When it comes to old wives tales in the kitchen, pasta takes the lion’s share. In fact, there are many die-hard legends regarding one of the most-loved dishes of Italian and international cuisine. Most of these have to do with cooking methods. For instance, one of the most deeply rooted convictions is that olive oil should be added to the pasta cooking water to prevent the pasta from “sticking together”. What type of oil should be used? How much is needed? Should it be added when the water is cold or boiling hot? Don’t worry, they are useless questions that require no answer. And do you know why? Because this is an old wives’ tale that is totally unjustified.
Why it doesn’t help to add olive oil to pasta while cooking
It stems from the fact that oil is a slippery substance and therefore, when in contact with pasta, it is believed to prevent the individual pieces from sticking together. This theory, however, ignores a rather important lesson of chemistry which we have all certainly experimented at one time or another: oil and water do not mix (even though, it must be said in truth that an Australian chemist has found a complicated way of doing it). The reason for this is somewhat refined and basically has to do with the fact that oil molecules are non-polar, that is to say, they are not electrically charged, whilst water is polar. From a practical viewpoint, wherever there is water, oil will “escape”. Well, can you imagine any one place with more water than a saucepan for cooking pasta? Now think about what happens to oil when we pour some in? It tries to “escape” in fact, by coming up to the surface and forming circles. The pasta, on the other hand, continues to be surrounded by water molecules which are then thrown away, together with the oil, when we strain the pasta.
How to keep pasta from sticking while cooking
Having established that adding olive oil in pasta water is a urban legend, is there an effective way to stop pasta from sticking? Certainly: pay attention to the cooking times. The cooking times indicated on the packet generally suit those who like to eat their pasta 'al dente', that is soft on the outside and slightly uncooked inside. If we want our pasta to be cooked all the way through, we should leave it for another 2-3 minutes at the most. If we cook it any longer, the external part of the pasta becomes so soft and gluey that it sticks together. The reason for this is that the starch granules that pasta is rich in all break up and release a great quantity of amylose, which is a very sticky substance.
Cooking pasta risotto style
If you are patient enough, try cooking your pasta like a risotto. Heat a very large frying pan, add a few spoonfuls of water and, when it boils, throw in the pasta and nothing else. As the water is gradually absorbed, add more of it. Little by little, a spoonful at a time. When the pasta is almost half cooked, start to add spoonfuls of rather liquid sauce, rich in fat content. You see? We only add the sauce after having softened the pasta with a bit of water which, in the meantime, has almost disappeared. In this way, the pasta does not stick but the sauce adheres to the pasta in a way that would be impossible using the traditional cooking method. The only problem is that this method requires your constant attention from start to finish. Also in this case, I have a tip to pass on to you: since it cooks very fast, dress it with dense sauces to avoid diluting the taste.
A few more tricks for making the perfect pasta
The risotto-style method explained above can have good results, even with dried pasta, which is not generally the variety most loved by foodies. For real connoisseurs, fresh pasta continues to be the best choice. Read this article for more on how to venture into the world of fresh pasta, or jump right in by trying out different varieties of homemade ravioli or the hand-rolled strozzapreti pasta.
But if you’re not ready to spend long stretches in the kitchen fashioning your own pastas, there are still a few things you can tweak to make your pasta great. When cooking it, use abundant water in a large pot so the pasta can be completely immersed. Season the water well while cooking. Keep the pasta at a rolling boil. This movement keeps the pasta pieces lively in the pot and is another way to prevent a sticky situation. It also helps to add olive oil after you have drained the pasta when the water will no longer interfere with the oil’s un-sticking action.
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