Simple Cooking Trick Could Save You 100 Gallons of Water, Makes Dinner Better

©. sayhmog

If everyone in the United States adopted this (almost) waterless method of cooking pasta, we'd save billions of gallons of water.

Ah, the kitchen. The heart of the home, the happy place, the spot where all the magic happens ... and a place of prodigious waste. From unimaginable food losses to the cult of disposability to the needless frittering away of resources, the place that nourishes us is also a place where much is squandered.

Over at Epicurious, David Tamarkin tackles one of these waste quandaries when he writes about the place that water has in cooking:

For all the talk about food waste lately, there's one ingredient that's been conspicuously left out of the conversation: water. In some ways, this is understandable – if you live in, say, Wisconsin, the water problems faced by nations such as India and states such as California probably feel very far away. (Then again, folks in Wisconsin have their own water worries – their groundwater is susceptible to fluctuations due to extreme weather.)
But regardless of where we live, the ways we waste water is so obvious, so naked before our eyes. What other ingredient do we consistently, literally pour down the drain?

And in indeed, we use a lot of water in the kitchen. By some accounts, a family of four uses 100 gallons of water a year just for cooking pasta. Considering that on average, a resident of sub-Saharan Africa uses 2 to 5 gallons of water per day, 100 gallons is a lot of water to be dumping through the colander.

In a quest to decrease his own water footprint in the kitchen, Tamarkin started experimenting with less water-intensive cooking methods, like steaming things instead of boiling them.

But pasta – how to handle something of which a giant vat of boiling water is part and parcel? Writes Tamarkin:

... I still found myself heating up big pots of water for pasta. I'd read somewhere – perhaps this New York Times piece that Harold McGee wrote in 2009 – that pasta could be cooked in significantly less water. But I also had a nagging voice in my head that this would be somehow incorrect – that even if it worked, the great Italian cooks of yore would start spinning in their graves.

After some adventures with the Epicurious test kitchen, it was confirmed that less water worked, but why stop there? They went on to experiment with using no water at all, and voila, they could. Well, kind of. The method works by putting uncooked pasta directly in a pot of simmering sauce, topping it with just enough water to cover (which is significantly less than a whole pot, obviously) and allowing the pasta to cook in the sauce. The extra water steams off, the pasta is cooked.

There is not a pot of water requiring the energy to boil. There is not a pot of water that gets dumped down the drain. There is not an extra pot that requires washing. If everyone in the U.S. applied this method, we could, astonishingly, save billions of gallons of water.

I really love this method for the reasons above, but also for a selfish reason: It makes pasta taste better, in my opinion. Pasta mavens know that boiling pasta to just al dente and then finishing the cooking in the sauce can do two things: The starch from the clinging (or added) pasta water helps thicken the sauce; meanwhile, hydrating the last of the dry pasta with sauce infuses some of the saucy goodness into the pasta itself. By cooking the pasta entirely in the sauce, you end up with a beautifully thick sauce and a noodle with added flavor. While that might not be for everyone, I find that with tomato sauce, it is lovely.

And Tamarkin and I aren't the only ones who promote the concept: Martha Stewart's one-pot pasta recipe instructs one to throw all of the sauce ingredients, along with the uncooked pasta, in a pot and cook until the water is absorbed. Basically the same idea, Martha-approved.

The results of this exploration are presented in the video below, which is part of an animated series from Epicurious called The Answer is Cooking. The series looks at ways in which cooking practices can have a positive impact on the environment– a topic that delights this treehugging foodie, for sure. Watch it, and browse other installments in the series ... and in the meantime, ditch that extra pot of boiling water.