“The sea is really salty,” says cookbook author Katie Parla. “You want to spit it out right away.”
“Spit it right out” is not the taste I go for when I cook.
Salt in the pasta water should enhance the taste of the dish, don’t overdo it, says chef Michael Friedman of the Red Hen restaurant in Washington, D.C., where the Bidens recently dined on two orders of no doubt perfectly seasoned rigatoni with fennel and sausage.
Consider water one of several points along the way where you’ll reach for salt. To create flavor, “you salt throughout the process,” says Parla.
Parla, who just launched Food in the Italian Islands, says she’s never actually measured the salt in her pasta water. Her “rule of thumb” is this pasta water should taste as salty as a well-seasoned soup. But you won’t know that unless you try it, which I watched Friedman do with his fingertips when we cooked the rigatoni together in The Post’s food lab. If you’re worried about burning your fingertips — not all of us have chef’s Teflon hands! — take some water with a spoon, blow until it cools, and then taste.
If your pasta dish contains a particularly salty component, such as lots of cheese or cured meats (pancetta, bacon, etc.), Parla says you may want to cut back on the salt in the water.
Avoiding overly salted water is also important, as water is so often used to bind together or emulsify a simple pasta sauce, such as Spaghetti Carbonara, or to help heartier ones, such as the aforementioned red hen rigatoni, coat the noodles. because the starch released from the pasta remains in the water. Add too much salted pasta water to your sauce and you’re done, Friedman says, and not in a good way.
The salt in the pasta water is critical to regulating the starch so it doesn’t get out of hand. When pasta is cooked in water, its starch granules absorb water, swell, soften and release some of the starch, writes Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking. “Salt in the cooking water not only flavors the noodles, but limits starch gelation and thus reduces cooking losses and stickiness,” he says.
There’s actually an acceptable range of salt to add to pasta water, says Daniel Gritzer of Serious Eats, which is fine, given that needs can vary depending on the dish or personal preference. Gritzer’s experiments show that water with 1/2 percent to 2 percent salinity (measured by the weight of salt divided by the weight of water) is acceptable, which equates to 3/4 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon of fine sea salt per quart of water (approximately 1 liter or 4 cups).
For its part, America’s Test Kitchen recommends 1 tablespoon of table salt per 4 liters of water (aka 1 gallon) for a well-seasoned pasta that fits the low end of the Gritzer range.
As you determine your ideal level and measure, keep in mind that if you change the type of salt, you may need to change the amount. Here are the equivalences to remember:
- 1 tablespoon fine sea or table salt
- 1 1/2 tablespoons Morton’s kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons diamond crystal kosher salt
If you’re worried about salting your pasta water for health reasons, remember that home cooking isn’t the biggest source of sodium for most people. More than 70 percent of the sodium in American diets comes from restaurants and packaged foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. America’s Test Kitchen had an independent lab evaluate how much salt was absorbed by six different pasta shapes. The result: “Give or take a few milligrams of sodium, all forms absorb about the same amount of salt: 1/16 teaspoon per 4-ounce serving, or a total of 1/4 teaspoon per pound of pasta.”