Why should we add so much salt to pasta water? Photo: Shutterstock
Mouthing Off
by Andrew Sun
Mouthing Off
by Andrew Sun

No salt in my rice or noodles, so why add it to pasta water? The sauce will season it enough, and besides, I like a bit of bland in my food

  • European cooks insist on throwing a handful of salt into pasta water, some say it should be like seawater
  • Asian cooks would never do that to rice, noodles or congee, so why should pasta be any different?

There’s nothing else to be done. My girlfriend and I have irreconcilable differences. They relate specifically to how we cook pasta.

She thinks I don’t use enough water and use too small a pot. I think she wastes water filling an oversized pot almost to the top.

My argument is that it takes much longer for the water to boil and it’s not necessary to use a large pot if we’re cooking just enough penne for the two of us. She replies that not enough water will make the pasta stick together. “Not if I stir it regularly,” I rebut, unsuccessfully.

The disagreement makes us feel like we’re bashing each other with a pestle and mortar instead of the basil and pine nuts of our pesto sauce.

In Europe, cooks generally add a lot of salt to pasta cooking water. Photo: Shutterstock

Luckily, what we can reach a consensus on, sort of, is the need to salt the water – or rather, how it’s not necessary. I know, I know, every cooking show and master chef says you need to salt the water to flavour the pasta. Some propose you need to put enough salt in the water so it almost tastes like seawater. Only then will your noodles not be bland.

But I’ve always thought – isn’t that what the pasta sauce is for?

Did pasta come from China? Absolutely not, historians say

I do usually put a pinch of salt in, not because I think the taste will improve, but it’s supposed to make the water boil at a higher temperature.

Perhaps our mindset is influenced by our Asian cooking background. As far as I know, no Chinese person puts salt into the water when they cook rice. I can already imagine the Uncle Roger outrage if some BBC chef puts a tablespoon of salt into a rice cooker.

“Salt da rice! Woman, you are keeeling meee!”

What would Uncle Roger say if we added salt when cooking rice?

I don’t do it for rice, rice noodles, egg noodles or any other starch product that accompanies sufficiently seasoned dishes. We also don’t need salt if we’re putting the noodles in a broth that is presumably umami-enriched with enough MSG to require two cans of cola to wash down.

Ask any ramen chef if they need to cook their noodles in salted water and they’ll say, no, and that it’s a waste of salt. Also, when folks under the weather or with digestion problems order plain congee, they assume it is just plain rice gruel.

Believe it or not, we don’t always require sustenance that stimulates our taste buds.

Plain congee should be plain. Leave the salt out. Photo: Shutterstock

Maybe this is one of those fault lines where cultures collide. When visiting Europe, it’s not uncommon for Asians to complain the food is generally too salty.

Western chefs constantly hammer the need to season things. They not only do it for pasta. For mashed potatoes, they feel compelled to melt in a hefty slab of butter. The reason people love the mash at l’Atelier de Joël Robuchon is that there’s more butter than potato in it.

With pasta, nobody ever serves it plain with the bolognese sauce on the side. The sauce is ladled on top and mixed together, and there’s extra flavouring with the Parmesan cheese, and often, additional salt and pepper.

Ramen chefs wouldn’t salt their water, they would say it is a waste. Photo: Shutterstock

In contrast, I like plain steamed rice with my Cantonese dishes. Not only does it help mop up any sauce that comes with the meat and vegetables, but it also cleans my palate when I eat a bite of it while switching from one dish to another.

I concede if you add salt to anything, there will inevitably be more flavour. But should food always be about “more”? Contrast has a vital role. A heavy sauce with clean al dente noodles is more gastronomically interesting. Like my girlfriend and I – vive la différence!