Boil your pasta in less water

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.

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  1. Cherie - March 3, 2009

    Being raised to conserve water since the late 50’s and often cooking pasta on canoe trips.. I have never used more then about 1-2 inches more then it took to cover my pasta… never had a complaint about how it came out.

  2. Anonymous - March 3, 2009

    Like Cherie- I have always used less than the reccomended amount of water. TIP- further your water savings by saving the water you cooked your pasta in let it cool and water your plants with it (outside plants)

  3. CherylK - March 4, 2009

    I’m with Cherie & Anonomyous…always cook my pasta with less water. What I find interesting is the idea of putting it into the cold water and I’m eager to see how that works out. Am thinking we’ll be having pasta, tonight!

  4. Dave B - March 5, 2009

    I save some of the pasta water and put it in a glass jar and use it for stir-fry. The added moisture replaces some of the oil/sauce needed. You need to use it of course within a couple days.

  5. Rose - March 11, 2009

    Actually, it takes the same amount of time to cook pasta if you leave the heat on or just turn it off and let the pasta soak once you’ve boiled the water.
    How To:
    Put water in a pan and add pasta
    Heat to boiling.
    Turn off heat, stir to unstick pasta.
    Put a lid on the pasta leaving pan on the burner.
    Should be ready in about 15 minutes depending on the pasta used. Brown rice pasta cooks quicker than white flour pasta and white cooks faster than whole grain.
    Rose

  6. Bill - March 15, 2009

    Why add SALT ????

  7. Melly - March 18, 2009

    I found this out a few years ago when i moved away from home and didn’t have any ‘pasta pots’ and i really wanted penne. I still don’t own a pot that large and always cook my pasta in a 2qt pot with no salt and its fine. I’ll try the cold water thing though.

  8. Lexie - March 25, 2009

    I, like Rose, do not boil my pasta. Only recently, I discovered there’s no need to. On the other hand, my method is a bit different still. For those who like their pasta and sauce mixed, here’s what I do:
    Pour marinara into pot with equal amount of water. Heat to boiling. Add pasta. As soon as the liquid begins to bubble again, cover the pot and turn off the stove. It’s done in 15 minutes and the pasta is al dente. After 10 minutes, I add any additional seasonings (and stir just enough to mix it in) unless the marinara is homemade. In that case, it’s already covered.

  9. Carol - July 8, 2009

    I’ve been conserving water this way for years. Please don’t add salt. Instead, a few drops of lemon or lime into the water before adding the pasta. It works great, and is better for your health than salt.

  10. Jane - September 10, 2009

    All good ideas. Just be sure to cover the pot to save energy,leaving some space for steam to escape so it doesn’t boil over. It’s particularly essential to cover the pot if you’re turning off the heat before the pasta is cooked.