A few weeks ago, a reader in our weekly live cooking chat asked how to fix marinara sauce that leaks water onto the plate after they add it to pasta. At the time, my mind focused on the sauce itself. I suggested bringing it to an initial boil to deactivate the enzyme in the tomatoes that breaks down their pectin, and then simmering until it reaches the desired consistency. But others in the chat, and a reader who later emailed me, reminded me that the sauce might not be the problem – it could be the pasta.
The first issue – and perhaps my biggest pet peeve when it comes to pasta – is that the noodles and the sauce shouldn’t meet for the first time on your plate. The pasta should always finish cooking in the sauce instead. “The process of taking the pasta out of the water and going into your sauce and cooking it for another minute or two, it really yields such a better quality product than just pouring hot sauce over a noodle that comes out,” chef Matthew Adler of Caruso’s Grocery said.
The second issue, which the reader’s email noted, is that some people rinse their pasta after boiling it in salted water. If this describes you, here’s why you should stop doing so (in most cases).
“You’re really just washing off those natural starches that are coming out of the pasta from the cooking, and that’s such an integral part of pulling the sauce together,” Adler said.
The starch on the pasta is what helps the sauce cling to it. Typically, he skips draining the pasta altogether by using a skimmer or tongs to transfer it directly from the boiling water into the skillet with the sauce. (Though a colander is quicker and more convenient for home cooks preparing large quantities.) “If you wash that starch off, you’re never going to have a beautiful, shiny, cohesive pasta.”
And while we’re on the topic, here’s a reminder to save some of that starchy pasta cooking water in case you need it to help pull it all together.
One instance where rinsing noodles after boiling might make sense is when they will be cooked again in an assembled baked pasta dish, such as lasagna. Rinsing not only stops the cooking process but also helps to keep the pasta from sticking to itself, which makes it easier to layer the ingredients. Even so, there’s another option: “I would blanch it, and then go onto a sheet pan with parchment and put a touch of olive oil on it, and then just kind of let it cool down,” Adler said.
The other case where you might consider rinsing is in cold dishes, such as pasta salad. For vinaigrette-based dishes, I like to take the hot noodles and toss them straight into the bowl with the dressing, so that the pasta soaks up all of that flavor. Adler doesn’t think it is necessary to do so, so you can go either way.
But when it comes to creamy, mayo-based pasta salads, we agree that you always want to rinse the pasta first, the main reason being that the hot pasta may cause the emulsion of the mayonnaise to break. One more tip: “Pasta salads are also the one instance where I might not necessarily cook my pasta al dente,” Adler said. “I get to take it a little bit further.”