Want to make your most delicious pasta yet? Then be sure to do as Nonna says.

By Rebecca Morris
October 05, 2020
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If you grew up cooking at your Italian nonna's side, then perhaps you already know the secret to perfectly moist meatballs, that pasta water should always be "as salty as the sea," or how singing to your red sauce will make it taste better. Fine, maybe that last part won't make much of a difference (apart from a mood boost), but we're here to confirm that Nonna did make a great point about the pasta water.

pasta going into pot of boiling water
Credit: Johnny Miller

For the rest of us who had to learn the hard way, salting your water is the first and arguably most important step to a great bowl of pasta. If you've ever forgotten this step, you may have noticed that the final dish didn't quite taste right. That's because no matter how perfect that Bolognese or Alfredo sauce tastes off the spoon, you're in for a pretty bland forkful of pasta if you're strands aren't cooked in salted water. 

Old wives' tales say it must be so, but what does the research say? Scientifically speaking, there's only one valid reason to salt your pasta water: it evenly seasons each noodle from the inside out. In culinary school, chefs-in-training are taught to season their dish a little bit at a time from the first step on; this enhances each ingredient and builds gradual, more complex flavors. This same philosophy applies when cooking pasta, where salting the water is like laying the foundation down to a great meal.

For amounts, let's go beyond Nonna's Mediterranean Sea analogy: Most experts recommend a heaping tablespoon of salt per gallon of water (or per pound of dry pasta). Give the water a taste once the salt has dissolved; it should taste briny, but not knock-you-over salty. For the sodium patrollers, at ease: Your pasta will not absorb the full tablespoon of salt. In fact, a pound of pasta is estimated to absorb only about a quarter of that amount.

Table salt, kosher salt, sea salt… any of these types of salt will work fine, but you'll want to avoid iodized salt at all costs as it will impart an off taste to the noodles. If you use salt with grain that is finer than kosher, start with an even tablespoon and add more to taste.

Lastly, when your perfectly seasoned pasta hits the sauce, don't throw out the water just yet. Starchy, salty pasta water is the magic elixir to making your pasta taste like a restaurant-quality main dish. 

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