Cooking pasta is generally pretty straightforward. Boil the water, add the noodles, cook for the amount of time listed on the box, drain, and eat. But there’s one step there that’s actually a little more controversial than it may seem: Are you supposed to add a splash of oil to the cooking water or not?
Plenty of cooking pros—and maybe even your grandma—say yes, because a splash of oil helps stop the noodles from sticking together once you drain them. But plenty of other cooking pros (and maybe your other grandma) say no way, because a splash of oil makes it harder for the sauce to stick to the noodles. So which is it?!
We reached out to pasta pros to settle the boiling question once and for all.
Turns out, your oil is better used to flavor your finished dish, not to add into the water when it’s still cooking. In fact, Janine Bruno, owner of Homemade By Bruno, a Philadelphia-based Italian cooking school with a focus on fresh pasta, was pretty unequivocal about the whole thing. “Olive oil is one of my favorite ingredients to use. But it does not belong in pasta water,” Bruno, who learned the ins and outs of pasta-making by watching her Sicilian family members, tells SELF. That’s because if you add it to the cooking stage, it can mess with the finished product once it’s on your plate.
Yes, pasta can stick when it’s cooking: All the starch that’s released from the noodles during the first few minutes of boiling makes them pretty gluey, so a glug of oil into the pot will definitely coat the outside of the pasta pieces and they’ll be less prone to clumping together. But that slick texture comes at a cost. “When the pasta becomes slippery, it’s less likely to hold the sauce,” Joshua Resnick, chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, tells SELF. The result? A bunch of noodles that stay perfectly separate from one another, but that collectively don’t have much flavor. Not quite the pasta we were hoping for.
The good news is, there’s a way to stop the stickiness while making sure all that delicious sauce clings closely to your cavatelli (or elbows, or linguine, or whatever your cooking.) It all has to do with a little bit of legwork while the pasta is still boiling—and a quick transition from from the stove to the sauce to the table. Here’s what Bruno and Resnick recommend:
- Fill a pot of water and bring it to a rolling boil. Once the water is boiling, add a generous tablespoon of salt. The pasta will absorb the salt in the water as it cooks, making it more flavorful.
- Add your pasta to the boiling water. Use a large spoon or spatula to stir the pasta once a minute or so for the first several minutes of cooking. The stirring action will keep the noodles from clumping together while their sticky starch gets released. While the pasta cooks, prepare or reheat your sauce in a wide pan or skillet and keep it over medium-low heat.
- Cook the pasta about a minute shy of the time on the package. (It will finish cooking in the sauce.) Use a ladle or a heatproof measuring cup to scoop out a cup or so of the starchy pasta cooking water. You probably won’t need this much, but having a little extra never hurts.
- Drain the pasta. Transfer the cooked pasta to the sauce (still in the pan or skillet), tossing to make sure the sauce is evenly dispersed. Add a splash of the pasta cooking water to the sauce; the starch in the water will help the sauce cling to the noodles even more.
- Transfer the pasta to a serving dish, serve, and eat.
As for pasta that you’re cooking ahead of time, like for pasta salad or baked pasta dishes like macaroni and cheese? Noodles that don’t get tossed with a sauce as soon as possible are pretty notorious for fusing together into a giant blob, after all. But even then: Do not oil your cooking water, Bruno says. “I’d toss the cooked pasta with a small amount of olive oil after draining it,” she says. Just don’t go crazy—think a couple teaspoons max. Greasing it up will make it harder for the sauce or dressing to stick when you do eventually add it.