It's not your fault. That's the way your mom and your grandmother did it. And they did it that way because popular cookbooks told them to. As far back as 1931, Irma S. Rombauer, in her Joy of Cooking, was exhorting cooks to drain pasta in a colander. Of course, those venerable old tomes also encouraged the ruin of perfectly good pasta through practices like cooking it for ridiculous lengths of time and rinsing the cooked pasta with cold water. Some advocated the despicable practice of oiling the water to inhibit sticking, a shameless waste of oil at best and a greasy, unappetizing mess at worst.
I have a colander. It looks very decorative hanging on my kitchen wall. Oh, I use it from time to time for draining other things, but almost never for pasta. Watch the cooking shows on TV and you'll see how the pros do it: they use a pasta pot. In fact, on her popular PBS series, Ciao Italia, Mary Ann Esposito firmly states, “If you don't have a pasta pot – get one.”
A pasta pot is a big pot, usually eight quarts or more, that has a lid and an insert designed for draining pasta. They can be a bit pricey. The cheap ones average around thirty bucks and you can spend more than a hundred for some of the fancy name brands. If you don't want to invest that much, at least find a way to get out of the habit of dumping all that wonderful water down the sink.
You see, pasta cooking water is an Italian cook's secret ingredient.
"Cloudy gray water? A secret ingredient? What are you, crazy?"
Ah, but think about it. What makes that water so cloudy? Salt, for one thing. Especially if you did it right and added two or three tablespoons to the water at the start. And starch, too; a useful byproduct of cooking pasta. Together they impart a unique flavor element. On the one hand, cooking water allows you to thin a sauce without thinning the flavor. At the same time, the starch can be a valuable thickening agent, especially in non-dairy sauces and in “sauceless” preparations like aglio e olio, carbonara, and a “real” fettuccine Alfredo.
Now wait a minute! Everybody knows that fettuccine Alfredo is made with a thick, rich cream sauce. You can even buy the stuff in jars! True. But notice, I said “real.”
Of course, there is no “real” Italian dish called “fettuccine Alfredo.” Not outside of the ristoranti di turisti, anyway. But Alfredo was a real Italian cook and the “sauce” for his simple dish contained three simple elements; butter, cheese, and pasta water. When blended together properly, they form a rich, unctuous sauce that will make you forget all about cream.
The starch in pasta water can help light, thin sauces cling better to the pasta. And here's where the pasta rinsers and oilers go wrong; cooked pasta needs surface starch. Otherwise, nothing sticks to it – including your sauce. Rachael Ray says of pasta water, “it marries the sauce to the pasta.” Never mind what Julia Child used to preach in the '60s; when you rinse the pasta after cooking or pour oil on it to keep it from sticking together, you also inhibit its ability to hold on to a sauce. Adding a little extra starch in the form of pasta cooking water enhances that ability. And because the water is hot, it won't cool your sauce or your pasta.
Don't get carried away about it. Don't use pasta water as a sauce. We're talking tablespoons here, not cups. What Italians refer to as “quanto basta” – just enough. I generally reserve about a half-cup. Just enough to do what I want it to do.
Now, it should be said that in restaurant cooking, the same water is used over and over to cook multiple batches of pasta. This will, of course, result in a much higher concentration of starch than you'll probably achieve by cooking up a pot of spaghetti at home. Some people advocate using less water to up the starch content, but I'm not sure the trade off is worth it. Good pasta needs lots of water and lots of room. You might try to experiment with less water if you're only making a small batch, but, by and large, I'll stick with my four to six quarts. You'll still get bang for your buck since any pasta water at all is a good thing and even a little bit of a good thing is still a good thing.
So buy yourself a pasta pot – or an insert for a pot you already have. Use lots of water – four to six quarts – and lots of salt. The water should, as Italians say, taste “like the sea.” Don't cook the pasta for twenty minutes like your grandma's cookbook says; eight to ten minutes is more than enough for most pastas. And when it comes time to drain, don't rinse away all the goodness and, for goodness' sake, keep the oil on the shelf. If you must cling to your colander, at least dip in a cup or ladle and reserve some of the water before you dump it down the drain. The water will add a little flavor to your sauce, it will help develop your sauce, and it will help your sauce stick to the pasta. Win-win-win, and it won't cost you a dime.
There you go – a secret ingredient that's been handed down in Italian kitchens for years. Water. And if you want to keep it a secret so you can look really brilliant for your family and friends, it's okay. Only you and I – a generations of Italian grandmothers – will know.