How Much Pasta Water to Add to Sauce – A Cook’s Most Coveted Top Secret

If you have ever eaten pasta in Italy, or simply scrolled through typical Italian recipes, you might have wondered how Italian cooks get that thick, creamy, mouth-watering consistency for their pasta sauce. The answer is simple: pasta water is the secret to a silky and rich sauce.

How much pasta water to add to sauce? You should be adding pasta water to your pasta sauce.  First of all, add a cop of pasta water to your sauce.  Then add in enough water so that there is about two cups of water per pound of your pasta.

Adding the right amount of pasta water to the sauce is essential for a velvety texture. But this trick will also add a special flavor to pasta, as the salt contained in pasta water will enhance the taste of the sauce, turning even a simple marinara into an authentic gourmet experience.

However important pasta water may be, its effect may be nullified if you do not follow two more tips. First, do not add oil to the pasta water. According to chef Lidia Bastianich, the thin layer of oil remaining on the pasta will prevent the sauce from attaching to it. To prevent the water from boiling over, leave a wooden spoon in the pot while the pasta cooks instead.

Secondly, do not rinse the pasta once it is cooked. Otherwise, the starch on pasta will be rinsed away, with negative effects in terms of texture and flavor. In fact, starch is what helps the sauce adhere to the pasta. An exception can be made for cold dishes such as pasta salad: in that case, rinsing the pasta will lower its temperature and stop the cooking process, helping retain the right texture.

What is The Correct Ratio of Sauce to Pasta?

As seen above, the general rule is to add roughly the same weight of pasta water, dry pasta, and sauce. But not all the types of sauce are equal, so the perfect ratio must be adapted to the different recipes. What are the possible scenarios?

  • Tomatoes-based sauce, pasta cooked al dente. In this case, the golden rule applies perfectly. The larger amount of water will help finish cooking the pasta, while it also absorbs the condiment.
  • Cheese-based sauce, pasta cooked al dente. Cheese-based sauces may form clumps or turn watery if too much water is added. Scale down the ratio of pasta water to 1 cup (240ml) for every pound of pasta.
  • Tomatoes-based sauce, fully cooked pasta. If the pasta is already perfectly cooked and you just want to add extra thickness to the sauce, reduce the amount of pasta water to 1 ½ cups (360ml) for every pound of pasta.
  • Cheese-based sauce, fully cooked pasta. As the pasta is already cooked and the sauce does not require much water either, limit the amount of water to 2 tablespoons (30ml) per serving: that is, ½ cup (120ml) for every pound of pasta.

In case of uncertainty about the perfect amount of pasta water to add to your sauce, a simple trick can help to avoid mistakes. Set aside a larger amount of pasta water than you will need, and add it little by little until you notice that the pasta cannot absorb it anymore.

The downside is that the set-aside water will progressively get cold, thus risking slowing down the cooking process. Nonetheless, this is a great tip for beginners, as it is always possible to add water to an excessively thick sauce, but you cannot remove it once it is there.

How Do You Make Pasta Sauce with Pasta Water in 10 Minutes

Many people think that adding pasta water to sauce is a trick only reserved for chefs. The entire process does not take more than 10 minutes. All you need to do is to plan all the steps in advance, as letting cooked pasta sit for too long without mixing it with sauce can lead to it getting mushy and sticky.

These are the steps to follow for a delicious Italian-style pasta:

  1. Let the Water Boil. This step may seem insignificant, but it has a significant impact on the result. Before adding the pasta, make sure that you see big bubbles on the surface of the water: it is a sign that the temperature is high enough for perfect cooking.
  2. Add Salt. The right amount of salt is important to make your pasta tasty, but not overwhelmingly salt. According to chef Mario Batali, pasta water should “taste like the sea”. To do so, add 2 teaspoons (8 grams) of salt per 4 cups of water, and 4 cups of water per 1 cup of dry pasta.
  3. Add the Pasta. Once the water is boiling and salted, you can add the pasta. It is recommendable to weigh it so that you can estimate accurately how much pasta water you will need for your sauce.
  4. Take Out Some Starchy Water. After a few minutes of cooking, the pasta will release the precious starch. You can take out some of the pasta water and set it aside, or measure the right amount and add it directly to the sauce.
  5. Heat the Sauce on a Different Stove. When you add the pasta to the sauce, the latter needs to be extremely hot to avoid the cold temperature to block the cooking process. Remember to heat the sauce in advance.
  6. Drain the Pasta. When you proceed to drain the pasta, remember not to rinse it. For a thicker, smoother result, finish cooking the pasta with the sauce. To do so, drain it when it is al dente: that is, 1-3 minutes before the recommended cooking time is complete.
  7. Mix the Sauce, the Pasta, and the Pasta Water. In this final step, join all the elements together and stir until the pasta is perfectly cooked and the water is absorbed, leaving only a mouth-watering, creamy sauce to coat the pasta.

If you are looking for a more in-depth and in-person perspective to they way you should correctly salt your pasta water, take a look at this video by Timing Food studios.

How Does Pasta Water Thicken Sauce? The Chemistry Explained

When adding pasta water and seeing it thicken to reach a thick and smooth consistency, it is easy to think that you are witnessing some kind of magic. Instead, it is nothing more than a chemical reaction, bonding the starch contained in pasta water with the fat particles within the sauce.

The process of thickening may be better described as emulsification. When stirring pasta water and sauce, the molecules of starch contained in the water bind to the particles of oil or fat in the sauce, almost embracing them. This is what creates a smooth, cohesive condiment for pasta. Many people uses devices such as the All-Clad Immersion Blender, to ensure a thicker and richer sauce. With the added splash guard you can ensure a mess free cooking experience. Take a look here for more information.

As it can easily be deducted, it is important the sauce contains at least a certain amount of fat for emulsification to take place. If you add pasta water to a sauce lacking oil, butter, cheese, or cream, the result will be a runny and flavorless sauce.

Also, before adding pasta water to the sauce, remember to cook the latter until it reaches the consistency of a paste. At that point, pasta water will help to re-balance its thickness and make it right to stick to the pasta while remaining smooth.

Should You Add Pasta Water to Canned Sauce? 

Adding pasta water to the sauce is a trick that dates back to ancient times, when thickening agents such as cornstarch were not readily available in supermarkets. Furthermore, in the past homemakers made their tomato sauce boil for hours, until it reached the consistency of a paste.

So, it is legitimate to wonder whether in modern times, when mass consumption makes ready-to-use sauces immediately available, it is still worth going the extra mile to add pasta water to a canned sauce. The answer is that yes, you still should add pasta water to the canned sauce. Imagine putting this extra step into a highly acclaimed pasta sauce, like that of Carbone. The extra flavor would definitely wow any family or guests that had the pleasure of trying it. Do not hesitate to look to learn more here!

To be sure pre-made, canned sauces are a godsend when it comes to making pasta as quickly as possible and go ahead with other daily tasks. At the same time, adding pasta water to the sauce provides a result so outstandingly better that this extra step is certainly worthwhile.

All you have to do is pour the sauce into a skillet, heat it for a few minutes so that it thickens—you can do this while the pasta is cooking—and then proceed as if the canned sauce was a homemade sauce. If anything, just keep in mind that canned sauces can be a bit more runny than usual, so even after the thickening takes place do not add too much water at once.

To bring a canned sauce to the right level of flavor and consistency, do not be afraid to make some adjustments on the way. While you stir the sauce, pasta, and pasta water, you can add a little bit of extra virgin olive oil or grated cheese for added viscosity.

The Table below Highlights Commonly Brought Spaghetti Sauce Brands:

Classico Four Cheese Pasta Sauce31.82%
Rao’s Homemade Marinara: 27.27%
Hunt’s Tomato Sauce18.18%
Bertolli’s Five Cheese Pasta Sauce13.64%
Prego’s Pasta Sauce9.09%
Data derived from various cooking forums

Should I Add Pasta Water to a Tomatoes Based Bolognese Sauce?

Bolognese sauce is a classic of Italian cuisine, with a distinctively rich and intense flavor given by ground meat, deglazed with red wine before adding tomato paste and sauce. As a meat-based sauce, Bolognese is already quite thick. So, do you need to add pasta water?

Once again, adding pasta water to the sauce is a trick used not so much to thicken a sauce but to make it stick to the pasta. As such, it is always recommendable to add a little bit of starchy water to the sauce before serving. However, when it comes to Bolognese, you need to be extra careful not to add too much water.

In fact, excessive water in Bolognese sauce can make it look clumpy and make it runnier instead of creamier. In short, this is one of those instances in which you want to add pasta water a few tablespoons at a time and wait for it to be absorbed before adding more.

If you want to enhance your Bolognese even more, one trick comes directly from chef Gordon Ramsay: once the sauce is cooked and has reached the desired consistency, add a little bit of milk—1 tablespoon for each cup of meat—to soften the meat and boost the earthy flavor of the sauce.

At this point, let your Bolognese cook a while longer while you prepare your pasta. Then, transfer the pasta into the same skillet, and slowly add the pasta water. Once the Bolognese sauce regains its naturally thick texture, it is ready to be served!

Is Pasta Water Bad for You? Tips to Keep It Healthy

Many people wonder if pasta water may have unintended consequences on their physical shape or overall health, as it contains starch and salt. While this is a legitimate concern for people that need to follow low-sodium diets, the nutritional values of pasta water are nothing to be worried about.

As for the starch content, in fact, it is important to remember that pasta itself contains a large amount of starch. In its dry form, pasta is made for 62.5% by starch. Therefore, worrying about the residual amount of starch in pasta water appears pointless.

As for the salt contained in pasta water, adding pasta water to pasta sauce will not affect your intake of sodium if you do not add an excessive amount of salt to the sauce itself. Let’s try and calculate how much salt is contained in pasta water.

If you follow the ratio of 2 teaspoons of salt for 4 cups of water, adding 1 cup of water to the sauce will lead to an extra ½ teaspoon of salt. As this would be the serving size for two people, each person would take ¼ teaspoon of extra salt. As such, it is sufficient to slightly reduce the salt in the sauce to recreate the balance.

Furthermore, pasta water is pure gold when it comes to cooking the perfect silky sauce without adding other fat ingredients such as cream or olive oil. In this sense, pasta water may be exactly what you need if you are trying to enjoy a creamy pasta without worrying too much about the extra calories!

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