Sunday, November 25

Italian Cooking: Taking it with a grain of salt

I dedicate many an entry in my book to Superstitions for Science that I conjecture have no actual basis in scientific methods.  But in actual fact, the more time you spend around these tried and true rules & regulations governing much of your Italian lifestyle [walking around in bare feet, catching a draught, making sure your hair isn't wet], you start to sort of come around to the idea that maybe, just maybe, some of them are founded in a grain of truth.  Perhaps it's like the game of 'Operator' - things just got a bit twisted as they were passed on down through the generations.
Personally, I chalk up my edging toward agreement with the lines of reason to the immense power of simple suggestion.  But, on another level, it might just be the 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em' resignation at work.  And even though I may humor the Italian grandmas (and all their descendants), nodding my head vigorously when hearing of the perils of sleeping near an open window, and other such transgressions, deep down, I know I'm not a true convert.
This is why the amusement is so great when I come across a Healthcare by Hearsay "fact" that I find I am totally on the wrong side of.  In the age of Google, no one can truly let a slight query ne'er a bold statement stand on its own anymore without someone reaching for their phone and 'checking the source'.  So, when it came to adding a pinch of salt in your pasta water, I should have known not to argue with an Italian who happens to be quite proficient in the kitchen.
Picture from A Pinch of Salt cooking classes
serving the NYC Metro area
Since I was a little girl, I was told to put salt in the pasta water, as you brought it to a boil, because      "It made the water boil faster."
It made perfect sense.  I may not be smarter than a fifth grader, but I do recall that 5th grade science experiment about salt and boiling temperatures (100º celsius).  And I have stuck by the salt = faster boil ever since.  If you ever find yourself cooking with Italians, they will, on the other hand, insist that the water gets boiled first and then you toss in the salt - which has nothing to do with boiling temperatures, but rather flavor.  Some go so far to state that the salt in the water may actually slow the boil process.
Judging from wikianswers or, the mound (of grains) of truth is, salt doesn't make water boil faster.  And, just to add salt to my 5th grade ego's wound, to get that increase in temperature kick that the supposed salt could provide, you'd need upwards of a bucketful, so a pinch won't quite do the trick either.
There is no sense in beating around the bush on this one, so I will offer up a neat, clean mea culpa (or, since we're in Italy, mia colpa):  They are right.  I am totally not worth my salt on this issue (sorry, couldn't resist).  
A lifetime of making sure you pre-salted the water prior to boiling is down the drain as fast as those little rigatoni pieces that slip out at the bottom of the pan.
All is not in vain, however.  I am elated to know that I have provided this important public service announcement to all and sundry who may find themselves in a kitchen with an Italian and who are pondering those huge life issues of -- just the right moment to throw just the right amount of salt in the pasta water.  But, of course, we all know that a watched pot will never truly come to a boil.  So look away, and toss that salt over your left shoulder.  That should do the trick.


Llove said...

I also was told to put in first, but I did start to notice the way the Italians did it. I've still been sort of half and half, but as you have gone over to the "truth", I'll now only add it when the boil begins!!

DamianRob said...

Okay, not to stir the waters even more (sorry, couldn't resist!), but I was taught in Bologna to add the salt to the water at the beginning--and not just a pinch, mind you, but a whole handful! I never really questioned it--just dutifully followed instructions, and it always worked for me. But I will say that, in thinking about it casually over the years as I waited for my salty pasta water to boil, I did develop an opinion about why one would do this. First and foremost, as a Chemistry major, I know that adding salt to water makes it boil more slowly, not faster. Well, to be more precise, it raises the boiling point of the salt-water solution, so it takes longer to achieve a full boil. But it's not just the time it takes--the fact is that the boil is actually hotter when it contains a lot of salt than when it's just water. So what would that do? In theory, it would cook the pasta more quickly--maybe helping to achieve that perfect 'al dente' consistency with less risk that the longer cooking time without salt would contribute to soggy pasta? Who knows? Of course, there's also the flavoring aspect, but I tend to think it has more to do with the former than the latter. But I agree with your post: on some of these things, it's probably best to just listen to nonna!

Anonymous said...

I don't put any salt in.