If you think we’re about to recommend alternatives for boiling your pasta, think again.
Did you know pasta water is the secret ingredient to getting thick, yummy sauces that cling to your pasta instead of sliding to the bottom of your plate?
Some great pasta water substitutes include flour and water, cornstarch and water, and even xanthan gum, along with some others.
What is Pasta Water?
On one hand, pasta water is what it sounds like. It’s the water you cook your pasta in. It ends up cloudy, maybe salted, and super hot by the time you dump it into your sink through a colander.
However, pasta water can serve a truly game-changing purpose if you’re trying to make restaurant-quality pasta.
Simply emulsifying your sauce ingredients with your al dente pasta and ½ cup of pasta water can create next-level, thick and delicious sauces.
It’s not pure magic, though. Pasta water becomes cloudy because the water absorbs starches on the body of your pasta. This starchiness is what helps thicken watery ingredients into a sauce.
It’s an Italian secret, and now we’re sharing it with you.
Dishes like cacio e pepe, carbonara, and penne alla vodka use pasta water to make those creamy, binded sauces we know and love.
You don’t have to be making a cream-based sauce for pasta water to work, though. If you’re making pesto pasta and having trouble getting the pasta to cover each noodle, pasta water can be your best friend. It’ll break up and spread out the pesto but not water it down.
You can even freeze pasta water to add to pan sauce without pasta.
Fusilli or rotini, pasta water will get you the best sauce results. And let’s be real, it’s the sauce that makes the pasta.
Is Pasta Water Necessary?
Pasta water is only necessary if you’re trying to achieve thick, succulent sauces. And why wouldn’t you be?
But seriously. If you’re into the simpler things in life and prefer using jarred sauce directly on your pasta bowl, dirtying as few dishes as possible, then go for it. Pasta water makes a major difference, but pretty much any pasta tastes good.
However, if you’ve been trying to make your own sauce and seriously struggling, pasta water is necessary.
Remove your pasta from the heat when it’s slightly less cooked than al dente. Al dente means the pasta is still slightly chewy. If you emulsify everything when it’s at this level, it’ll end up slimy by the time your done. So, leave it a little undercooked for now.
When you drain your pasta, make sure to save some of the water it’s been cooking in.
Then, in either the same pot you used to boil or a new pan, add your sauce ingredients (or jarred sauce!), your undercooked pasta, and about ¼ pasta water at a time. The trick, besides the pasta water, is to continuously stir the ingredients together rather than letting them sit.
This movement, called emulsifying, is what will speed up the thickening process and really bind everything together.
For best results, do this over medium heat.
What Can I Substitute for Pasta Water?
Alright, we’ve convinced you that pasta water is an essential to premium pasta. You cooked everything, excited to try it out, and then realized you forgot to save any.
Or, you’re making a different sauce and don’t want to have to boil a bunch of pasta for a thickener.
Don’t worry. There’s a number of alternatives you can whip up!
Just make sure that for each of these substitutes, you mix the ingredients together before adding them to your sauce. Powdery starches will not mix directly with your sauce ingredients, and need to be broken down first.
Add the mixtures to your sauce, not the individual ingredients.
1. Corn Flour, Oil, and Salt
This mixture will produce a silkiness that’ll beautifully thicken your sauces.
The silkiness comes from the oil, and salt is added for flavor. Cornstarch is flavorless, so you shouldn’t have to worry about weird starch flavors in your dish.
2. Cornstarch and Water
If you want your pasta thickened but not too smooth, then opt for this cornstarch option. Add equal parts water and cornstarch to a bowl, stir, and addt to your sauce.
3. Potato Starch and Water
Potato starch, unlike cornstarch, has a slightly sweet flavor. This could be a desirable addition to an alfredo dish, or any other dish where sweetness might be desired.
This is another great thickening option.
4. Flour and Water
This is probably the cheapest and most accessible option.
Too much flour can sometimes add a weird aftertaste to your sauce, so try to be sparing in this addition of equal parts flour and water.
Uncooked flour can also cause indigestion, so make sure you cook this up completely.
Remember, you can always add more, but you can’t remove.
5. Xanthan Gum and Water
Xanthan gum is a really powerful thickening agent, so don’t use more than ⅛ teaspoon per cup of liquid.
That sounds like very little, but it’ll definitely thicken up your sauce.
Consider mixing oil in there as well, to cover the potential aftertaste.
6. Boil a Potato
On the rare occasion you have none of these other options, but do have a potato, the water you boil it in will provide the same properties as potato starch.
Potato water works just like pasta water.
7. Make A Roux
Roux is a classic staple of French cooking, and has been used for many years as a thickening agent.
It’s made by combining 1 part flour and 1 part oil to create a thick paste.
A little bit of this will definitely thicken your pasta sauce. However, the flavor may not work so well in all dishes.
We recommend sticking to cream-based dishes rather than something like a tomato basil sauce. The acid of the tomatoes won’t pair so well with the flour.
How to Make Emergency Pasta Water
You don’t need a ton of pasta water to thicken a sauce, so it’s no use to boil another entire pot of pasta.
Another option is to boil just a tiny bit of pasta in a tiny bit of water.
You could evn heat up water in an electric kettle, pour it in a bowl, and add a few pieces of pasta until they’re mostly cooked.
Within those 5-10 minutes it takes those few pieces of pasta to cook, the water will likely be starchy enough to add to a sauce.
This is another great alternative if you don’t have any of the previously ingredients on hand, but really want to use pasta water.
If you don’t want to do this, and have simple ingredients like flour and water, the process is pretty much the same.
Boil ¼ cup water. Once it’s boiling, add ¼ cup flour. Remember, these measurements are up to you – just make sure they’re equal parts.
Before adding the flour-water mixture to your sauce, make sure it’s completely mixed, with no chunks. Try using a whisk or fork if you’re having trouble with this step.
Either of these options should give you a working thickener for your pasta sauce.
Tips to Avoid Draining All of Your Pasta Water
It’s much more convenient to just keep the pasta water in the first place.
How cool is it that your essential ingredient is created through the combination of other ingredients?
Here’s a couple ways you can save your pasta water.
- Set a reminder when you first start making your pasta. This way, you won’t accidentally dump it all out.
- Remove your pasta with tongs, rather than a colander. This method won’t require pouring out any water to access your pasta. Then, you’ll have it all waiting for you to scoop it out.
- Remove pasta water with a ladle and transfer to a mug or measuring cup. After doing this, you can dump out your pasta without worrying about saving any. We suggest a mug or measuring cup because they each have handles, so you won’t burn yourself on the liquid.
If you’re a pasta enthusiast, like most of us are, treat yourself with this simple extra step and add pasta water to your sauces.
If you forget, don’t fear, because there’s 7 different ways you can still get that world-rocking, thick, restaurant-quality sauce even if you pour out all your water.
We’ve all been there. Sometimes, the promise of pasta is so exciting we forget to think!