Why A Clever Cook Saves Pasta Water

To level up your pasta dinners, start saving your pasta water. The starchy liquid gives thin sauces body and makes thick sauces just the right consistency. It’s like a magic trick!

Stockpot filled with starchy pasta water

If you’re looking to tweak your pasta game, start saving pasta water. It’s the key to turning dried pasta and sauce into something special. Before draining your pasta, set aside some of the salty, starchy water and add it a little at a time to give your dish incredible texture and a little boost of flavor.

What’s So Special About Pasta Water?

When boiling pasta, you may notice that the water becomes progressively cloudy as it cooks. This is excess starch released by the pasta and it’s the reason you should save some of the water before draining. The starch acts as a binder and, when combined with fat like butter or oil, creates an emulsion. 

This emulsion pulls all the elements in the sauce together and helps create a creamy sauce that doesn’t get too dry, which better coats the noodles. It’s like a delicious magic trick.

Stockpot filled with starchy pasta water

How to Make Good Pasta Water

For the best possible pasta water, cook your pasta with enough (but not too much) water and salt the water generously. Use enough water that all the pasta is completely submerged once it’s added to the pot (even as water evaporates during cooking), but don’t go overboard. An excess of cooking water means the pasta water won’t be as starchy. Depending on the size of your pot and the pasta shape, three to four quarts is enough to cook one pound of pasta. Give it a stir a few times to make sure nothing sticks.

As a general rule, you want your water as salty as the sea. A tablespoon of kosher or sea salt is a good place to start. This will give your pasta and your pasta water good flavor.

Measuring cup filled with starchy pasta water

How and When to Save Pasta Water

Start by saving some cooking water every time you boil pasta. This helps make it part of your routine and break the habit of dumping all of the liquid down the drain. You’ll most likely use it to thin oil- or butter-based-sauces like carbonara, but you may also find yourself reaching for it to heat up a jar of tomato sauce. 

Wait until the pasta is almost done cooking before retrieving any water to ensure you get the starchiest water possible. Aim for saving a cup of pasta water per pound of pasta — you likely won’t use it all, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

You have a few options for how to save the pasta water.

  • Measuring cup: A method I go back to time and time again is simply dipping a large measuring cup into the pasta water and setting it on the counter until I’m ready for it. I like a pitcher-style liquid measure, but any kind will work. Just make sure whatever you use is heatproof and be careful not to dip any part of your hand into the boiling water.
  • Save the whole pot: If you’re making a long noodle like spaghetti or fettuccine, use tongs to retrieve the pasta once it has reached al dente. For smaller shaped pasta like penne or orecchiette, use a slotted spoon or a metal spider (frequently used for deep-frying) for fishing cooked pasta shapes out of the water. Depending on the recipe, the noodles can be transferred directly into the sauce, a strainer, or a bowl. This will leave you with a whole pot’s worth of cooking water. Work fairly quickly when using this method to avoid overcooking any of the noodles.
Overhead view of a bowl of Spaghetti Carbonara.
Karishma Pradhan

How to Use Pasta Water

Follow these steps when adding pasta water to your next dish:

  1. Decide if the dish needs pasta water. For the best possible sauce, add hot, freshly-cooked pasta water to a sauce and stir. Take a look at your sauce; is it a bit dry? It is coating the noodles? You’ll be able to tell if the dish needs pasta water as you stir by its look and texture.
  2. Add a splash. If your dish seems a bit dry or the sauce isn’t coating the noodles as much as you like, add a splash of hot pasta water — about a quarter cup per pound of pasta. Toss until the cooking water is completely incorporated.
  3. Add another splash if needed. Take another good look at your pasta. If it needs more pasta water, add another splash and repeat as needed until the desired consistency is reached. Aim for just slightly more liquid-y than you want, since the pasta sauce will continue to firm up as you plate and serve.

The only trick to pasta water is knowing how much to use. This is something you will learn through practice. After making several dishes, you’ll get a knack for when to add more pasta water and how much, resulting in restaurant-worthy pasta dishes at home.

To recap:

  • Sauce too thick? Add some pasta water. It’ll create a thinner but still cohesive sauce without detracting from the flavor. 
  • Sauce not sticking to the noodles? Add pasta water a splash at a time. It’ll help the sauce bind and come together.
  • Want it creamier? A little pasta water stirred into the hot pasta and sauce helps make everything creamier without the need for extra dairy.

Recipes That Use Pasta Water

These recipes (and many more) call for saving and using pasta water to make a more luxurious sauce: