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If you're reading this post, most likely you know how to cook pasta. In fact, you probably know three entirely different ways to cook it. Heck, you probably know how to whip up some ravioli — from scratch. But, even the most seasoned of cooks can make the cardinal mistake of under-seasoning their pasta water. We're here to ensure that there's enough salt in every pot.
While you can certainly throw in a a few sizable pinches of salt and leave it at that, let's dig a little deeper. Do you really, really have to salt your pasta water? Why? When is the right time to add the salt? And, what is the optimal salt-to-water ratio?
The short answer is yes, you must salt your pasta water. Even when tossed with a flavorful bolognese or a pesto, if you haven't salted your pasta water the entire dish will taste under-seasoned. Seasoning the pasta water is the only chance you have to flavor the pasta itself, and it's a necessary step that shouldn't be neglected.
In The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan had this to say about salting pasta water: "For every pound of pasta, put in no less than 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt, more if the sauce is very mild and under-salted. Add the salt when the water comes to a boil. Wait until the water returns to a full, rolling boil before putting in the pasta."
As one of the foremost authorities on Italian cuisine, and the woman behind this legendary tomato sauce, I tend to take Marcella Hazan at her word. But, after a bit of poking around, it seems that when it comes to salting pasta water, there's no hard-and-fast answer.
Many (including Marcella herself) claim that the salt must be added to the water only after it's at a full boil. Others add salt to their cold water from the get-go, so they don't have to worry about it later. If you opt to add your salt to cold water, make sure to swish it around with a spoon (or your hand) until the salt dissolves. Salt is corrosive, and could pit your pot if not dissolved before your pot hits the heat.
Chances are, when it comes to pasta water, you've heard the adage, "It should taste like the sea." I personally like to imagine it declared, not spoken, by a wizened Italian matriarch while she gesticulates wildly, flinging salt haphazardly around her rustic kitchen. When it comes to cooking pasta, this fuzzy measure seems to be most chef's rule of thumb.
So what does that translate to in cold, hard numbers? After scouring the internet, results vary from 1 1/2 tablespoons to 3 tablespoons of salt per pound of pasta, with most people falling in around the 2 tablespoons mark. If you gain satisfaction from neat measurements, feel free to get out your measuring spoons. However, I find that a few very hefty pinches will suffice.
While the amount of salt in your pasta water will affect the end result, so will the type of salt. Stephanie Stiavetti of The Culinary Life blog begs you never to use iodizied salt, which she claims will give your pasta a metallic flavor. Christopher Boswell, of the Rome Sustainable Food Project, never uses anything other than coarse sea salt, the choice of Italians. However, fine sea salt, or ever kosher salt, will do the trick just fine.
This has been a Public Service Announcement from your friends at Food52. Remember folks: Salt your water with verve. Salt your water with panache. But, above all, salt your water — period.