It might sound dramatic, but cooking with pasta water truly changed the way I cook. And since I make pasta at least once a week, I use the pasta water method quite often. It's incredibly simple, but completely elevates virtually any pasta dish.
What is "The Pasta Water Method"?
I don't know if anyone other than myself actually calls it that, but it is a brilliant method that deserves a proper name. The Pasta Water Method is a technique in which cooked pasta, along with a good amount of its pasta water cooking liquid combines with a sauté and turns it into a luscious sauce.
The starchiness of the pasta water helps to bind the sautéed ingredients together and adhere them to the pasta. The alternative is dry pasta, whose ingredients all fall to the bottom of the bowl. No one wants that.
What common pasta dishes use this method?...
Some of the best and most famous pasta recipes are incredibly quick and simple to make because they utilize The Pasta Water Method.
Carbonara, Aglio Olio, Penne alla Vodka, and Spaghetti al Limone all utilize this method to develop a sauce. These recipes don't require cooking for hours, like a Sunday Gravy or ragù would. And they still achieve delicious, rich flavor and a creamy texture.
Pasta Water Substitutes
So you accidentally threw away your pasta water. Or maybe, you eat gluten free pasta, whose pasta water is much less desirable. Let's consider the two primary reasons for cooking with pasta water in order to help us develop some substitutes.
- It adds water to the sauce
- It adds starch to the sauce
Based on these two factors, finding a pasta water replacement should be pretty simple. We can look to ways in which other cuisines add these same components, starch and liquid, to food in order to bind it all together.
The Two Best Pasta Water Replacements
- Corn Starch and Water slurry (gluten free)
- Many stir fry and other Chinese dishes call for a corn starch slurry to thicken sauces and bind them to the ingredients in the dish. It's also an excellent pasta water replacement for people who use gluten free pasta. Some gluten free pastas do not release much starch as they cook, so the resulting paster water doesn't provide much value.
- Flour and water mixture
- Many gravy recipes (such as turkey gravy) call for adding flour water mixture to thicken it. Flour and water is the ideal pasta water replacement if you simply forgot to save your pasta water.
Other Chefs on Cooking with Pasta Water
There are two well-known chefs who have recently discussed ways in which you can get the most value out of the pasta water method.
J.Kenji Lopez Alt explains that you should only boil pasta in enough water to cover the pasta. Doing so will yield an even more starchy pasta water. Plus it takes less time to come to a boil.
Ethan Chlebowski has posted many ideas for one-pot pasta dishes on his very popular YouTube account. He calls for using just enough water to barely cover the
J KM8JN pasta. He then calls for adding more water as needed once the previous water has mostly evaporated. Sound familiar? He calls this process the risotto method of cooking pasta.
Note that Ethan's method yields a ton of starch. So although I wouldn't use it for every single pasta dish, I would use it for dishes that require just that- a ton of starch. The method easily yields enough starch to make Mac n cheese without a roux. The reduced pasta water takes the place of the roux and allows the cheese and milk to melt and combine without breaking.
By now you know that pasta water itself is liquid gold. But another factor to consider when making pasta is the type of pasta you use.
Bronze Die Cut Pasta
When buying boxed pasta, buy the good stuff. Search for pastas cut on bronze die. Recognizing bronze die-cut pasta is simple. The pasta's surface will appear rough and textured. This rougher surface allows the pasta to cling to the sauce better than a smooth tephlon-cut surface does.
According to J. Kenji, the rough surface also allows more starch to release into the pasta water while cooking. \combines with
My Recipes that Call for The Pasta Water Method
Here are three pasta recipes I've developed that call for The Pasta Water Method. Once you learn it, you'll realize you can make a delicious saucy pasta dish out of almost nothing. And you'll be cooking with pasta water all the time.
Spicy Vodka Sauce with Farfalle and Peas
In this recipe, onion, fennel, tomato paste, and Calabrian chili peppers are all sautéd while the pasta cooks. Vodka sauce and creme fraiche give the sauce a head start, then the pasta water method takes over.
Pasta alla Primavera with Chicken Sausage
In this recipe, chicken sausage, garlic, tomato, and zucchini sauté while the pasta cooks. Lemon and white wine give the sauce a head start. Then, like in the previous recipe, The Pasta Water Method takes over to make a rich, creamy sauce that clings to each spaghetti noodle.
Cascatelli with Peas in Ricotta Sauce
In this recipe garlic, ricotta, and parmesan, come together with pasta water and a couple other simple spices to make a true sauce that clings to both the pasta and the little peas. The rich creamy texture of this sauce pairs perfectly with the bright crunchy pistachio herb topping.
And if you haven't tried Cascatelli yet, you should order some! It's the best new pasta shape on the market.
Finally, Here's a Youtube Video where I make a pasta dish with just spaghetti and half of a jar of store bought olive tapenade.