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Culinary Breakthroughs: Pasta Water

Yes, pasta water—that unappetizing gray soup I’ve been flushing down the drain all these years. Now I am convinced it’s a miracle ingredient. What happened?

When I read Heat (Bill Buford's memoir of learning to cook professionally at Mario Batali’s Babbo), I was intrigued by his description of the restaurant’s pasta water, which, after several hours turned into “a sauce thickener, binding the elements and, in effect, flavoring the pasta with the flavor of itself.” He thought it should be bottled and sold. The starchy water combines with the dish’s sauce and helps it cling to the pasta: “It was no longer linguine, exactly; it had changed color and texture and become something else... This, I thought, is the equivalent of bread soaked in gravy.”

Intriguing, yes, but I didn’t get it until last night when we made shrimp scampi from a recipe in Saveur (recipe). The last step has you adding some reserved pasta water and cooking until “sauce has thickened slightly, 1–2 minutes more.” I can’t say I noticed much thickening, but the linguine was evenly coated with a heavenly blend of butter, wine, seasonings, and shrimp juices, transforming the pasta and producing the same effect Buford described. I have always loved pasta, but now I am looking at it in a whole new way. Try the recipe yourself (it’s easy) and be swept away.


Yes, yes, yes. My magical moment came through the only pasta dish I really cook -- linguine with white clam sauce -- but the revelation was the same. That last step, in which one condenses and concentrates the sauce, is key.

What a brilliant idea. I am gonna have to try that in the near future. I assume this is in place of corn starch/flour.

What a neat idea! I'm not a seafood person, but I'll try this the next time I make a pasta dish (which should be any day now, as I am a legendarily lazy cook and pasta = insta-meal).

Matt, interesting that in the book, Buford’s pasta-water epiphany was linguine with clams.
lcsa99, I don’t really understand the chemistry, but I think the pasta water helps the sauce cling to the pasta as much as thickening it. I mean it does thicken the sauce, but the cool part is the way the sauce coats the entire strand of pasta. Maybe traditional thickeners (corn starch/flour) would do the same thing, but the simplicity of using the pasta water appeals to me.

It was good to know about the pasta water which was a miracle ingredient. Most pasta is made from durum wheat flour and contains protein and carbohydrates. It is a good source of slow-release energy and has the additional advantage of being value for money. It takes little time, but is quite easy and well worth the effort.

I always make carbonara with pasta water, not with cream. Fry lardons, add pasta water. When cooled stir in an egg and grate in parmesan. That;'s it

Rich, I've never made carbonara myself and more importantly never used lardons (although we save our bacon fat). I'll have to try that; it sounds delicious.

How amazing, and it's obvious when you think of it. We'll definitely be trying this. A couple of teaspoons of french mustard also works well in the spag/other pasta sauce - but this is "free".

great idea
a couple of teaspoons of french mustard in pasta / spaghetti sauce also works, but pasta water is "free"