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How to Season Pasta Water (And Why You Should)

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Proper seasoning is what separates a good cook from a great one. Seasoning up that pasta water is no exception!

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!

Perfect Homemade Pasta Sauces

Stamp-of-Approval Spaghetti Sauce

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
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Broccoli Shrimp Alfredo

After tasting fettuccine Alfredo at a restaurant, I tried to duplicate the recipe at home. You can't imagine how pleased I was when I came up with this delicious version. 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
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Mushroom Bolognese with Whole Wheat Pasta

A traditional Bolognese sauce is meat-based with everything from pork to pancetta. Skipping the meat, I loaded this pasta dish with baby portobellos and veggies. —Amber Massey, Argyle, Texas
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Penne alla Vodka

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 it again. —Cara Langer, Overland Park, Kansas
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Spaghetti Meatball Supper

It was such a joy to come home and find my mom making spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. This recipe has always been dear to my heart. —Debbie Heggie, Laramie, Wyoming
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Meat Sauce for Spaghetti

Here's a thick, hearty sauce that turns ordinary spaghetti and garlic bread into a filling feast. When I'm in a hurry, I make this slow cooker recipe in an electric frying pan instead. —Mary Tallman, Arbor Vitae, Wisconsin
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Basil and Parsley Pesto

Toss this herby pesto with pasta, spread it over sandwiches or stir it into an Italian-style soup, like minestrone. —Lorraine Fina Stevenski, Land O’ Lakes, Florida
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Chunky Chicken Cacciatore

This recipe is so versatile! Look in your fridge for anything else you want to throw in, like red pepper, mushrooms, extra zucchini—you name it. And if you're a vegetarian, go ahead and leave out the chicken. —Stephanie Loaiza, Layton, Utah
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Creamy Sausage-Mushroom Rigatoni

In Rome, we dined near the Pantheon. The amazing restaurant is now history, but its memory lives on in this tasty pasta with mushrooms and sausage. —Barbara Roozrokh, Brookfield, Wisconsin
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Sage & Browned Butter Ravioli

After enjoying a similar dish in Italy, we came home and planted sage in our garden to be sure we could recreate it. This quick and easy dinner always brings back fond memories of our trip. —Rhonda Hamilton, Portsmouth, Ohio
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Homemade Canned Spaghetti Sauce

DIY canning spaghetti sauce recipes are a tomato-grower's dream come true! Use up your garden bounty and enjoy it later in the year. —Tonya Branham, Mt. Olive, Alabama
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Homemade Meatless Spaghetti Sauce

When my tomatoes ripen, the first things I make are BLTs and this homemade spaghetti sauce. —Sondra Bergy, Lowell, Michigan
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Red Clam Sauce

This recipe tastes like it’s taken you all day to make. Instead, it cooks while you take care of other things. What a great way to jazz up pasta sauce! —JoAnn Brown, LaTrobe, Pennsylvania
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Pizza-Flavored Pasta Sauce

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
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Light Linguine Carbonara

When we have to rush off at night, I make this speedy pasta with veggies and bacon. Serve with breadsticks or garlic toast, and dinner's done. —Mary Jo Miller, Mansfield, Ohio
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Super Spaghetti Sauce

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
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Pesto

Homemade pesto always makes a thoughtful hostess gift. Mix things up with the cilantro variation. —Taste of Home Test Kitchen
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Savory Spaghetti Sauce

This fresh-tasting spaghetti sauce is a real crowd-pleaser. I rely on this flavorful recipe often. It tastes especially good in the summer made with fresh garden herbs. —Anne Heinonen, Howell, Michigan
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Turkey Portobello Bolognese

This sauce tastes better the longer it simmers, which allows the flavors to fully develop. In fact, it tastes best the second day after a night in the refrigerator. Mangia! —Darrell Kau, Eugene, Oregon
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Authentic Pasta Carbonara

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
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Artichoke & Lemon Pasta

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, kalamatas and asparagus. —Peter Halferty, Corpus Christi, Texas
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Blushing Penne Pasta

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
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Pepper Ricotta Primavera

Garlic, peppers and herbs top creamy ricotta cheese in this meatless skillet meal you can make in just 20 minutes. —Janet Boulger, Botwood, Newfoundland and Labrador
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Author
Lindsay D. Mattison
Lindsay D. Mattison is a professional chef and a food writer. After graduating from Cascade Culinary school, Lindsay became the Executive Chef at Jackson's Corner in Bend, OR, from 2013 to 2016. Her genuine passion for food and sustainable food practices led her to find the farmer in herself. She lives in Durango, CO, where she enjoys the trials and errors of small plot farming. Lindsay is currently working on a cookbook that teaches home cooks how to craft beautiful meals without a recipe, tentatively titled "The Art of Bricolage: Cultivating Confidence and Creativity in the Kitchen."