Molecular chemistry exposes a misguided pasta cooking technique

when you cook your pasta with oil, stop it. At the moment. Serious.

Perhaps you came across a cookbook or website that gave the advice to pour some olive or canola oil into the pot of boiling water in which your rigatoni are being cooked. You might have a family member who swears by this method, claiming that the water doesn’t boil over and the pasta doesn’t stick together.

Adding olive oil to a simmering pan of tomatoes can be great for your sauce, but adding oil to boiling water can seriously mess up your spaghetti. If you don’t trust me, trust chef and restaurant owner Lidia Bastianich, who reportedly said, “Don’t — I repeat, don’t — put oil in your pasta cooking water!” And that’s an order!” And if you don’t trust any of us, here’s the science.

Adding olive oil to a simmering pan of tomatoes can be great for your sauce, but adding oil to boiling water can seriously mess up your spaghetti.Shutterstock

Does adding oil to pasta water work?

The idea behind oil to keep the water from boiling over the pot stems from the fact that the oil and water don’t mix, the oil covers the top and prevents anything from spilling out. Let’s unpack this.

First of all, why does water sometimes boil over when cooking pasta? Well, part of the answer is just that by adding pasta to the pot, you leave less room for the water. The other part has to do with surface tension.

Water molecules have a positively charged end and a negatively charged end. Opposites attract, and so the composition of water creates an invisible web of molecules lined up end-to-end. This web makes it difficult for objects to break through the surface, allowing some materials to float without falling through. When boiling, water does not foam even when heated because the surface tension created by the invisible mesh prevents bubbles from breaking through.

Only when pasta, which contains proteins, gluten and other organic substances, mix with the water molecules. Some components of the noodles will dissolve, others will not. The dissolving parts, called polar, gather at the surface and interlock with the molecules; the non-water soluble parts, called hydrocarbons, stick straight up. These components disrupt the dense, invisible mesh that water molecules form, giving the surface more room to expand into bubbles – and of course, to overflow.

But when you add oil, things change. Oil does not mix with water. It visibly disperses into smaller droplets in the liquid. Droplets on the surface disrupt bubble formation. When a bubble of foam begins to form, it comes into contact with a droplet of oil. The mere difference in surface tension between water and oil bursts the bubble and prevents water from frothing at the surface.

The idea behind oil to keep the water from boiling over the pot stems from the fact that the oil and water don’t mix, the oil covers the top and prevents anything from spilling out. Shutterstock

So why shouldn’t I?

Although oil breaks the surface tension of water, it can prevent the sauce from properly adhering to and coating pasta. As oil covers the surface of the water, this means the pasta will pass through the oily top layer as it drains.

Rest assured that the same effect does not occur with oil-based sauces. Add olive oil to tomato sauce, if desired.

And if you want to keep the pot from boiling over, you have a few options. You can watch and stir the pot every time it seems like it’s about to boil over, you can cook the pasta without the lid, or open the lid with a wooden spoon to release any steam that develops.

How can I cook pasta better?

Add a good amount of salt to the boiling water. While it’s true that salt can lower the boiling point of water, theoretically causing your pasta water to boil sooner, the amount of salt that would be enough would probably be too much for your taste buds as well. But a generous sprinkling of salt will flavor the water and your pasta.

Reserve pasta water and add sauces if needed. The starchy water helps sauces coat the pasta better and also thickens the sauce.

Do not rinse pasta after draining; This also washes away the surface starches that help other substances coat and stick to it.

Drain the pasta for a few minutes before they are al dente. Then toss it in a heated skillet with your choice of sauce to finish cooking while bathing in flavor.

What if you don’t trust Lidia Bastianich? Trust pasta brand Barilla who just want you to have the best possible plate of pasta.

PLEASE CHECK is a The opposite Series that uses biology, chemistry and physics to debunk the biggest nutritional myths and assumptions.

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