Salty like the Mediterranean

Have you ever wondered why you always see chefs cooking pasta in salted water?  Some people say it’s to season the pasta, which is true.  However, it’s also that salted water boils at a higher temperature than unsalted water, which means that the pasta will cook faster.

Plain, unsalted water boils at 100 degrees Celsius (at sea level, anyway).  When you add salt, you interrupt the interactions between the water molecules and it requires more energy (heat) to excite the water into its gas phase (to boil).  It’s like being at a party with all your closest friends (you’re all water molecules), and having a group of strangers crash the party (they’re the salt molecules).  It’ll take you extra energy to find your friends, right?  And it’ll take you longer to find your friends, too.

As a result of interrupting these molecular interactions, salted water boils at a higher temperature.  Exactly how much higher will depend on how much salt you’ve added. 

But wait.  If it takes longer for salt water to boil, isn’t that actually increasing the cooking time?  

Well, yes and no.  It will take longer for your pot of salted water to boil, but since it boils at a higher temperature, your pasta will cook faster.  Generally speaking, the time you save by cooking pasta at a higher temperature more than makes up for the extra time you spend boiling salted water.

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4 responses to “Salty like the Mediterranean

  1. Very interesting! I always wondered about that. I’ve never cooked with the salt, because I generally prefer my food unsalted. But now I know that if I’m in a hurry, salt can speed up the process. Thanks for this food science!

  2. Very good.
    But don’t forget about it’s affect on an ice bath too. Putting salt in water also lowers it’s freezing point. So if want to chill your beer really cold, just add salt to that ice bath.

  3. Yes! My take is that adding salt means it cooks at a higher temperature; just as cooking in lukewarmy-hot water makes gooey rice, hotter water makes for more definition in the cooked pasta.

  4. Karen – you’re welcome!

    Alvin – leave it to you to put freezing point depression in a context that most people understand: beer.

    Another way to get cold beer fast is to use a half-and-half mixture of water to ice. The ice makes it cold, while the water provides the maximum surface area for contact with the beer.

    John – I agree. I think it’s true for anything, but particularly for starches, which tend to go gooey. And gooey starch is gross starch.

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