Confession: I’ve become a little bit addicted to cooking videos on YouTube in the past few months. I usually find myself watching at least one a day, if not just binging for hours going through a channel’s archive. The chefs vary in personality, but there’s one thing they all repeat again and again — never poor pasta water down the drain. In fact, many of them call this starchy substance “liquid gold.” But can it really be that special?
After hearing it so many times, I decided to test it out in my own kitchen with a simple pasta recipe that’s become one of my go-to quick dinners. I skipped following Alton Brown’s trick of cooking the pasta in cold water that you then bring to a boil. I wanted to give my water plenty of time to eke out as much of the starch as possible, so I went with the traditional method of waiting for (very salty) water to boil before dumping my fusilli in. I also didn’t use any pasta alternatives, like chickpea or edamame pasta, although I am a fan of those as well. This test required going back to the basics.
Once I was satisfied with the level of al dente, I scooped a couple cups of the precious water out of the pot and put it into a bowl to save. I strained the pasta over the sink, then divided it into two portions. I prepared each serving exactly the same, except for an extra splash of the leftover starchy water in one.
According to Bon Appétit (the source of many of my YouTube marathons), the pasta water is meant to help emulsify the sauce or whatever fat you top the pasta with (which essentially means they blend together). In my case, that was a few swigs off olive oil and about half a tablespoon of butter. I finished both batches off with some lemon juice, Parmesan, and salt and pepper.
I’ll be honest, I really couldn’t make out any difference between the two plates of pasta at first. I might have actually put a bit too much of the water into the one I was testing, but remember this was my first attempt.
As I continued to stir each one, I noticed the oil and butter blended with the water to make a much more flavorful sauce than the plate that just had them on their own. The emulsification allowed the flavor to better cling to the pasta and have an overall stronger and more even taste. I was just sad I didn’t think to make any garlic bread to soak up the rest of the sauce on the watered-up plate after my roommate and I polished off all the pasta. (Although I definitely could eat two big servings of pasta on my own, I decided to share for both of our sakes.)
This was another “chef-y” tip that I thought I'd end up rolling my eyes at, but instead will probably add to my regular cooking routine. I guess I might as well finally give in and try adding mayo to my scrambled eggs, too.