well.

            5 Replies
            1. re: rainey

              Yes, I agree, cooking pasta in as well-flavored stock or slightly diluted tomato-based sauce works just fine. Cooked by this method, short pastas are a better choice than long. I've never experienced any starchy issues, I think the amount of starch released is negligible and serves to thicken and flavor the sauce. I can't tell you how much water pasta absorbs when cooked but the pasta mass increases by about 48%. That's why you can feed four people, average servings, on a lb of the stuff. Mrbushwick and I can eat a lb of pasta between us, however.

              I cook, as Grey mentions, orzo in diluted broth and finish it in the oven, like a pilaf. A high-sided wide skillet works best; it gives the pasta room to absorb the sauce or stock.

              By cooking in suce or stock, you're enhancing the flavor of a rather bland product, just as you would salt pasta water "as salty as the sea." Why not use more complex flavor, rather than just salt?
              Why take out the stock pot and boil water, if you don't have to?

              I've been using dried lasagna nodles without par-boiling for a number of years; I was initially skepical but my SIL recommended using dried noodles, pre-no boil days, and I was tired of the extra boiling step, anyway. I experimented with the dried version and a diluted sauce, and have always had excellent results. The important step is that the sauce must be looser to account for absorption.

              I've also tried the fresh and no-cook sheets with great success.

              This link is for another absorption pasta discussion and recipe, with potatoes, olive oil and basil, courtesy of Alain Ducasse:
              http://thepauperedchef.com/2007/08/ri...

              This NYT article is a bit off-cooking-in-sauce topic; it discusses the variations of the amount of water needed to cook pasta, FYI:
              http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/25/din...

              1. re: bushwickgirl

                I've made stove-top skillet lasagnas with both fresh and regular dried noodles (not the ones specified no-boil) with good results. The last couple I made weren't even trying to be the semi-layered lasagnas of the earlier incarnations.

                The Ducasse link in Bushwickgirl's post is interesting. The recipe stresses not cooking it too quickly to avoid gumminess. This explains the success of my stove-top efforts as I (inadvertently) cooked them slowly. The recipe makes the allusion to risotto-style pasta.

              2. re: rainey

                She made a single serving. I'm cooking for more than 1, and I think that the time she spent adding the water ended up being more work than just boiling the noodles. She was also cooking in broth and oil, not ragu.

                "Add the pasta, and stir continuously for 2 minutes. Add stock or water to just about cover the pasta -- about a cup -- and lower the heat to medium-low. Cover, and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring from time to time. 5 minutes into the cooking, add the zucchini, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Taste the pasta for doneness: if it isn't quite done and all the liquids have been absorbed, add a little more stock or water, cover, and cook for a few more minutes before tasting again."

                It sounds fine, but it's too much work for me.

                1. re: Ideefixed

                  Like the difference between risotto and boiled rice, pasta cooked in sauce will have more flavor than boiled in water. Same timing for multiple servings as a single one.

                  1. re: greygarious

                    Boiling the noodles in stock or broth would add just as much, if not more flavor...

              3. It's not a matter of how much water the pasta absorbs, it's a matter of how much starch it releases into the sauce liquid. Obviously, if you add enough liquid to any sauce it will accommodate the the starch released from the pasta. However, if you're working with a recipe that involves a measured amount of sauce (e.g. lasagna) in a vessel that is filled with pasta and other ingredients and then bathed in a sauce before baking, your starch has nowhere to go except into the limited amount of sauce liquid in the dish. That means your starch saturation of the liquid will be significantly greater than it would have been if you had precooked or par-boiled the pasta. It ain't rocket science, but it is science and denial of the realities won't make the prepared dish taste any better.

                3 Replies
                1. re: todao

                  When making soup with pasta, I always cook the pasta in the soup ... but have noticed a gummy starchy mess collected at the bottom. In a broth-based soup, it sinks to the bottom, but I would think that wouldn't be the case in other types of sauces.

                  I don't even finish my pasta in the sauce. I buy good imported pasta because I like the way it tastes ... I want to be able to taste it along with the sauce.

                  1. re: foiegras

                    I never put pasta in my soup for that reason. It also never reheats well, the noodles get over-cooked. I just make the noodles separate, then add however much I want to each bowl before right before serving, store them in the fridge separately.... That way I can control how long they are cooked again when I heat up the leftovers....

                    1. re: dfenton281981

                      Yes, whatever pasta I cook must be eaten at that meal! The only pasta I believe can be left over is pasta in casserole type dishes. If I've made a big batch of soup, I transfer enough for the current meal to a sauce pan and add the pasta. If a noodle goes astray, the dogs help me out. There are no words for a noodle that has been sitting in soup in the refrigerator ...

                      Pasta can be cooked at a simmer, it just takes longer.