Kitchen Science: Oil in Pasta Water?

Harold McGee had a pet peeve: chefs, especially TV chefs, and countless cookbooks all contained the same instruction, worded practically identically each time, to "sear the meat to seal in the juices."

Turn on any cooking show from the 1980s or 1990s - Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, The Cajun Chef, The Frugal Gourmet, The Galloping Gourmet, Lidia Bastianich, etc, etc.

"Gotta sear the meat, seal in the juices."

McGee knew better, and tested it. Turns out searing the meat does no such thing - in fact, meat seared at high temperature loses more moisture than meat that is not. But something important does happen in the searing process: the Maillard reaction - the caramelization of proteins and sugars.

The process creates the crispy, brown crust that we all love in a good pan fried or grilled steak. But it does nothing to retain moisture. So these days, one doesn't hear "seal in the juices" from the lips of a now better educated class of TV chefs.


"Add a little bit of oil to the pasta water so the pasta doesn't stick."


Never mind that the water is boiling, never mind that oil and water don't really like each other, never mind that the surface area of the pasta is exactly what you want to be "sticky" (think about it, you want the sauce to adhere to the pasta, dressing it like a salad).

There is only one case in which oil in pasta water might marginally help something: creating enough surface tension to prevent foam-overs with fresh pasta and gnocchi.

One Of Many Millions of Versions of Macaroni and Cheese
  • 1 box of elbows, mini-shell, tubes, spirals or even (but not necessarily recommended) bow-ties.
  • Water.
  • Salt (enough so that the pasta water tastes salty like the ocean).
Cook in plenty of salted, rapidly boiling water for the recommended time MINUS 2 minutes. Drain and toss with olive oil. You can prevent the pasta from sticking by making sure to stir it for the first 30 seconds.

A quick note: surface area, and surfaces that will trap sauce, is that you need. Orecchiette is okay, but elbows are better. Mini shells would be great too. Spirals are not often associated with macaroni and cheese, but I like it.

Now, I just said that you "dress the pasta like a salad" and that you "want the surface area to stick." And this is true 90% of the time, which is why I am presenting an edge case: baked pasta.

Try to make the sauce either before or as quickly concurrent to finishing the pasta because as the pasta waits, it dies: it clumps, it continues to cook (and no, I never rinse my pasta).

We want the pasta to finish cooking in the sauce in the oven, not in a bowl on the counter.

  • 1/4 cup of all-purpose flour.
  • 1/4 cup of butter
  • 1 quart of whole milk or half and half (plus a cup or two of milk to thin if needed)
  • Salt and white pepper to taste
  • 1/8 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg seed
In a saucier, melt butter and add flour over medium heat. The object here is to actually cook the flour. Cooked flour is the basis of literally hundreds of sauces, including your Thanksgiving gravy. Cooked flour is also a staple of pastry baking (and is a key ingredient of pâte á choux).

Cooked flour will seize up (this is the water in the butter binding with the starch) then release (the water has "cooked out" of the flour which is now suspended in butterfat).

Cook the flour until it turns slightly blond and gives off a slight aroma of nuttiness - about 5 minutes.

Pour in the milk and stir continuously until it is thick like heavy cream. The sauce will gel as it cools.

  • 1 cup of 1-year aged Gouda
  • 1 cup of Swiss of Emmanthaler
  • 1 cup of sharp Cheddar
These are all young cheeses, all of them are soft paste (the paste is "not the crust", as it were) and none of them are so strong that baking will kill the flavor, or so weak that they have no flavor.

Do not use good, expensive cheese for macaroni and cheese: save it for the cheese board.

Mix, reserve 1 cup of the mix to top.

  • Pour 1/3rd of the béchemel into the bottom of a casserole.
  • Mix pasta with cheese and 1/3rd of the béchemel, pour into casserole. Level the pasta with a spatula.
  • Pour remaining béchemel over mixture.
  • Top with remaining cheese.
  • Optional: top with breadcrumbs.
Bake at 400ºF for 30-35 minutes, until GB&D.


  1. ..."Mini shells would be grate too."...

    Grate? You stupid, stupid human.

    G R A I T

    Buk learnin werked fer mee!

    1. You know, no matter how many times Larry yells at me I still suck at writing ;)


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