Can there be a dish more simple and delicious than a bowl of well cooked pasta? It’s a culinary canvas, waiting to be painted with flavors of your palette.
There are 3 important elements: sticky starch, not so sticky starch, and netting, that go into each piece of pasta. Each element has its role, and understanding that role will help you go far!
Sticky Starch (amylopectin) – This is a starch granule that has a TON of sticky fingers that protrude (science speak: highly branched). If your cooked pasta sticks together like a ball of Clark Griswold Christmas lights, Amylopectin is the starch doing the sticking.
Not So Sticky Starch (amylose) – A starch granule that becomes gelatinized at temperatures above 150 degrees. It’s got only one mildly sticky finger (science speak: tightly packed). This is the starch granule that makes your gravy cloudy when it’s cold, but suddenly clear and clean as your liquid passes 150 degrees.
Netting (protein) – It can come from eggs or from flour, but protein is an important part in pasta making. As it cooks, it forms a net that holds the starch granules in place. It’s effectiveness as a net starts to really take place around 150-160 degrees.
Now that we know the important components to pasta, lets explore how they work together.
A perfect pasta will be slightly al dente, without gumminess. It will be sticky enough to hold sauce, but not so sticky that it sticks to itself. To accomplish this, the goal is to form a strong net around both types of starch before the “not so sticky” starch gells, and floats away from your pasta. Since both the netting starts to hold the pasta together, about the same time the not so sticky starch floats away, it can be a challenge. If the boiling point of water wasn’t limited by altitude (anywhere from 197 – 204 in Utah) you’d be able to crank up the heat of the water hot enough to cause the protein net to form and get the desired results.
At this point it helps to mention the effect salt has on pasta water. The myth of cooking is that salt will increase the boiling point of your pasta water. Therefore, if you add salt, you can overcome the low boiling point we face here in Utah. Although salted water is vital to the flavor of your pasta, our taste buds can only tolerate 1 to 2 tablespoons per quart. And this amount has very little impact on the boiling point. For example, approximately 1/4 cup of salt will ONLY raise 1 quart of water approximately 1 degree Fahreinheit. At this concentration, pasta cooked in this water will be overly salty, and still gummy -far from our perfect pasta!
Since physics limits our ability to cook water at higher temps, the not so sticky starch begins leaving your pasta before the protein net has a chance to properly form. This results in the sticky starch being leftover, meaning gummy/sticky pasta.
However, there is a solution!
Temperature isn’t the only thing that causes protein to form a net. For example, the “cooking” method of ceviche uses lime juice. The acidic juice reacts with the protein to form our desired net (science speak: the protein denatures).
Using this understanding, water that has been acidified will help our protein net form before all the not so sticky starch has a chance to leave our pasta. Regular white vinegar is a great way to increase the acidity of our water! By adding up to 1/2 cup of vinegar to every gallon of pasta water, and then only adding the pasta once the water hits a rolling boil, your protein net will get a little extra help as it works to keep the starch granules together. The result? Perfect pasta!!