The Folklore of Pasta

by wjw on July 1, 2010

It occurs to me that pasta seems to be the foodstuff with more folklore and superstition attached to it than any other.
My mom, for example, always poured oil into the pasta water in order to keep the pasta from sticking together. It also kept the water from boiling over.
When the pasta was cooked, she’d rinse it in hot water in a colander, “to wash off the extra starch.” (I think it was Kathy who first pointed out to me that pasta is 100% starch anyway, so the whole rinsing thing seems a little futile.)
Mario Batali states forthrightly that you shouldn’t put oil in the pasta water, because pasta coated with oil won’t absorb the sauce properly. And Mario also states that if you rinse off stray grains of starch, you’re also making it harder for the sauce to stick.
Paul Prudhomme, on the other hand, says that you not only should have oil floating on your pasta water, but that you should throw the raw pasta through the lakes of oil, and he says that you can taste the difference, and in a good way.
I’m inclined to go with Mario on this, though perhaps I should conduct a proper experiment and gather evidence.
Have any of you encountered any more great pasta folklore?
Urban July 1, 2010 at 3:10 am

I've heard that there was an Englishman who tried to list all the types of pasta in Italy. After 600 varieties he gave up.

Dave Bishop July 1, 2010 at 7:34 am

There's an Italian chef on British TV (we appear to have every type of chef that you can imagine on British TV!) who insists that you should add the cooked pasta to the sauce – and not the other way round. I can't see how it could make any difference – but it's another bit of folklore for you.

Michael Grosberg July 1, 2010 at 8:23 am

To be honest, rinsing pasta does have a purpose: when you're not serving the pasta right away, but instead packing it for later use (lunchbreak, picnic, or just making extra pasta for tomorrow). If you mix it with the sauce right away, it'll be a soggy mess when you get to eat it. If you don't mix it with the sauce but also don't rinse, it sticks and becomes a solid mess. The way I learned it was with cold water though, not hot.

Rebecca S. July 1, 2010 at 2:49 pm

Someone I met in grad school insisted that you could best gauge the "doneness" of pasta by throwing a piece of it at the wall. If it stuck, it was "done."

Carrie July 1, 2010 at 4:44 pm

I had an Italian housemate for awhile. The first time I cooked spaghetti in front of him, he was horrified — absolutely, frothingly horrified — that I broke the packaged spaghetti in half before putting it in the water. "Why did you do that?!?" he said. "So it'll fit in the pot," I said, confused. "No, you're supposed to let it cook down!"

We still argue about it. "But it tastes the same," I say. "But it's *wrong*!" he says.

Is it pasta, or religion?

dubjay July 1, 2010 at 7:54 pm

You run cold water on pasta when you want to stop it from cooking. You don't want the noodles in your macaroni salad to be all mushy by the time you get around to eating them.

Mario says that you want to cook the pasta al dente, so that it finishes cooking in the sauce and absorbs more of the flavor of the sauce that way. That makes sense to me.

Whether you're supposed to add the pasta to the sauce or the sauce to the pasta seems a little mystical to me.

In answer to Carrie's question: it's religion. Definitely.

Oz July 1, 2010 at 11:04 pm

You and I were apparently raised on the same myths. My mother added oil to the water and rinsed her pasta. She also broke the spaghetti so it wouldn't get all slurped up when you ate it.

My half-Italian spouse introduced me to the many more varieties of pasta, including using rigatoni with a meat sauce instead of spaghetti. He also introduced me to the fresh varieties. Wow. What a difference. And yes, he was scandalized that I broke the spaghetti into manageable pieces. He likes slurping it.


Oz July 1, 2010 at 11:06 pm

Oh. And I learned to cold soak my lasagna noodles so they would stop cooking while I assembled everything.


Google just gave me "hydrae" as a word to type to prove I'm not a spambot. I like that.

Anonymous July 2, 2010 at 2:39 pm

I observe that you placed your pasta in a bowl by Jan Pacifico and put that on a plate that came from your mother's "company" set. Lovely presentation!


Ralf the Dog July 8, 2010 at 12:52 am

People who own companies that sell Olive Oil will tell you to put it in the boiling water. I mix a bit in with my sauce. The way you know pasta is done? you fish out a bit and taste it. If it has the right texture, it is done.

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