Thursday 11 November 2010

Boiling spaghetti: to salt or not to salt

When I was growing up, my mother told me to add a touch of oil and a pinch of salt in the water before boiling spaghetti. When I got out on my own, not being much of a cook, I never bought oil and rarely used salt. As a consequence I never followed my mother's advice. Through trial and error, I discovered the best recipe to end up with perfectly cooked pasta. Well, the best recipe for me as I was trying to minimize the amount of work involved in cooking spaghetti and said recipe did not entail oil or salt.

Out of curiosity, I thought I would go back and take another look at this age old technique of cooking pasta and find out if there is any truth to it or not.

Raising the boiling point of water with salt
Water boils at 212° F or 100° C. According to eHow: Adding salt to water raises the boiling point. This is a scientifically measurable effect, but it takes 2 oz. of salt to raise the boiling point of 1 litre nearly 2 degrees F, so the effect is not noticeable in your average kitchen.

According to Google, 1 ounce is equal to approximately 28 grams so 2 ounces are equal to 56 grams.

According to Wiki Answers, salt weight about 6 grams per teaspoon or about 18 grams per tablespoon.

To raise the temperature of boiling water of just 1 litre of water from 212° F or 100° C to 214° F or 101° C, we would have to add 2 ounces of salt or 56 grams or slightly more than 9 teaspoonfuls or 3 tablespoonfuls of salt.

Adding oil to the boiling water
In checking with several web sites, the consensus seems to be that oil is not necessary. Many of the recipes don't even mention it at all so the following two examples which do mention it are the exception.

HotToDoThings.Com: How to Boil Pasta
Some recipes will call for you to add oil onto the boiling water. You may or may not prefer to do this. Oil will keep pasta from sticking onto the pot or clumping together. But it will also prevent the pasta sauce from adhering to the pasta, thereby reducing the flavor of your food. If you decide not to use oil in boiling your pasta though, make sure you stir the pasta in the boiling water regularly with a wooden spoon. Stirring will help keep the pasta from sticking together or sticking onto the pot.

CookingIndex.Com: How to cook pasta properly
It is hard to work out where this idea came from originally but 44 per cent of Americans say they add olive oil to the cooking pan. I suspect the idea is that the oil will stop the pasta sticking together in the pan but what it in fact does it to coat the pasta with a thin layer of oil which means that the sauce you serve with it will not stick to the pasta properly.

If you have used enough water and remember to stir your pasta regularly as it is cooking, it will not stick together. So there’s no need to add oil.

Adding salt to the boiling water
While the consensus is to use salt, there are an addendum. First, if for health reason - a low sodium diet - you can leave salt out altogether. Secondly if you do use salt the amount varies from a pinch up to several teaspoonfuls.

eHow.Com: How to Make Spaghetti Noodles
Many Italian chefs recommend salting the cooking water liberally so that it is "as salty as the Mediterranean Sea." Don't worry--most of the salt won't end up in the pasta. But cooking spaghetti noodles in heavily salted water infuses them with flavor and seasons them in a much more effective way than salting them after the fact. You may reduce the amount of salt if you are watching your sodium intake.

HotToDoThings.Com: How to Boil Pasta
When the water is nearly boiling, add about two tablespoons of salt, as this will help bring out the pasta's flavor. Use coarse salt (kosher) for this. Don't worry about adding too much, as two tablespoons is necessary for a properly seasoned pasta meal. If you are on a strict diet however, you must reduce the quantity to what the doctor has ordered. Don't add the salt before the water has been boiled as this will slow down the boiling process.  At the same time, very hot water keeps salt deposits from damaging your pots. If you put the salt in before the water is even hot, you allow deposits to stay in your wares and sometimes these are harder to remove.

About.Com: Busy Cooks: How to Cook Pasta
Add salt. Salt makes pasta taste better, and won't appreciably increase the sodium level of your recipes. Use 1 teaspoon per gallon of water (3.8 litres). At that level, 2 ounces (56 grams) of uncooked pasta (1 cup cooked), the FDA serving size, absorbs about 20 mg of sodium which is about 1% of the recommended daily sodium intake.

Yahoo Answers: Boiling pasta + oil & salt? Answer #4

Testing Salt vs. No Salt
Just by chance, I discovered a small test done by 2 students. They set out to answer the question about whether salt is necessary to cook pasta.

Is Table Salt Necessary To Cook Pasta?
They set up a controlled experiment where they cooked pasta in 3 pots, one with no salt, one with 5g of salt and one with 10g of salt. They cooked the pasta then tested the water for salt content.

The results of their 3 tests were that there was more salt in the water after cooking the pasta than before. Their conjecture is that pasta releases salt into the water and that salt must come from the flour.

Let me repeat that as it certainly baffled me when I read their paper. There were 3 pots, one without salt, one with 5g added and one with 10g of salt added. They cooked the pasta then tested the water afterwards. In all 3 cases there was more salt in the water than before the pasta was cooked. In other words, the pasta did not absorb salt; it released salt into the water.

I am sure that you like me are incredulous and have a hard time believing this to be in fact true. Unfortunately I have been unable to find any corroborating evidence elsewhere so for the moment until somebody else steps up to the plate I am going to leave this aside as a curiosity.

A Julia Child Recipe
I found this recipe which is supposedly an original Julia Child creation

Fill a large pot with water, add a good sized pinch of salt, and heat water until it comes to a boil.

You will note that the great lady herself is suggesting no more than a pinch, yes a pinch of salt in the water.

From going through the above, I arrive at these conclusions:
  • Adding salt and saying it's to raise the boiling point of water is not true. It seems you would have to use way more salt than anybody in any of the above recipes would suggest.
  • Most do not even mention using oil. The others that do mention it say it's not necessary; I think I only found 1 recipe which did say to use it.
  • The amount of salt to put in varies from "a pinch" to a couple of tablespoons. Who could possibly taste a pinch? Some say for salt restricted diets, just leave it out. In light of that, just how important is salt? I think this is more of a tradition than a necessity.
  • I can't find any other experimental data to back up what the students found in their test: pasta does not absorb salt; it releases salt into the water. If this is true however I'm going to be laughing because it completely disproves an entire tradition.
Can my sister tell the difference?
A little aside to explain my position on using salt.

Years ago my sister insisted I butter both slices of the bread when I made her a sandwich. When I asked why she explained that she liked it. I said that nobody could tell the difference. She said she could. Of course you can see where this one is leading.

I made her a sandwich leaving out the butter but told her that I had used butter. She ate the sandwich and said it was good. I then revealed my ruse but she wouldn't believe me at first.

My point was that the quantity of butter in a sandwich like tuna fish for instance is so negligible that any possible taste of butter would be completely lost in the mixture of tuna, mayonnaise and whatever you may add into the mix like celery, lettuce and possibly tomato. The fact that my sister failed to recognise the lack of butter proved my point.

The same goes here with spaghetti. The quantity of salt in the overall experience of spaghetti noodles, tomato sauce, Parmesan cheese and possibly meat balls is insignificant and I would defy anybody to be able to tell if I had used salt or not. I think that even if I put together 2 identical plates of spaghetti, one cooked with salt and one cooked without, you couldn't distinguish one from another.

FYI: Butter can be an excellent addition to sandwiches if you are going on a picnic. If the time from making a sandwich to the time you eat the sandwich is going to be lengthy, there is a risk that the bread will absorb any filling which may be more liquid than solid. Mayonnaise for instance will soak into the bread making for not the most pleasant sandwich experience. Putting butter on both slices can actually protect the bread, sort of sealing the slice from soaking up any filling like mayonnaise. So yes, butter can have its place.

My final word
Okay, I'm no cooking expert but what I'm saying here comes after cooking spaghetti for the past 40 years.

I never use oil. It's just not necessary.

I never use salt. I agree that there is more than enough salt in whatever sauce I'm using and considering I like lots of sauce, I could never categorize the pasta as being bland as some have declared elsewhere. A bland spaghetti noodle? Who eats a noodle all by itself without sauce so as to judge it as being bland?

It is of the utmost importance that the water is boiling, I mean really boiling before you put in the noodles. If you do this before the water is actually boiling, you are going to end up with noodles stuck together in a big mess.

Stir. You have to stir the cooking noodles. If you don't, they may stick but worse, they may stick to the bottom of the pot. Actually, I usually find a few stick to the bottom no matter what but filling the pot with a little dish soap and hot water afterwards and letting it soak takes care of that problem.

I always dump the spaghetti noodles into a sieve or colander then rinse them with hot water. I find the noodles can be sometimes and somewhat gooey from the starch being released during the boiling. Some of the sources already listed above have said salt stops this but I can't refute this with documented evidence. I'm just telling ya what I do and it works!

So, no oil and no salt. Mom would have been so ticked off with me. :-)

Buon appetito!


WonderHowTo: How to cook pasta properly (a short video... they use salt!)


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