Physicist angers Italy with alternate way to cook pasta

How do you cook your pasta? (Credit: Getty)

Telling Italians the how to cook pasta was never going to go smoothly.

Nevertheless, that’s exactly what Professor Giorgio Parisi attempted to do.

If you’re not familiar with Professor Parisi’s work, he won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2021 for ‘the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems from atomic to planetary scales.’

And he reckons most folks can produce pasta more affordably by switching off the heat mid-way through the process and allowing the residual heat to finish the job.

‘After bringing the water to a boil, just throw in the pasta and wait 2 minutes,’ he wrote in a September post on Facebook that he recently re-shared.

‘Then you can turn off the gas, put the lid on and calculate one minute longer than the indicated cooking time.’

Sounds smart, right? Well, Italy was having none of it.

Michelin-starred chef Antonello Colonna hit back at this idea, saying it made the pasta rubbery. Adding it would never be served in high-quality restaurants such as his own.

Instead, Colonna proposed Italians should cook on an open-fire grill, with something like a cauldron. The chef claims this traditional low-temperature technique drops energy costs and is employed in his restaurants.

The controversy quickly spilled over into the Italian media, with several food and science heavyweights adding their two cents to the argument.

Giorgio Parisi, Nobel Prize in Physics during the News Award ceremony of the medal and the Nobel Prize 2021 diploma to professor Giorgio Parisi on December 06, 2021 at the Aula Magna University La Sapienza in Rome, Italy (Photo by Gloria Imbrogno/LiveMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Giorgio Parisi won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2021 (Credit: Getty)

So, which is the best way to cook pasta?

Thankfully, a pair of students from Nottingham Trent University decided to find out.

‘The first thing to ask is what actually happens when we cook pasta. In the case of dried pasta, there are actually two processes which typically take place in parallel,’ explained David Fairhurst, Principal Lecturer at the College of Arts and Science, School of Science & Technology at Nottingham Trent University.

‘Firstly, water penetrates the pasta, rehydrating and softening it within ten minutes in boiling water. Secondly, the pasta heats up, causing the proteins to expand and become edible,’ he explained in an article for The Conversation.

He continued: ‘The standard cooking method plunges 100 grams (3.5 ounces) pasta into 1 liter (about a quart) of boiling water for ten to 12 minutes, depending on its thickness. The breakdown of energy use is depicted in the graphic below, which can be converted into a total cost using information on the price of energy and the efficiency of the stove.’

‘At today’s prices, the cost of cooking dried pasta on a ceramic hob comes in at 12.7p per serving, an induction hob at 10.6p, and a gas hob at 7p. So given the UK’s love of pasta, with on average everyone eating one portion per week, we are spending £4,690,000 a week on cooking pasta.’

Cooking pasta: the energy lowdown. (Credit: David Fairhurst, Mia London and Ross Broadhurst/Nottingham Tent University)

Cooking pasta: the energy lowdown. (Credit: David Fairhurst, Mia London and Ross Broadhurst/Nottingham Tent University)

‘It is clear from the graphic that around 60% of the energy is used to keep the water boiling. So anything that can be done to reduce the cooking time would have a significant impact on the overall cost. Parisi’s method of turning off the hob midway and allowing the pasta to cook in the residual heat will halve the cooking cost, a saving of around 3p. This method will be even more effective on ceramic hobs as unlike gas and induction, they are slow to cool down.’

‘However, by separating the processes of rehydration and heating, it is possible to reduce the cost even further. Dried pasta can be fully rehydrated by pre-soaking it in cold water for two hours. This is a process that requires no energy at all and saves an additional 3p.

‘The pasta then needs to be dropped into boiling water to heat it through – and there are further savings to be made here too. Chefs, bloggers and scientists report the quality of the cooked pasta is unaffected by significantly reducing the amount of water.

‘We found that halving the water resulted in perfect pasta, but reducing to one-third was unsatisfactory. Starch is released during cooking and if there is insufficient water the concentration builds up, leaving clumps of unevenly cooked pasta – although regular stirring of the pot may well improve matters.

‘The graphic shows that the second-largest energy requirement is from bringing the water to the boil. Again, there is another saving to be made here.’

boiled water and spaghetti noodle for cooking italian pasta cuisine

Italy is divided between great-tasting pasta and saving money (Credit: Getty)

‘It turns out that the granules of protein in pasta dissolve above 80ºC, so there is no need to bring the pan to a ‘rolling boil’ at 100ºC, as is often advised. Gentle simmering is sufficient to cook the pasta completely, providing an additional saving of around 0.5p.

‘We also investigated using a microwave to heat the pre-soaked pasta. Microwaves are very efficient at heating water, but in our experiments this produced the worst pasta of all. Definitely not one to try at home.

‘We aren’t all Michelin-starred chefs or Nobel Prize-winning physicists, but we can all make a difference in the way we cook to reduce energy bills while still producing great-tasting food.’


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