Why does my pasta stick to the bottom of the pot?
December 24, 2020 12:42 AM   Subscribe

Why does my (constantly stirred, 1 lb boiled in an 8qt pot) pasta still stick to the bottom of the pot?

When I say "constantly stirred", I do mean, I have tried stirring it continuously for the entire 10 minutes it takes for linguine to cook. But I still get a few pieces stuck to the bottom of the pot, despite my best efforts to scrape the bottom when stirring.

I bring the water to a rolling boil and keep it there. I salt the water. I use 6 quarts of water (in an 8qt stockpot) for 1 pound of pasta. And yet... it sticks. Just a few pieces, but enough that I have to heat up some baking soda to clean the pot every time, which is annoying.

Not to mention, stirring a boiling pot of water for 10 minutes is a drag. Pasta night is a two-person affair because one person has to babysit the noodles. If I only stir at the beginning and then "every 2 minutes" like many advise, I end up with a whole layer of pasta stuck to the bottom.

I'm considering buying a new stainless steel pot with a colander insert, in hopes that maybe my enameled-cast-iron stockpot is the problem. But before I potentially waste some money, I'm coming to you, MeFi -- what am I doing wrong?
posted by serelliya to Food & Drink (43 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't think you're doing anything wrong, I think this is just the nature of the beast. It happens to me too.

You might like to try putting some oil on the bottom of the pot--not a lot, but it might help prevent the sticking. I don't think it would affect the texture of the pasta.
posted by purplesludge at 1:02 AM on December 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Hmm, this has never happened to me. Have you tried adding a few drops of olive oil? Though that is supposed to keep them from sticking together after they're cooked. I do it regularly because I usually boil enough for two meals at a time to save time.
posted by whitelotus at 1:03 AM on December 24, 2020 [4 favorites]

Once you bring the water to a rolling boil, add the pasta, and then let the water come back up to a boil, turn your heat down. The water should be simmering but it doesn't need to be at a rapid boil in order to cook.
posted by mezzanayne at 1:28 AM on December 24, 2020 [22 favorites]

Huh! This doesn't happen to me. Largest pot available, bring water back to simmer, little bit of oil.
posted by freethefeet at 2:03 AM on December 24, 2020

If it bothers you, I suggest you try with a stainless steel pot. Maybe there are invisible scratches in the enamel that your pasta sticks on to. It's normal for some pasta to stick to the post - in my experience, one or two strands after I stir for less than a minute in the beginning of cooking. A lot of pasta is not normal. And the pot is usually easy to clean.
In general: don't scrub your enameled pot too vigorously, let it soak instead until whatever is stuck unsticks itself.

I have a pot with a colander insert, but I end up never using the colander, just the pot. So if there is money or space to save by just buying a simple stainless pot, do that.

Also: don't put oil in the pot. First: the pasta police will come to get you, and second, normally the oil just floats to the top and sits there and does nothing, least of prevent sticking, but if you are very unlucky, it can harden up on the sides of the pot and create an even worse problem. I do not know the science of this, but it happened to me.
posted by mumimor at 2:53 AM on December 24, 2020 [14 favorites]

I had advice to stir once only and then don't agitate the pasta further.

I hope you find some advice that works for you.
posted by k3ninho at 3:38 AM on December 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Not to mention, stirring a boiling pot of water for 10 minutes is a drag.

Don't really know why your pasta is sticking, but I do know you don't stir pasta.
posted by signal at 4:09 AM on December 24, 2020 [14 favorites]

This doesn't happen to me. I stir it once when I put it in the pot and then leave it alone. I use various stainless pots that I've bought at thrift stores. Maybe the pot you use just isn't meant for that kind of cooking.
posted by mareli at 4:09 AM on December 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

I don't stir pasta at all - it's usually salt, dump pasta, lower heat - and at most one or two strands end up soft-sticked to the sides, never burned in the slightest. I agree it has to be the pot then. (Or the stirring?)
posted by I claim sanctuary at 4:26 AM on December 24, 2020

Suddenly I realize it could be the stirring! Because if you stir a lot, you release a lot of starch, which may adhere to the little tiny bumps and scratches in your pot. I still think you need to give it a quick stir right at the beginning. This had made me curious. I think I'll try and cook some linguine in my enameled cast-iron pot for lunch today and see what happens.
posted by mumimor at 4:34 AM on December 24, 2020 [21 favorites]

Yeah I think mumimor is on to something. The stirring could be causing the problem. I mean when you constantly stir rice, the stated goal is to make it really sticky.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:08 AM on December 24, 2020 [5 favorites]

My hunch is your pot is to blame, but I’m also curious what brand of pasta is it?
posted by STFUDonnie at 5:18 AM on December 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

I suspect the pot itself is a big part of the problem, and your stirring has exacerbated things because of the release of starch. I've never had this problem - and I've also never used an enamel-over-cast-iron pot, nor have I stirred pasta more than once. At most, I have had one or two strands that stick a bit, but can be easily pulled away from the pot with just a nudge or pulled with two fingers.

(Tiny frying pan - most pasta comes in one-pound boxes and serves four, so that's actually a standard amount.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:27 AM on December 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

This used to happen with my old, scratched enamel pot. I switched pots.
posted by toastedcheese at 5:40 AM on December 24, 2020 [4 favorites]

Linguine is the stickiest pasta because it's so flat. A few pieces always stick for me, too (but not with rounder shapes).
posted by deludingmyself at 5:57 AM on December 24, 2020 [4 favorites]

This is so weird. I cook pasta every week in a bog-standard cheap steel pan, never stir it except a quick stir at the beginning, add nothing but salt. The occasional piece sticks to the bottom but nothing major. I also think your stirring might be releasing lots of starch, ala risotto.
posted by peacheater at 6:12 AM on December 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've never heard of making pasta in an enameled cast iron pot (isn't that basically a dutch oven?). That doesn't mean nobody does it, but I feel like that sort of pot isn't intended for that sort of cooking.

Separately, water really only has to be boiling a little for pasta to cook. You don't need to keep it at a rolling boil, and you definitely shouldn't need to stir it constantly for 10 minute. Stirring is most important right after you add pasta to the water to keep it from sticking to the bottom. So I'd suggest not maintaining the rolling boil after you add the pasta. But I also think the type of pot you're using is a big part of the issue.

I would recommend getting a stainless steel pot for cooking pasta and anything that doesn't need to be cooked in a cast iron pot.
posted by wondermouse at 6:15 AM on December 24, 2020

One POUND of pasta? Wouldn't that be many cups of pasta?
A pound of pasta is one supermarket package. It's a normal amount to make all at once. Something else is going on here.
Suddenly I realize it could be the stirring!
Don't really know why your pasta is sticking, but I do know you don't stir pasta.
I also think your stirring might be releasing lots of starch, ala risotto.
The OP says that stirring more makes the pasta stick less. If stirring was the problem, stirring more would make the pasta stick more. Something else is going on here.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:16 AM on December 24, 2020

Do you have this problem with other pasta shapes?

Does the pasta that sticks to the bottom seem burned or scorched in any way?

At what point in the cooking process does it stick? If you stopped a minute in, would any be stuck? Three minutes? Five minutes?
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:18 AM on December 24, 2020

It just occurred to me that the problem you're describing may not completely be that the pasta is sticking while you're cooking, but that when you drain the pot you're ending up with a few stray noodles that essentially miss the boat. Then, because the pot is so hot, those noodles dry out and stick to the pan.

That actually does happen to me with long noodles. It has nothing to do with stirring and everything to do with making sure I've gotten all the noodles out before leaving the hot pot to sit with no water in it. So you may just need to make sure to get all the noodles out right when you drain, or add some hot water back to the pot after draining so those don't get dried out and stuck.

If they dry onto the pot before you have the chance to do that, that's because your pot is still so hot.

Edited to add: having to stir pasta constantly to keep it from sticking while cooking is still indicative of using an incompatible cooking vessel at too high a temperature.
posted by wondermouse at 6:42 AM on December 24, 2020 [13 favorites]

Actually, let's back up a minute.

OP - you say that the problem is "pasta sticking to the bottom of your pot". When you say "sticking" - do you mean like "they stick there but I can pull them off easy"? Or do you mean like "they stick and are nearly permanently bonded"?

If it's the latter - definitely switch pots, something about the pot you're using is prone to things sticking to it. But if it's the former - one or two noodles stick but can be nudged free - then....I question whether this is really a problem to solve as opposed to just being a minor annoyance that you've been hoping to avoid?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:54 AM on December 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Then problem is your enameled cast iron cocotte (note: this is not the geometry of a stockpot, which will be as tall as it is wide). I definitely recommend a large stockpot with a strainer insert. If you can, get one with an insert deep enough so you can get a whole spaghetti strand under the water right from the start (otherwise you have to wait for it to soften until you can bend it all into the water, and that's a bit of a pain).
posted by slkinsey at 7:12 AM on December 24, 2020

Now I am eating pasta for science, and I think wondermouse has a good point.
I used my battered old enameled pot but otherwise did as normal and these are things I noticed:
- it takes a lot longer to bring the water to the boil
- however, when it boils, it boils. In my stainless pot, the water always goes off the boil for a few seconds when you put in the pasta. This meant I could stir even less than usual because the boiling water moved the pasta around. I stirred less than five seconds just to get all the pasta evenly into the water (counted, didn't time)
- I cooked the pasta for 8 minutes, rather than the 10 it says on the package, because I wanted to finish the pasta in the sauce. Maybe this makes a difference?
- when the pasta was ready, I put a splash of the pasta water into the sauce (aglio, olio & pepperonici + some kale and tomato). I spilled, because the cast iron pot is heavier and hard to handle, so I should have used a ladle
- then I poured the pasta into a colander -- and 4 strands of pasta stuck to the pot! I pushed them out with my plastic spoon right away (no metal on the enamel), but the pot was still very hot, compared to a steel pot, so that
is where wondermouse has a good point
- my pot cooled down dry as I ate, and when it was cold, I left it to soak for a while in cold water. Always soak in cold water if you have cooked starches. When I felt it after the cooling-down phase, there was a tiny bit of pasta-water in there, and it felt very starchy. Starch + water = glue, and you don't want that, but it was easily dissolved in the cold water. After about ten minutes, I cleaned out the water and used a plastic scrub and a tiny bit of soap to finish the job, and it is now smooth and fine again.
Always wait to put the lid on till every bit of moisture is gone

But this all still doesn't explain why the pasta sticks even more when you don't stir. It is a mystery

The OP says that stirring more makes the pasta stick less. If stirring was the problem, stirring more would make the pasta stick more.
I did notice that, but imagined that both things can be true at the same time: if you stir too much, you release too much starch, and then you need to stir even more to stop it from sticking. That might still be the case, but to explore that possibility, someone will need to eat more pasta :-)
posted by mumimor at 7:13 AM on December 24, 2020 [6 favorites]

I know this is wrong. I know that some if not most of you will come down on me for this. I use a microwave pasta cooker. Took me a few times to get the timing right for type of pasta and for the al dente texture, but it works terrifically and no sticking and easy as pie clean up. And, No Stirring!

If you search on Amazon for "microwave pasta boat" you will be inundated with choices.
posted by AugustWest at 7:17 AM on December 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

I had this problem with an enameled stock pot that lost its coating due to making too many pickles. I've switched to a stainless steel pot from Ikea and had no problem since. I also use an enameled Dutch oven when I make I pot pasta and it doesn't stick, so I think it's just your pot has lost it.

In researching why it was sticking I found that a lot of people are recommending using less water, in order to get more starchy water for the sauce. So if you're finding that water volume makes no difference in stickiness, neither did they.
posted by fiercekitten at 7:53 AM on December 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

this has never happened to me. What kind of pasta are we talking about? Lasagne is famously tricky (I never make it) but I've never seen it with the long or smallish ones, and I never stir while cooking.

I also ignore the stuff about using 8 million litres of water or whatever. I know the doctrine and I haven't found it to be true.

I use a regular pot with a handle, water at an eyeballed volume that will let the pasta move freely even when it's cooked, and plenty of salt in the water. Add the pasta somewhat slowly (to keep the temp up) and stir once or twice while you're adding, to make sure it hasn't clumped up at that point. Make sure the water's boiling before you add the pasta, but then do NOT have it at a rolling boil after, just a low boil.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:18 AM on December 24, 2020

I find (with macaroni) that you have to stir immediately after putting the pasta in the water. Then again a less than a minute later. Then I never stir again. The sticking happens in the first couple minutes. If you beat that window of pot sticking you’re good.

Note I don’t know how to stop linguine from sticking together.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:47 AM on December 24, 2020 [6 favorites]

St. Peepsburg has it.
posted by aniola at 9:11 AM on December 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Also, not sure if this is clear to you or not, but do not put the pasta in until the water has come to the boil.
posted by aniola at 9:15 AM on December 24, 2020 [5 favorites]

This is so fascinating, although I think fiercekitten is probably right, I found this famous old article at Serious Eats. It is very interesting. Apparently, my idea about the starchy water is all wrong. But what St. Peepsburg says is correct: The sticking happens in the first couple minutes. Since it doesn't match with your experience, it must be the pot.
The pot I used today is very battered, but I have not attempted to get it back to looking pretty, ever. Because I think I ruined my most favorite enameled pot that way. I burnt a bread in it, and then used every trick I could find on the internet to make it look good again, including baking soda and barkeepers friend, and dissolving one of those detergent things you put into dishwashers. The enamel is still there, but it has become weirdly porous. It's not dangerous to use, according to the manufacturer, but things stick to it. I haven't tried to cook pasta in it.
posted by mumimor at 9:15 AM on December 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Note I don’t know how to stop linguine from sticking together.

If you mean that the pasta is sticking together while boiling, I stir the pasta right after placing it into the boiling water to get some space between the stands then add a 1/4 cup or less of the red* sauce to the water.

Also, dress the pasta with a 1/4 cup or less of red sauce immediately after straining it to further prevent sticking (no oil–it works, but also prevents the sauce from being able to grab onto the pasta properly when served).

* this would not work with an olio or white sauce.
posted by marimeko at 9:35 AM on December 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, a few days ago I read "Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef-in-Training" by Bill Buford, and he says:

"When I reached the kitchen, Lemaire was already so distressingly deep into the evening's batch of "cannelloni" (and possibly so embarrassed about being found there), that he didn't rebuke me. He must have known that he had added way too much olive oil this time, but nevertheless had the forethought, just in case, to cook way too many noodles. In the effort to unstick them, most were ruined. The small number that survived were just enough to wrap the braised beef cheeks.

The trick, by the way, is not oil. It's a wooden spoon. To keep your pasta from sticking? You stir it."

posted by Comrade_robot at 10:17 AM on December 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

So I make “gourmet spaghetti o’s” for our kids sometimes, using this amazing recipe and the little o-pasta I buy from our local market for just this recipe ALWAYS STICKS to the bottom of the pan—unlike any pasta I have ever cooked. And it sticks to the bottom of my enamel pan and my stainless steel pan. I have to stir it the whole time. It’s a pain.

Which leads me to wonder...is it the type or brand of pasta you’re cooking, maybe? Have you tried a different type or brand?
posted by pinkacademic at 10:19 AM on December 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

normally the oil just floats to the top and sits there and does nothing

A few drops of oil will stop the water from foaming up.
posted by Splunge at 10:29 AM on December 24, 2020

It's my ignorant opinion that keeping the burner on high does this. It's not necessary to keep the water boiling and circulating, but heats up the bottom of the pan something fierce, which I would expect could cause the starches to fuse.

I always dial it down to about half as soon as I add the pasta - stirring is also necessary IMO, at least at the very beginning and perhaps a minute later to make sure you catch any ones sticking to each other or the pan.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 1:23 PM on December 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Wow, I didn't expect to come back to this much info and speculation! To add some more details:

- I might not be using an enameled cast-iron pot -- I don't know exactly how heavy cast iron is, this one is much heavier than stainless but not like painful-to-move heavy. It is a normal 8qt stockpot shape and is definitely enameled, though. My mother gave it to me when I graduated college, maybe because she didn't know what to cook in it either! It sounds like switching to a normal stainless steel stockpot is worth trying, at least.

- When I say the pasta "sticks", I mean that somewhere between 1 and 5 long linguine strands will be semi-permanently bonded to the bottom of the pot. (Five strands being a full single-layer coating of stuck pasta on the bottom.) It's not the wasted pasta that I mind, but the cleanup ordeal.

- We haven't tried cooking round pasta shapes, only linguine or spaghetti as that's what we prefer to eat.

- We buy either De Cocco or Trader Joe's brand linguini. It definitely still happens with De Cocco, which I assume is the brand that everyone else in the world with their non-sticking pasta uses.

- So much science behind stirring that I didn't know about! I didn't think to try "stir less", we just noticed the pasta was sticking when we forgot to stir so we switched to constant stirring.

- I didn't know about the not-always-a-rolling-boil part, either. As someone else commented above, enameled pots seem to retain heat / keep a boil much easier than stainless. (And I am using a cheapo rental electric stove, so I can't imagine my "high" heat is higher than average.) I'll try turning the heat down after the initial boil, and stirring only for the first minute.
posted by serelliya at 1:54 PM on December 24, 2020

Please let us know what you find out. This is the most interesting topic in the last few days. Your last sentence is what I do in a Calaphon pot with far less water than recommended.
posted by Ferrari328 at 2:07 PM on December 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Does spaghetti stick as badly as linguine?
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:22 AM on December 25, 2020

OK, so I tried it again, this time stirring constantly, with all other factors identical. This time only one strand of pasta stuck to the pot, and it was a bit easier to remove than those from the first time. But the sauce this time was incredibly smooth and creamy, if I hadn't cooked it myself, I might have thought it included some butter.
posted by mumimor at 4:47 AM on December 29, 2020

I don't stir pasta at all - it's usually salt, dump pasta, lower heat

Wait, not at all? I always give a stir at the beginning to long pasta just to disorder the strands so they don't form up into glued-together globs of parallel noodles. Is this unnecessary?
posted by jackbishop at 7:35 AM on December 29, 2020

My Italian friend taught me to dump in the long pasta around the rim in a disorderly manner so it looks like a modernist bird nest.
posted by signal at 10:22 AM on December 29, 2020

I do a thing with long spaghetti noodles where you gently twist them in both hands in opposing directions, set the twisted bundle perpendicular to the pot right in the center and then let go with both hands, quickly moving them out of the way. If you are lucky and fast, the strands will fan themselves out in perfect orderly circle around the pot rim. Then you let it boil for awhile, kind of patting in the dried noodle ends as the submerged part softens up and eventually it's all in there. Put on the lid and lower to a simmer. Test your noodle for doneness by flinging one at a passing metro bus–if it sticks, it's ready.
posted by amanda at 3:54 PM on December 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

A belated follow-up to say: the answer to my original question is MY POT SUCKED. I now believe it's an enamel-on-steel pot, not an enamel-on-cast-iron pot. Anyway, I bought a new stainless steel pot, my husband made the pasta without using the strainer insert, likely without changing any techniques besides not constantly stirring -- and the linguine came out perfectly. One strand clinging to the bottom that could be easily peeled off, not several whole strands glued to the base, and very little stirring (maybe none?) required.

Thanks for all of the speculation and advice, MeFi!
posted by serelliya at 9:38 PM on January 23 [5 favorites]

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