Spaghetti is a simple dish that almost anyone can make. Boil some pasta, reheat some sauce (or make it from scratch), pour the sauce over the pasta. This course of action will result in a bowl of edible spaghetti, but it will also leave you with little puddles of liquid and a sauce that doesn’t quite stick to your noodles. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not great.
Luckily, you only need two things to prevent buildup and help your sauce stick to your pasta: a little bit of butter and some leftover starchy pasta water. Mixing your marinara (or other sauce) and your al dente noodles with these two ingredients creates a velvety emulsion that sticks to the pasta, infuses it with flavor and avoids those unsightly little pools. You can also use olive oil, but it’s pure liquid fat and requires a lot more stirring than butter, which is a water-in-oil emulsion, with the proteins in the milk acting as an emulsifier. (I tried a side-by-side comparison of the method below with olive oil, and it came out very watery.)
The order of operations can be changed to your liking, but I prefer to add the water from my pasta to the sauce while it is still simmering, then gradually add the sauce – ladle by ladle – in a large saucepan with the butter and al dente drained pasta, stirring vigorously after each addition until pasta is coated with a nice sticky base layer. (This is also how Ralphie from The Sopranos sauces its pasta. Take however you like.) Then I add more sauce on top, and that sauce now stays in place (until I put it in my mouth). You can also add your noodles, water and butter directly to the pan, but it depends on making the right amount of sauce for the amount of pasta you cooked, which I just can’t do. .
This method can be applied to any tomato-based sauce, or any sauce that is not naturally high in fat, but I will use a simple store-bought marinara (with a little wine added) as basis to give you an idea of the ratios involved. Once you get the hang of it, you probably won’t even need to measure. To do this you will need:
- 6 ounces of spaghetti (or any other paste)
- 2 cups store-bought marinara
- 1/2 cup of red wine
- 2 tablespoons of butter
Bring a large pot of salt water to a boil (use the amount of water suggested by the package directions) and add your pasta. Add wine and sauce to a saucepan and bring to a boil. Allow the sauce to warm up and reduce while the pasta cooks, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom. When the pasta is a few minutes away from al dente (see package directions for an idea of how long), carefully remove a cup of pasta water, then add 1/4 cup to the sauce. (Put the supplement aside in case you need it later. You can also use it to reheat leftovers.)
When your pasta is near or at al dente (and there is a little white dot in the center of the spaghetti wire when you bite into it, depending on how much dough you like in your pasta), turn off the heat, drain the pasta and add your butter to the still hot pan. Add the noodles and a ladleful of sauce and stir, stirring on the burner turned off but still hot enough until the sauce completely coats the pasta. (If you have a gas stove, set it to about medium.)
Repeat this with a few more ladles of sauce until your pasta is as dusted as you want it to be. You can add all of your sauce, or you can add 2-3 ladle worth, then serve some more on top. If you accidentally thicken your sauce, splash some of that leftover pasta water to soften things up.
Updated at 3:33 PM EST on 8/4/21 to include a little more information on when to drain your pasta.