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.
This easy and impressive pasta is always on the menu when my husband and I have new friends over for dinner. Years later, they've asked me to make this Penne alla Vodka recipe again. —Cara Langer, Overland Park, Kansas
Looking for something a little lighter? Try these healthy pasta sauce recipes.
This is a simple pasta sauce that you can use for more than just spaghetti. Puree this recipe for pizza sauce or a great dipping sauce. I also like to make a variation for bruschetta by omitting the olive oil, using fire-roasted diced tomatoes and simply combining the uncooked ingredients. Refrigerate for at least two hours before serving on toasts. —Deborah Markwood, Chester, Virginia
This easy Alfredo sauce is creamy, comforting and coats fettuccine noodles in fine fashion. This recipe is wonderful as is, but sometimes I like to add sliced fresh mushrooms and black olives that have been sautéed in butter and garlic. —Jo Gray, Park City, Montana
After much research, tasting and tweaking, I finally came up with this beef bolognese recipe, based on a dish from an Italian restaurant where I worked. It’s perfect for feeding a house full of guests. —Christine Wendland, Browns Mills, New Jersey
My mother, who was Italian American, called marinara sauce "gravy." She made this marinara sauce recipe in big batches several times a month, so it was a staple on our dinner table. A mouthwatering aroma filled the house each time she cooked it. —James Grimes, Frenchtown, New Jersey
My father is very opinionated, especially about food. This recipe received his almost unreachable stamp of approval. I have yet to hear a disagreement from anyone who has tried it! —Melissa Taylor, Higley, Arizona
When I found out I had celiac disease and couldn't have fettuccine Alfredo, I was determined to figure out a way to re-create it. I mix this homemade alfredo sauce with gluten-free multigrain pasta, but you can use any style of pasta. —Jackie Charlesworth Stiff, Frederick, Colorado
This Italian classic takes on a distinctive Latin American flourish with the addition of chorizo. The sausage adds an extra kick and awesome flavor to a dish that's already a favorite. —Crystal McDuffy, Fairfax, Virginia.
My guests usually can't believe I prepared this meal myself. The rich, creamy main dish features plenty of seafood flavors with a hint of garlic and lemon. Frozen peas and a jar of Alfredo sauce make it a simple supper that will be requested time and again. —Melissa Mosness, Loveland, Colorado
After enjoying a similar dish in Italy, we came home and planted sage in our garden to be sure we could recreate the brown butter sage sauce. This quick and easy dinner always brings back fond memories of our trip. —Rhonda Hamilton, Portsmouth, Ohio
I’ve been cooking since I was 6 years old and I’m always watching for recipes my friends and family will love. So when I tasted an unforgettable spaghetti sauce at a local restaurant, I just had to make my own version. —Angelina Falzarano, Midlothian, Texas
At my house, we never know how many we'll have for dinner. That's why this spaghetti sauce is one of my favorites - flavorful, filling and fast. Smoked kielbasa gives it depth, and salsa adds the kick. —Bella Anderson, Chester, South Carolina
After tasting fettuccine Alfredo at a restaurant, I came up with this shrimp Alfredo with broccoli version at home. Not only does my family love the creamy dish, but my husband prefers it to the one at the restaurant. —Rae Natoli, Kingston, New York
I learned on my culinary internship in Tuscany that real Italian cuisine is simpler than you think! This carbonara is quick, simple and delicious, just the way they like it in Italy. —Lauren Brien-Wooster, South Lake Tahoe, California
While sailing in the Mediterranean, we tasted a lemony artichoke pasta. I developed my own version of it that our guests love. Try it with shrimp and kalamata olives. —Peter Halferty, Corpus Christi, Texas
I reworked this recipe from an original that called for vodka and heavy whipping cream. My friends and family had a hard time believing a sauce this rich, flavorful and creamy could be light. —Margaret Wilson, Hemet, California
Lindsay is a professional chef, recipe developer, writer and developmental editor. After years of working in restaurant kitchens, she turned to writing to share her skills and experience with home cooks and food enthusiasts. She's passionate about using local, organic ingredients and teaching others how to incorporate seasonal food into their diet. Lindsay still cooks professionally for pop-up events, writes for several publications and is the co-author of two books about Ayurveda.