"Salty as the sea?" We don't think so.
I grew up watching my mother not only add oil to her pasta cooking water but also rinse the pasta after it was cooked. Horrifying, I know. Good thing I had a Sicilian zia (aunt) to teach me the do’s and don’ts of Italian cooking. And if there’s one thing that stuck with me, it’s that salting pasta water is mandatory. In fact, I can still hear her saying it should be “as salty as the sea.”
Why every zia and nonna in the world seems to use these very vague, and somewhat misguided, instructions beats me. But to anyone who has swallowed a mouthful of seawater, it’s probably evident that salting pasta water to that degree is overkill. Still, many people don’t know how to properly salt pasta water.
Why Add Salt To Pasta Water
My zia would say perché l'ho detto (because I said so)! Though, from what I’ve gathered over the years, there are actually two reasons—and both have an effect on the finished product.
The first is that most traditional pasta doughs do not contain salt, so adding it to the cooking water itself is the only chance you have to effectively flavor the pasta. Sure, pasta can absorb flavor from sauces but they can only do so much, making that salty base a critical flavor foundation.
Secondly, and from a scientific stance, salting the water slows the gelatinization process—or the swelling of the starch granules in the pasta when they come into contact with heated water—that results in a less sticky, and more al dente pasta.
When To Add Salt To Pasta Water
If you’ve ever heard that adding salt to pasta water helps the pasta cook faster, there is a very tiny bit of truth to that, as salt does increase the boiling temperature of water. But unless you’re trying to cook your pasta a few microseconds faster, it hardly makes a difference.
As far as salt making the water itself boil faster, it’s actually the opposite, as salt increases the boiling point of water. But, again, by very little.
The main difference in adding salt to boiling water—versus to cold water—is that it dissolves more quickly because of the increased molecular movement, or crashing of molecules into each other.
The takeaway: it makes almost no difference when you add the salt. Just make sure the salt is completely dissolved and the water is at a rolling boil before you add the pasta to the pot.
What Kind Of Salt Is Best For Cooking Pasta?
According to Italian chef Daniela Savone, Italians strictly use sea salt for boiling pasta. “The salt is not negotiable. It must be the salt of the earth. It is what gives the pasta its flavor and its texture. I use Supremo Italiano Sea Salt, which comes from the ancient salt pans of Trapani and Marsala, Sicily,” says Savone.
In my humble opinion, any salt you have on hand is probably going to be just fine, but keep in mind that some salts, like pink Himalayan, have slightly lower sodium levels, so they will ultimately impart a less salty taste.
How Much Salt To Add To Pasta Water
A lot of pasta recipes don’t give instructions for salting pasta water—because that’s just something that recipe developers tend to take for granted. I’m guilty of that myself: Not thinking twice before tossing a fistful of salt into a pot of boiling water.
Yet, a good rule of thumb is that for every 1 pound of pasta, you’ll need to fill a large pot with roughly 5 to 6 quarts of water and add 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of sea salt.
While that may seem like a lot of salt, keep in mind that the pasta will not absorb it all, so most of it will go down the drain—literally. In other words, don't be afraid to be generous with the salt the next time you're cooking pasta.
Many pasta recipes have you reserve some of the pasta cooking water, then add it to the dish to help marry the pasta and the sauce. When seasoning your sauce, keep in mind that when you add the pasta water you'll be adding salt as well, so under-season the sauce slightly.
Pasta Recipes To Make With Your New Salting Skills
Now that you’re practically a pro at salting pasta water, test your skills with these satisfying pasta dinner recipes.
TikTok's Dirty Martini Pasta - Made with green olives, olive brine, and a shot of gin, this pasta dish is inspired by the classic cocktail.
Pasta Alfredo - Classic pasta Alfredo doesn’t contain cream! In fact, there are only five ingredients in this simple dish.
Fresh Tomato Pasta With Basil - Fresh tomatoes and basil make this easy recipe a summer standout.
Pasta alla Norma - If you’re on the fence about eggplant, this is the dish to change your mind.
Pasta Carbonara - This classic pasta dish is rich and creamy but contains no cream!