Today, I’m going to share the secret sauce for how to make pasta sauce stick to pasta noodles. I’m sorry, I know that was a terrible pun, but I couldn’t help myself.
Let’s be honest: there’s nothing worse than when you’re about to dig into a large plate of pasta, you start to twirl it with your fork…and all the sauce just falls off. Then you have to do the awkward move with your fork where you’re unsuccessfully trying to twirl the pasta into the puddle of sauce to get some of the goodness. This is no way to live.
How I Became Acquainted With This Predicament
Jarred tomato pasta sauce + pasta were a regular staple when I was growing up. Both of my parents worked and pasta provided a fast and budget friendly way to feed the family.
When I was little, I used to wonder why when the pasta I ordered at restaurants had sauce that stuck to the noodles. A layer of sauce almost seemed to be velcro-ed to the noodles. The pasta we regularly ate at home was tasty, but the sauce seemed to almost slide off the noodles. At the end of dinner, it was not uncommon to have empty plates with pools of red tomato sauce.
Years later, when I was learning to feed myself after moving out, I discovered the secret to making pasta sauce stick to the noodles 100% of the time.
Alright, as promised, let’s get to the solution!
Cooking Hacks That Help Pasta Sauce Stick To Pasta Every Time
**Note: this method assumes that you’re heating up pasta sauce on the stove top while you’re boiling your pasta. If you’re looking for ways to amp up the flavor of store-bought pasta sauce, check out my previous post.
Step #1: Don’t add oil when you boil the pasta
Some people add oil to their pasta water while it’s boiling- I personally know at least 3 people do who do this. The rationale behind this is that the oil will help the noodles not stick together while they’re cooking.
Why you shouldn’t add oil to the pasta water: The residual oil from the pasta will form a slippery exterior, which makes the pasta sauce slide right off. Remember, we want it to adhere!
Here’s the best way to cook pasta according to science: In a nutshell, researchers from The American Chemical Society recommend that perfect pasta requires water at a “rolling boil” and a lot of salt. They also recommend not adding oil to the pasta water. Source
Here’s a video that talks about the science behind how to cook perfect pasta.
Step #2: Save some of the water that the pasta has been cooking in
Here’s what I do:
When the pasta is done in the pot, I take a ladle and scoop some of the pasta water into a glass measuring cup. I save about 1/2 a cup depending on how much pasta I’m cooking. I recommend a glass measuring cup, because it’ll be easier to pour when we use it later- it’s also safer to handle because the pasta water will be very hot.
Step #3: Don’t rinse off your pasta
I get it, sometimes when you drain your pasta, it looks kind of goopy. It can be tempting to want to rinse the gunk off to ensure that the noodles stay separate. But think about it this way: the same “goop” that’s making your noodles look a little sticky is going to be the same “goop” that will help the pasta sauce stick. Yay for goop!
What to remember: The residual starchiness creates almost a velcro effect and it gives the sauce something to stick to. I repeat, do not rinse off the pasta.
What do you do with your drained pasta? Use tongs and carefully add it to the pan or pot of pasta sauce that’s been heating up. Using tongs is better than just dumping in all the noodles straight from the colander because it reduces splashing.
Step #4: Add your reserved pasta water into your sauce
Add a splash of the pasta cooking water water into the pasta water [HIGHLY recommend that you add a little at a time- no one wants watery pasta sauce!]
Last step before serving/eating: On low heat, heat up the pan or pot that now has the pasta sauce and the pasta noodles. Use tongs to mix things together. The step allows the sauce to thicken up a bit- if your sauce is super thick, add a bit more pasta water to thin it out. Turn off the heat and add your desired toppings like cheese, basil, etc before serving.
Why should you do this? In the words of Kenji Alt Lopez, Managing Culinary Director of Serious Eats:
“Starchy pasta water doesn’t just help thin the sauce to the right consistency; it also helps it cling to the pasta better…”
What Did We Learn?
Starch is good! Starch is your friend because it gives the pasta sauce something to hold onto. And there you have it! A super easy, but super effective tips to ensure your pasta sauce will always stick to the pasta.
Did you find any of these tips helpful? I feel like some people know not to rinse their pasta, but not many people know about the important step of adding the pasta cooking water to the sauce.
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