Does this even do anything at all other than turn the water brown?
May 19, 2013 3:22 PM   Subscribe

Why do I put Worcestershire sauce in the water when boiling pasta? That is, when the water comes to a boil, just before I put the pasta in?

OK, I know why I do it - it's because my mother does it, and she taught me how to cook.

But I don't know why she taught me to do it, or why the first person in our family to do it, started doing it. It makes no sense to me, and Google is not being an informative friend in this matter, thanks to the millions of results for pasta dishes that include the ingredient AFTER the boiling is done.

I have a very limited understanding of the mechanics behind boiling pasta in general, actually - I'm guessing we boil the water so the pasta will get thoroughly wet before it gets mushy. I think some people put salt in the water; for what it's worth, Worcestershire sauce is salty and it turns out the recipe includes actual salt.

So, MeFites, in your tremendous collective wisdom: why do I add $.10 of this product to the pot every time I boil pasta, other than habit?

If any of you do it, too, I sure would feel better about my family's tradition, BTW.

My mother also taught me to put olive oil in the water. When omitting it I find the pasta is way too sticky, so I don't really need an explanation for that.
posted by SMPA to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
the two reasons I've always heard for salting pasta are:

1) flavor
2) faster cook time (supposedly, adding salt changes the chemical somethingorother, which makes the water boil at a higher temperature, so it takes longer to come to an initial boil, but then after that it is cooking hotter and therefore faster.)

this may or may not be correct, and it may or may not have inspired your mother to add worcestershire sauce.
posted by firei at 3:28 PM on May 19, 2013

Huh, no idea. Don't take this personally, but it sounds pretty gross to me.

You're right on regarding olive oil, although I really only do that for filled pasta like ravioli.
posted by selfnoise at 3:29 PM on May 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I come from a put-worcestershire-sauce-in-everything family, but I've never even heard of it in pasta water. (Deviled eggs, potato salad, soup of all kinds, yes...)

I would imagine it's just to flavor the pasta in the same way the salt flavors the pasta.

If you're interested, here's a post on serious eats that explains a lot of the mechanics of boiling pasta.
posted by phunniemee at 3:29 PM on May 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Ooh, phunniemee, you may have provided the answer unwittingly:
Do season the water. Some people claim that adding salt helps raise the water's boiling point, thus cooking the pasta faster. Don't believe them. The difference you get is at most a half a degree or so—nowhere near enough to make a difference, particularly because as we now know, you don't even have to use boiling water. But salt is necessary for another reason: It makes the pasta taste good.
posted by SMPA at 3:46 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Worcestershire = salt + other stuff.

The water is boiling because you're hydrating and cooking the pasta. There's raw flower and sometimes egg in there.

Using olive oil prevents the noodles from sticking to each other, but also presents sauce from sticking. If, without oil, your pasta is like really sticky, then you're probably overcooking your pasta. Ideally, it usually comes out of the water slightly too al dente and straight in with the cooking sauce with a little of the pasta water and you then cook that until the sauce is the right consistency and it coats the pasta.
posted by cmoj at 4:28 PM on May 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

I can see where it would make sense with puttanesca sauce. Worcestershire has anchovies.

How does it work?

Supposedly the olive oil thing doesn't work, but I mean, you have direct experience so apparently it does.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:50 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, yeah, it's totally a misconception that salt is used for making the water hotter. It's absolutely about the flavour. I've never heard of the W sauce in pasta water, but I would imagine it just makes it saltier.

Seconding what cmoj says about the olive oil. I will do it occasionally with a fresh, filled pasta (especially if it's going in an olive oil based sauce anyway), but if your pasta is sticking together a lot, probably you are over-cooking it. Also! don't ever rinse your pasta, that just pours all the flavour down the drain.
posted by looli at 4:51 PM on May 19, 2013

Seasoning the water is your only chance to get flavor into the pasta. Most people I've met seem to under-season their pasta cooking water. The standard I've heard is that it should be roughly the salinity of sea water. That's a good amount of salt - I usually do a longish pour of kosher salt. I imagine that Worcestershire sauce could impart some interesting flavors, but only if you added, like, half a bottle per batch of pasta. I'd stick with salt.
posted by Betelgeuse at 5:07 PM on May 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh. And I never add oil to the water and never have problems with the pasta sticking.
posted by Betelgeuse at 5:08 PM on May 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

My guess is at some point, someone in your mother's family or circle of friends was out of salt, and had the idea to substitute some Worcestershire sauce, and liked it enough to keep doing it and then passed it on.

(RE: Pasta sticking, what made a huge difference for me was using a large enough pot and enough water in that pot so that the pasta has room to float around as it cooks; when all I had was a 2qt saucepan that I could only fill halfway to keep it from boiling over, pasta would just sit in a big clump.)
posted by usonian at 5:20 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, the best way to keep it from sticking is to use more water in a larger pot. Oil just sits on top of the water.
posted by monkeymadness at 5:54 PM on May 19, 2013

While W sauce in the pasta water is unusual, it works gangbusters to put a squirt into tomato sauce to richen up the flavours.
posted by Sebmojo at 7:23 PM on May 19, 2013

I suspect someone in your family ran out of salt one day through in some Worcestershire as it's salty tasting instead and it became a family thing. On review what usonian said.

Use lots of water to stop it sticking, bring it to a rolling boil before adding pasta. Oil is supposed to help stop boiling over and the formation of foam on top of the water (not sure if it does but I put it in in case) not to stop the pasta sticking. Though tossing in oil after you tip it in the drainer can help.
posted by wwax at 7:30 PM on May 19, 2013

Response by poster: I think the "they tried the sauce and it worked fine and so now here we are" explanation makes the most sense. I was looking at other things in my kitchen and I'm almost positive this is the saltiest-tasting thing - other than salt itself - that anyone in my family has around, particularly since nothing else has anchovies or another super-salty ingredient in it. And if my math is right, Lee & Perrin's has the highest actual sodium content of any of my condiments and other things meant to to add to dishes, at 65mg per teaspoon. By comparison, the tomato paste suggested by some people has 20mg per two tablespoons (that's, like, 1/20th the sodium level;) not sure about the suggested bacon but cooked bacon is hard to come by in a hurry, unless you eat it a lot already which I do not.

And I definitely, definitely over-cook my pasta, so that probably is the explanation for the sticking thing. It never sticks in the pot, but rather when trying to get it into individual bowls, when I leave out the oil. With the oil in, I can let the drained pasta sit for twenty minutes, come back to the strainer, and handle it easily. (Distraction is the enemy of pasta-cooking; oil is apparently my go-to remedy.)

There's a certain degree of fetishizing one's precise cooking methods on the internet, I have now discovered. It appears to be a lot like Mommy-blogging, except the emotional damage is probably going to be less permanent, and there's somewhat less "oh my gosh I've just realized I'm a terrible person and my mother is too" stuff going around. The fact that it takes effort for me to remember I need to go finish cooking my pasta now makes me suspect I'd be the "oops, are children supposed to wear clothes, heh, never knew that" kind of mom. I would in any case be the mom whose children only like smooshy pasta, as that's the only kind I ever seem to cook. I should probably stay away from food-blogging as well as Mommy-blogging.
posted by SMPA at 8:00 PM on May 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Poster wrote in comment #3500267">> (Distraction is the enemy of pasta-cooking; oil is apparently my go-to remedy.)

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with setting your kitchen timer for 10 minutes to remind you that the pasta is probably done now. FYI. (This is not a thing that occurred to me until I saw my SO do it.)
posted by desuetude at 8:57 PM on May 19, 2013

Salting pasta water is essential for flavor. Rule of thumb is 10g of salt per liter of water, which is a lot more salt than people usually half-assedly sprinkle in there. No oil is necessary and in fact might mess up the adherence of the sauce to the pasta, which is the most important part of the whole process.

I fully assume that the worcestershire sauce is there for salty flavoring, but it's going to be nowhere near enough salt to flavor the pasta water correctly.

My husband didn't even salt his pasta until he me me, an Italian woman. He learned quickly.
posted by lydhre at 11:21 PM on May 19, 2013

crossposted from a different forum where I did the calculation (vapor point depression FTW)

Actually Salt just makes the pasta taste better. You would need to add 25g of salt to one liter of water to raise the BP by 0.5C. You would get larger fluctuations from weather depending on the barometric pressure.

Salt just makes the pasta taste good and does absolutely nothing to the boiling point.
posted by koolkat at 3:18 AM on May 20, 2013

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with setting your kitchen timer for 10 minutes to remind you that the pasta is probably done now

Oh my. You should really start sampling after six minutes.
posted by eddydamascene at 9:50 PM on May 20, 2013

> Oh my. You should really start sampling after six minutes.

Well now, that depends considerably on the shape and type of pasta, now doesn't it.

I should have said "10 minutes or whatever," with a footnote explaining that if you are not sure how long to cook their pasta, then consult the package directions for recommended cooking time and set your timer for perhaps 1 or 2 minutes earlier than that to start tasting. Once you have determined how long it generally takes for that specific type of pasta to cook it your personal preference for doneness, you can just set your timer accordingly.
posted by desuetude at 10:33 AM on May 23, 2013

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