An Italian mama will tell you that it takes a big mutha of a pot-of-water; a celebrity chef will tell you that ‘for technical reasons’ the water just needs to cover the pasta. There has to be a middle ground. Pasta is a Western diet staple (Americans cook around a billion pounds of pasta a year) – it’s time we figured out if we’re wasting a ton of unnecessary water in the cooking…
Here’s how the Italians do it
Italian cookbooks advise between 4 to 6 quarts of well-salted water per pound of pasta at a rolling boil. Basically, enough to fill a tall pan. This gives the pasta room to absorb water and to expand. It also dilutes the starch – (the sticky effect which appears when pasta is overcooked.)
That’s the traditional way. What happens when you use less water?
Actually, not a lot. Cooking 1 pound of pasta in 2 quarts boiling water will give you well cooked noodles of a similar, if not equal quality to mama’s big pan pasta. You may need to stir more often to stop the noodles sticking, but the end result is just as crunchy and nutty. Toss the pasta in olive oil straight after cooking to loosen it up. But – and this is a biggie – if you start the water off cold (in an effort to use less electricity by boiling the kettle) you’ll get a sticky, albeit ‘cooked’ mess.
(I tried the ‘cold water’ method and ended up with a lump of glutinous slop. It was impossible to time when the pasta would be ready. My Italian friends picked around the pasta until it had ‘gone cold’ and was – eureka! – no longer edible….)
Why bother cutting down on pasta water?
Because small changes reap huge results. If every American used less water to make pasta, it would result in a saving of several trillion BTUs (British Thermal Units) a year; the equivalent of $10-20 million barrels of oil at current prices. That’s a huge energy saving for a comparatively small effort.
Can you use less water for other food stuffs?
Yes, rice is best cooked with equal parts water and rice. Run it under cold water when it’s done to remove the starch. Vegetables are known to retain more nutrients when they are not boiled excessively in water. Steam them, using a small amount of water. The drips from the veg will fall back into the pan: essentially you’re recycling as you go along.
Any other water saving ideas?
Try washing dishes without leaving the tap running full blast. Ditto when cleaning your teeth. Pick a quicker, less energy consuming cycle for your dishwasher. And don’t put washes on without the washing machine being full first. These things sound obvious, but it’s amazing how many times my hand has automatically reached for the full spin cycle for a half load.