Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Should you start cooking pasta in cold water or boiling water? A side-by-side comparison.

Keep reading; this photo will make sense.
One thing that you might not know about me is that I tend to be a skeptic. In a good way.

If someone tells me something that runs counter to what I believe, I love it. Because I might learn something new. But I don't simply believe what I hear. Mostly I disbelieve until I can find out more.

If it's something that I can investigate on my own - like a new method of cooking - then I often perform my own experiments. That's how I fell in love with sous vide cooking. A number of people scoffed and said that it was nothing more than the old "boil-a-bag" method and completely useless.

But that wasn't enough for me. I tried it, and I like it. I don't use it all the time, but there are results I can get from sous vide cooking that simply aren't possible any other way. Like 72-hour short ribs. And the rib roasts I've made using sous vide have been amazingly tender.

When I can't do the experiments myself - like when we're talking about real science rather than kitchen science - I go online and hunt up reputable sites and dig as far back to original scientific papers as I can. I've read some pretty obscure research papers over the years.

I love it when I learn something new, or when some bit of information changes my opinions.

I also enjoy listening to, watching, or reading about things that I know are untrue. In those cases, I'm not looking for information to change my mind, but I'm honing my skills at seeing the flaws in logic or the fact-manipulation that's sometimes used to convince the less-skeptical.

While I don't expect everyone to go to ground zero to get their facts, I do find it amusing when someone bases their decisions on "people say" or "everyone knows." I once asked one of these folks which "people" say these things.

Just people.

Do you know these people well? Have they studied nutrition? Do they have degrees in the subject? Where did you meet them? How many people have told you this?

All I got was a tilted head and a puzzled look. I don't know if it sunk in or not, but I did suggest that other people would tell you the opposite, if you researched further than the backyard fence.

Non-mushy cooked pasta.
This all came to mind because recently I mentioned that lately when I cook pasta, I start it in cold water. Someone responded that I must like mushy overcooked pasta and that I should ask "any good Italian" how pasta should be cooked.

It was an odd comment, to say the least.

First, I'm not sure what they meant by "good Italian." Is that someone who's nice to their mother? Someone who doesn't kick puppies? I suspect they meant that I should talk to someone's grandma who has been making pasta the same way for decades. A traditional Italian, perhaps.

And as far as how I like pasta, it was interesting that someone would assume that the pasta was mushy or overcooked, or that I liked it that way. I was going to ask if they had ever tried the cold-water-start method themselves, but I'm pretty sure they would have said that they didn't because they don't have to. Everyone knows you start it in boiling water. Everyone.

But here's the thing. When I first read about the cold-water-start method, I was skeptical. It challenged my long-held belief that you had to start pasta cooking in in a large amount of boiling water. I always started pasta in boiling water. Always.

So of course, I ran into the kitchen and gave it a try. And now I always cook my pasta starting in cold water. Because it actually turns out better. The fact that it's done faster is a bonus.

But, if I was you, I wouldn't believe me without a little more proof, so I went into the kitchen and did a side-by-side comparison of pasta cooked both ways.

So, here's how it went. First, the cold-water start.

I put 1/2 cup of elbow macaroni in a pot and added water about a inch over the level of the pasta. I added a little bit of salt, covered the pot, and put it on high heat to get it to boiling.

The water came to a boil in 4 minutes - since there wasn't much water, it was pretty quick. I checked a piece of pasta every minute starting at 5 minutes. After 7 minutes, The pasta was firm, but you can still see a bit of white, dry, uncooked pasta. If I was going to add the pasta to a hot soup, or it was going into sauce and cooked for a few minutes, this would be a good time to get it out of the water.

At 8 minutes, the pasta is cooked almost all the way through, but a really close inspection shows that it's still got a tiny bit that's not quite cooked. This would be a good time to take it out of the water if it was going into sauce for a short time.

At 9 minutes, it was cooked all the way through. The pasta was plump, but still with a bit of chew. If I was going to toss it quickly with ingredients, but not cook it in a sauce, this would be perfect.

At 10 minutes, it was a little softer, but in no way mushy. This would be the perfect cook for a cold pasta salad.

So, this is 10 minutes total, since there was no time required to get the water to a boiling point. Keep in mind that I live at high altitude, so if you live at sea level, your cooking time is likely to be less.

But what about starting the pasta in boiling water? How does that compare?

I filled a pot about halfway full, added salt, and put the lid on to encourage it to come to a boil. That took about 8 1/2 minutes. I measured 1/2 cup of pasta and added it to the water, and started timing the cooking from that point - 9 minutes.

I started checking the pasta starting after 5 minutes of cooking. The first thing I noticed was that the surface of the pasta was sort of ... slick. Or maybe the right word is pasty. The outer layer was cooking much faster than when I started it in cold water.

The pasta was cooked through and plump at 7 minutes - about the same stage as the cold-water version at 9 minutes, but the outside of the pasta was definitely softer and a little mushy. Keep in mind that this is 7 minutes of cooking time, plus 9 minutes to get the water boiling, so it's 16 minutes total.

I let it cook one more minute, and it was overcooked and had almost no "bounce" left. When I tried to cut it to see the interior, it broke.

So there we go. The cold-water version cooked faster and more evenly. I thought for a moment that the outer softness of traditionally-cooked pasta might help sauces to stick, but I've been using the cold water method for a while and I've never had a problem getting sauces to hang onto the pasta.

I suspect - but can't confirm - that the difference between the two methods might be a little more dramatic up here at high altitude. But I'm not the only one who says this works - even Alton Brown has written about it.

But there's one point where I disagree with Alton. He says the cold-water method isn't useful for long pasta, like spaghetti. But I've cooked long pasta starting in cold water. The trick is to use a pot that's wide enough so the pasta can lay flat in the pot. 

I use this one:

It's a 5 1/2 quart braiser that's 12 inches in diameter, so pretty much any long pasta fits. Any pot that's wide enough should work, It doesn't need to be super-deep, because you only need the water a little bit above the pasta.

If you're happy with the way you cook your pasta, I'm not saying you absolutely need to change what you do. I cooked mine using the traditional method for many, many years and never thought I needed to try anything else.

But if you want to challenge one of your food assumptions, give it a try. Pasta is cheap, so you're not losing much if you don't like the result.

And you'll save a few minutes of cooking time.