If you like to cook, you may already be familiar with Harold McGee, tireless kitchen tinkerer, experimenter, and debunker of myths. Recently McGee set out to find whether it’s really necessary to cook a pound of pasta in six quarts of water.
This may seem like a minor matter (and it is!), but Americans do boil a billion pounds or so of pasta every year. By McGee’s own math, cutting the heating time for those big pots of water could save the equivalent of half a million barrels of oil per year.
McGee found that not only can you boil pasta in significantly smaller amounts of water, you can actually start the noodles in the pot while the water is cold:
> It’s possible to butta la pasta in 1 1/2 or 2 quarts of boiling water without having the noodles stick. Short shapes just require occasional stirring. Long strands and ribbons need a quick wetting with cold water just before they go into the pot, then frequent stirring for a minute or two.
I haven’t yet tested McGee’s method myself, but it received the grudging approval of both Lidia Bastianich and Marcella Hazan, so what could I possibly have to add? In addition to saving time, the method yields an unexpected dividend: the resulting pasta water is much more starchy and flavorful than usual, and makes an excellent sauce thickener.
**Update:** Intrepid home chefs Adam Stern and Sasha Batz-Stern offer a field report and detailed instructions.
How much boiling water do you need to cook a pound of pasta? 4-6 quarts, right? That’s what it says on every spaghetti box and in most recipes. In fact, as I discovered in my kitchen last night, you only need a quart and a half (6 cups) of water — or about 1/4 of the recommended amount.
Instructions come via Harold McGee, a wise man on the science of cooking, who wondered recently if a huge pot of boiling water was required to achieve fine-tasting (and not too gluten-y) pasta.
- Pour 1 1/2 quarts of water plus 2 tsp of salt into a wide-mouth pan.
- Place 1 pound of spaghetti in pan while the water is still cold.
- Turn on heat, stir occasionally until the water boils (about 8 min.) and then another 6-8 min. until the pasta is fully cooked.
- Toss with a small amount of olive oil.
It’s common cooking lore that you should never serve guests a dish that you’re making for the first time. Well, we took a chance and the meal turned out great. The pasta was flavorful and just sticky enough help bind to a tomato sauce with fresh veggies. And to add to the culinary pleasure, we saved water, natural gas, carbon emissions, and time.