A not-so-mythic food rule, debated

posted in: Ruminations | 12

How many times have you heard it uttered by chefs, food experts and on cooking TV shows to salt the water in your pot of boiling pasta water so that it’s salty “like the sea”? That’s one edict that everyone seems to agree on. But I beg to differ, in some cases (more on that below). Therefore, when an editor from the New York Times‘ new Room for Debate blog contacted me and asked me if I had a food myth that I’d like to debunk, I first offered a little diatribe on that. In the end, we realized that this wasn’t actually a “myth” at all — it was more common advice, not something you could really “debunk.”

I encourage you to check out the (much more interesting) quips from food experts and writers in the round-up of food myths that was ultimately posted on Reason for Debate last week. You might notice that veteran food writer and The Feedbag blogger Josh Ozersky made a somewhat controversial opine about his preference for corn-fed beef over grass-fed (which I’ll refrain from commenting on for now). I do appreciate a good food argument, though, which all the contributors justly put up. Emboldened by his brashness, I thought I’d share the original “myth” I’d come up with here, too. Chime in with your own food myth — or mere peeve — if you’ve got one.

So, why not pour salt in the pasta water straight from the canister spout, ’til it’s salty “like the sea”? If you’re making homemade pasta sauce from fresh vegetables, your favorite herbs, olive oil and your own discretionary pinches of salt (sea salt is nice, indeed), then the point is null. But if you’re going to eat your pasta with jarred sauce, you might want to reconsider how much salt you add to that water.

Most jarred pasta sauces contain high amounts of sodium for preservation and flavor. For example, the popular Ragu Old World Style Traditional sauce has 580mg of sodium, 24% of your recommended daily intake. Even canned tomatoes, peeled or diced, are packed with sodium, unless labeled “Low Sodium” or “Heart Healthy.”

As an alternative, try flavoring your pasta noodles by removing it from the water a little early and cooking it in the sauce while it heats up. The pasta will absorb some of the salt from the sauce, instead.

12 Responses

  1. megan

    i always thought you added salt to make the water boil faster because salty water has a lower boiling point?

  2. cathy

    Megan: Oh right, I meant to acknowledge that point. Thanks! I think it’s a two-part thing, too.

  3. hs

    Actually, the opposite. The salty water boils slower but hotter because it has a higher boiling point.

  4. JustNancy

    Wait. I thought saltwater had a higher boiling point so one shouldn’t actually salt the water until after the water reaches a boil.

  5. EMC

    I certainly agree with the politics of grass fed beef, but I really do prefer the taste of corn fed. I’m not sure if it’s because I grew up in the Midwest, or I just have very testy taste buds, but the taste of grass fed beef is…well, there is no taste. I’ll be honest.

  6. noble pig

    The boiling point of salt water is higher because taking the solute (in this case salt) out of the water and putting it in the gas phase requires lots and lots of energy.

    Water boils when the vapor pressure of the water gets to be as big as the pressure of the atmosphere, so in other words…vapor bubbles grow.

    You must heat the liquid with solutes higher to get the vapor pressure in it to equal the atmospheric pressure, so it has a higher boiling point.

    Sorry, I’m a nerd.

  7. Mikey

    Yep, the nerdly noble pig is spot on and far more precise than I could tell you. Salt water boils hotter than fresh water.

    As far as cooking pasta goes, there’s nothing particular magical about the boiling point – it’s just as hot as you can get the water going, and in this case, hotter = better. It’s easier to make your pasta al dente.

    But that’s all secondary – pasta is, by itself, a bland food and strongly benefits in flavor from some salt. And even though you’re adding a lot of salt to the pot, the vast majority of it is going to be poured off when you drain your noodles.

    The healthiest and tastiest option is usually to try to limit the salt in your food that doesn’t come out of your own saltshaker. But you can usually be very liberal with your own supply.

  8. Sarah

    I’m with Mikey. You should definitely be more concerned with how much salt is in your processed/canned foods than you add from your own salt shaker at home (you really should stay away from them in general, but we all know that isn’t possible).

    Buy canned tomatoes with no salt added, then feel free to add as much salt as you like. If you added enough table/kosher salt to reach the sodium levels in processed foods, you wouldn’t be able to even consume it. Processed foods are “formulated” to taste the way you expect (read: chemicals and other nasty additives), so you can’t readily tell how full of sodium the product is.

    Making homemade tomato sauce is about the easiest thing you can do. I use cans of salt-free tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, herbs, red wine, etc, making a huge batch and freezing 3-cup portions. It defrosts beautifully, and is far healthier than anything I can get in a grocery.

  9. S

    I thought the thing with pale foods is that they tend to be less nutritious then their counterparts. So, while cauliflower is nutritious, it is still not as nutritious as its darker counterpart, broccoli.

  10. William

    I have tons of blog themes and have not seen one like yours before, I like it.

  11. Biguns

    More, more. I am right with you on this one. Couldn’t have said it nicer myself. Thanks for the perfect post. See this grass fed beef site. I will be keeping an eye on this.

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