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Help Me, Kenji — Why Do I Need Tons of Water To Boil Pasta?

Q: Why do I need tons of water to boil pasta?

A: Spoiler alert: You don't. Before my wife and I were married, I remember seeing her standing stoveside, stirring our smallest pot. Much to my horror, she was cooking pasta. Surely with such a small volume of water, the pasta was going to be ruined! Any chef knows you need at least a gallon of water per pound to cook pasta evenly and keep it from sticking to itself.

A few minutes later I ate my words along with the perfectly al dente, nonsticky pasta. So I headed to the kitchen immediately for some experiments.

I'd heard a large volume of water returns to a boil faster after adding pasta. So I dropped equal amounts of dry pasta side by side into a 1-quart pot of water and a 1-gallon pot of water. Guess what? The 1-quart pot returned to a boil faster than the gallon. Put simply, a small pot will heat the water more efficiently.

Next theory: A large pot keeps pasta from sticking to itself. Once again, I tried the side-by-side experiment. Turns out the real stickage danger occurs during the first minute of cooking. Stir occasionally during that time frame, and it cooks up stick-free.

What's more, a smaller pot requires less energy to heat, which means a lower utility bill—better for the environment, and cheaper to boot—but there's a huge advantage for the finished dish: extra-concentrated pasta cooking liquid.

Whenever you toss your pasta with a sauce, add some of the pasta cooking liquid to the pan. The starchy liquid helps sauce bind to the pasta, giving it a creamier consistency and coating each piece of pasta more evenly. Using less water for the pasta yields super-starchy liquid, which means superior binding power and amazing sauce texture.

It's a testament to pasta's power that my wife and I ended up getting married after all this. Though perhaps it's even more a testament to her patience.

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