When it comes to Italian cooking, I’m very Church of Marcella Hazan, orthodox sect.
What the exacting doyenne of Italian food tells me to do in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, I do. No questions asked. In her celebrated chapter on pasta — which I revere like Christians revere the Gospels — Hazan had this to say about the role of water:
Pasta needs lots of water to move around in, or it becomes gummy. Four quarts of water are required for a pound of pasta. Never use less than three quarts, even for a small amount of pasta.
She also laid down the law on salt in pasta cookery.
For every pound of pasta, put in no less than 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt… Add the salt when the water comes to a boil.
For about 15 years, through literally hundreds of pounds of pasta (I conservatively estimate 650 pounds), I followed these instructions. The great results I got were like worldly riches to a Calvinist — proof that I had chosen the right path.
Now everything has changed. Reality has been overturned. In a recent New York Times article, the eminent food-science writer Harold McGee issued a decree tantamount to a papal renunciation of the Immaculate Conception.
Turns out, you don’t need “lots of water” for pasta — two quarts will do. As for salt, two teaspoons is enough. (Although, in terms of salt-per-water, McGee’s suggestion is only a little less than Hazan’s.) Moreover — this is the part that really sent a cold chill of apostasy down my spine — you can put the pasta in the water before it boils; while it’s cold, in fact.
For the non-food-obsessed, there is a green angle here.
McGee estimates that Americans cook a billion pounds of pasta a year. That’s a lot of pasta — and a lot of water, and a lot of energy spent boiling it. The more water you use, the more energy it takes to reach and maintain a boil. So less water means less energy — and, well, less water wasted. Writes McGee:
My rough figuring indicates an energy savings at the stove top of several trillion B.T.U.s. At the power plant, that would mean saving 250,000 to 500,000 barrels of oil, or $10 million to $20 million at current prices.
The last bit seems a little sloppy. Most U.S. stoves use natural gas or electricity — crude oil, not so much. Still, electricity generation remains stubbornly dependent on filthy coal (the only kind that exists), and natural gas is a finite resource, and often extracted under fiercely unjust conditions. By all means, let’s burn less of each.
But does McGee’s method work? For his article, he politely asked Hazan herself to try it. Here’s how it went:
Ms. Hazan tried starting a batch of shell pasta in a somewhat reduced amount of cold water, and found that it needed constant stirring to avoid sticking. “Maybe you save heat energy, but you also have to work a lot harder,” she told me in a follow-up call. “It’s not so convenient. I don’t know if I would cook pasta this way.”
But she didn’t say the resulting pasta sucked. Emboldened, I cooked a pound of spaghetti with McGee’s method. I’ll be damned if the resulting pasta wasn’t perfect. And … I really didn’t have to stir it much, Hazan forgive me.
McGee also points out the resulting water is a rich culinary resource. Italian cooks have long utilized starchy pasta water to add a little liquid to sauces. In McGee’s less-is-more method, the leftover water is more concentrated, and thus flavorful, than in the Hazan method. Writes McGee:
When I anointed a batch of spaghetti with olive oil and then tossed it with a couple of ladles-full [of pasta water], the oil dispersed into tiny droplets in the liquid, and the oily coating became an especially creamy one.
Consider me a convert — a reformed, but still devout, Hazanist.