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Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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Published: Tuesday, 5/21/2013

This isn't your mother's pasta recipe

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

When a colleague sent me the information, I responded by saying it was the most interesting thing I had ever read.

Really? he said. I should get out more.

Judge for yourself.

A recent posting on the Web site Serious Eats asked whether you can start cooking pasta in cold water.

Of course not. Everyone knows there is only one way to boil pasta: Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil and add the dried pasta. Failure to wait until the water is boiling will only result in noodles that are mushy and all stuck together.

But that is where everyone, as it turns out, is wrong. Not only can you start pasta in cold water, there are actually good reasons to do so.

And the pot doesn't even have to be large. Put your pasta in a medium-sized pot. Cover it by an inch or two with salted water, and turn the stove on high. As soon as it boils, cover it, put the stove on its lowest setting, and cook it for a minute or two less than it calls for on the package.

Cooking pasta this way saves energy and thus, at a time when every penny counts, a little bit of money. Obviously, you use less water — a large pot full of water vs. a half-full medium pot. And you use less gas or electricity to heat it.

Naturally, heating water with pasta in it requires a little bit more energy than heating the same amount of water without pasta. But you don't have to overcome the drop in water temperature that you get by adding the pasta, and of course you are boiling a lot less water.

An additional advantage is that with less water, the starch that cooks out of the pasta becomes less diffuse. If you ever add a bit of the pasta-cooking water to your tomato sauce, this extra starch will help it cling all the more to the noodles.

The writer of the Serious Eats article, J. Kenji López-Alt, explained that this low-water, low-temperature method of making the pasta works because dried pasta cooks in two distinct stages. The first is hydration, in which the pasta absorbs about 75 percent of its weight in water. The other is cooking.

When you use the familiar dump-the-pasta-in-boiling-water method, these two stages happen at the same time. But here is the key fact: They don't have to. Starting the pasta in cold water effectively hydrates the pasta so it takes less time to cook.

Which leads us to New-Fangled Pasta Cooking, Part II. It is actually possible to cook dried pasta for a total of one minute. You don't even have to do the cooking part in water — you can just throw the noodles right into the hot sauce for a minute and let them absorb the flavor of the sauce while they cook.

Naturally, I wasn't going to take anything someone named J. Kenji López-Alt told me on faith alone. I had to try it out for myself.

And dang if it didn't work. By using the small-pot method with relatively little water, I had fully cooked pasta ready in far less time than it had ever taken before. And with the hydrated-pasta method, I put dried pasta in water for a couple of hours before I made my sauce. When the sauce was ready, I drained the now fully hydrated pasta and added it for one last minute of cooking. 

It was delicious, and perfectly prepared.

Before you try these methods yourself, there are a couple of caveats. The first is that these only work with dried pasta; fresh pasta from the store has egg in it and the egg needs to be started in boiling water or it will become mushy and gross. And the second is that the methods do not work especially well with long, skinny pasta such as spaghetti or fettuccine. Those noodles tend to lie on top of each other, which keeps enough water from getting in between them to hydrate them. I used ditalini, which worked great.

I, for one, am excited by all of this. I need to get out more.

Contact Daniel Neman at: dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.


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