Italians are notorious — and understandably — protecting their kitchens, as attested to by frequent discussions about the right toppings for pizza or the right pasta for a Bolognese ragu.
So it was hardly surprising that a Nobel Prize-winning Italian physicist caused a huge uproar with advice on how to cook pasta perfectly that seemed to turn on its head everything the countries chefs had done in the kitchen for centuries.
Professor Giorgio Parisi – who received the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics for “discovering the interplay of disorder and variability in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales” – suggested turning off the heat while cooking pasta, then covering it with a lid and waiting for the residual heat in the water to finish the work can help reduce the cost of cooking noodles.
In response, Michelin-starred chef Antonello Colonna claimed that this method made the pasta rubbery and that it could never be served in a high-end restaurant like his own. The controversy quickly spread through the media, with several heavyweights from the food and science industries contributing.
But for those trying to save money on pasta cooking at home, is Parisi’s method really cost-effective? And does it really taste that bad? Inspired by the thought of saving some money, Nottingham Trent University students Mia and Ross went into the kitchen to cook pasta in different ways and help solve the tangled strands of this question.
What happens when you cook pasta?
The first question to be asked is what actually happens when we cook pasta. In the case of dried pasta, two processes typically run in parallel. First, water penetrates the noodles, rehydrates and softens them in boiling water within 10 minutes. Second, the noodles heat up, causing the proteins to expand and become edible.
In the standard cooking method, 100 grams of pasta is immersed in 1 liter of boiling water for 10 to 12 minutes, depending on the thickness. The breakdown of energy consumption is shown in the graph below, which can be converted into total costs using data on the price of energy and the efficiency of the stove.
At today’s prices, cooking dried pasta costs £12.7 per serving on a ceramic hob, £10.6 on an induction cooktop and £7 on a gas cooktop. Given the UK’s love of pasta, with everyone eating one serving a week on average, we spend £4,690,000 a week cooking pasta.
The graphic shows that around 60 percent of the energy is used to keep the water boiling. Anything that can be done to reduce the cooking time would have a significant impact on the overall cost. Parisi’s method of turning off the hob halfway and letting the pasta cook in the residual heat cuts cooking costs in half, a saving of about £3. This method is even more effective on ceramic hobs because they cool down more slowly than gas and induction hobs.
However, by separating the rehydration and heating processes, it is possible to reduce costs even further. Dried noodles can be fully rehydrated by soaking them in cold water for two hours. This is a process that requires no energy at all and saves an additional 3 pounds.
The pasta then has to be dipped in boiling water to warm through – and there are further savings here too. Chefs, bloggers and scientists report that significantly reducing the amount of water does not affect the quality of cooked pasta. We found that halving the water resulted in perfect noodles, but reducing it to a third was unsatisfactory. Starch is released during cooking, and if there’s too little water, the concentration will build up, leaving clumps of unevenly cooked noodles – although stirring the pot regularly can certainly improve matters.
Halving the water resulted in perfect noodles, but reducing it to a third was unsatisfactory.
The graph shows that the second largest energy requirement is to bring the water to a boil. Again, savings have to be made here.
It turns out that the protein granules in pasta dissolve above 80°C, so there’s no need to “cook” the pan at 100°C, as is often recommended. Gentle simmering is enough to fully cook the noodles, yielding an additional savings of about 0.5 pounds.
We also investigated using a microwave to heat the soaked pasta. Microwaves are very efficient at heating water, but in our experiments, this produced the worst noodles of all. Definitely not one to try at home.
Here’s how it works – and save money
The prize for the most efficient method of cooking dried pasta is to soak them in cold water before adding them to a pot of simmering water or sauce for a minute or two. Keeping a lid on the pan is another easy thing you can do. The addition of salt changes the boiling point only slightly, but improves the taste significantly.
We’re not all Michelin-starred chefs or Nobel Prize-winning physicists, but we can all transform the way we cook to reduce energy costs while creating great-tasting food. Now it’s up to you to experiment with these methods until you find a combination that makes your cooking more economical while also saving your energy pennes.
This article was originally published on The conversation from David Fairhurst at Nottingham Trent University. Read the original article here.