We already know how much salt to use when cooking pasta, but do you know why you should be salting the water? As a former chef of a farm-to-table restaurant that specialized in homemade pasta, I learned a lot about how to season pasta water. No matter how good the noodle recipe was or how much flavor we infused into the pan sauce, the dish would taste flat if we didn’t salt the pasta water. Let’s take a peek into the science behind seasoning pasta to learn why (and how) it works.
Why Should You Salt Your Pasta Water?
It’s a common myth that salt makes your water boil faster—it doesn’t speed anything up, it just makes the water hotter. Exactly one degree hotter. So, unless you’re adding an inedible amount of salt, you’re not actually using enough to make a difference. The real reason to salt the pasta water is to season the noodle itself.
You see, when you drop pasta into boiling water, the starch molecules swell and expand. As the pasta leeches those starches into the water, room is created in the center of the noodle to take on liquid. If there’s salt in the water, the noodles will absorb that too and season the pasta from the inside out. That’s a good thing, because pasta is essentially just flour and water (and sometimes eggs). It doesn’t have a ton of flavor on its own, so unsalted pasta water creates bland-tasting noodles.
It’s not just about the noodle itself, either. Eaten side-by-side, a dish made with salted pasta water actually tastes better overall—not just with better tasting noodles—than unsalted pasta. You’d have to add salt at the end to the latter, and then it would just taste salty instead of seasoned.
Can You Season Pasta Water With Anything Else?
You can…but it won’t do much. Go ahead and add peppercorns, onions, fresh herbs or anything else you choose to your pasta water. The pasta likely won’t absorb enough water to make that seasoning worth it. The best way to create flavorful pasta is to add ingredients to the pasta dough itself or make one of these incredible sauces to toss it in after its cooked!