Thursday, May 28, 2009

Tiny Tip: Parboil Your Pasta

I've been trying out an energy saving cooking technique lately, and it's been working great for us. It consists of boiling our dried pasta for only a fraction of the recommended cooking time, and then turning off the heat and letting the pasta "coast" to doneness. It works well when I bring the water back to a boil after the pasta is added and give it a few good stirs to make sure the noodles won't stick to each other. This takes just about three minutes and then the burner is turned off. I find that the noodles generally need one more minute to cook than they would if the pot were kept boiling.

For instance, last night I made a batch of my pumpkin-sage pasta (with dehydrated pumpkin from last year's garden). I brought the water to a boil, added the fusilli, stirred well, and set the timer for three minutes. Just before those three minutes were up, I gave everything another good stir while it was boiling. At three minutes I killed the gas, and covered the pot with a towel. The package said the pasta needed nine minutes of cooking time altogether, so I set the timer for seven additional minutes of coasting. The pasta came out perfectly cooked to our taste.

I'm pretty sure I heard of this cooking method from several different sources before I tried it. The English have a dish called "crimped shrimp" in which shrimp are added to hot liquid and then the pot is covered and removed from the heat. I believe the method is specifically mentioned for pasta in the highly enjoyable Depression Cooking with Clara series. If you haven't seen any of the episodes with this 93-year-old home cook yet, it's well worth checking out for some seriously frugal cooking suggestions. There are probably other dishes that could cook by coasting too.

I'm not sure how much of the total energy is saved by this method, but I would guess it's somewhere in the neighborhood of one-quarter. Obviously, the most energy is used to get the water up to boiling in the first place. Keeping it boiling after adding the pasta is probably relatively cheap. Still, this technique saves me six minutes of running the burner, so that's something. It's also less likely that the pot will boil over, which means less cleanup. And it only takes one additional minute to cook everything. This is an especially useful trick now that the weather is warming up and the house is hot in the evenings. Less heat added to the house in the process of cooking dinner. Try it and see what you think!

More tiny tips: More Sunlight in Your Garden, Repurpose Your Credit Card, Make the Most of Old Man Winter, Broccoli Stalk, Scallions


Joanne said...

Good idea! I have turned soups off a little before ready, thinking that the heat in the pot will finish the cooking. Its also a technique for boiling eggs that I learned from an Aussie celebrity chef. Put eggs in cold water, bring to the boil and as soon as it reaches a rolling boil, turn the heat off. Leave for 8 minutes, then pour off the hot water and cool rapidly under cold water. Perfect eggs, the yolks just barely set.

ChristyACB said...

I do this too with lots of things, like grits and other grains as well as pasta.

One of the tricks is to be sure you're doing a large pot of whatever it is. The smaller saucepans of stuff don't seem to do as well, probably because their volume to surface area means they lose heat more quickly.

That recipe looks fab and I was wondering if I could dehydrate pumpkin and then successfully use it. This might be just the thing!

Anonymous said...

HI from the USA!
I stumbled upon your blog about a week ago and now am a regular reader.
I,too, do something similar to this but never mentioned it to anyone because I don't find many people who are willing or eager to embrace the simple lifestyle,including simple ways of saving.
I have an electric stove and it tends to hold the heat for awhile before cooling off when shut down.
It works great!
Keep up the good work and great tips.
God bless,

Wendy said...

That's how I cook my pasta, too, and I also cook shrimp this way, as unshelled shrimp cooks quickly and also gets really tough really fast if boiled too long. Bringing the water to a boil, turning it off and then adding the shrimp to the hot water makes it nice and tender.

I cook a lot of stuff this way, including eggs, as Joanne mentions, and I bake like that, too - at least in part. I let my bread get just about done, and then turn off the oven and let it sit until the oven is cool. By then, it's time to eat, and the bread is always perfect.

Great tip! Oh, and I love the "cooking with Clara" series. She's a hoot!

Chris said...

Hey Kate, great post! I would like to touch base with you about your blog. Please contact me directly at

Look forward to hearing from you.


Anonymous said...

I have done this for years; I actually started cooking pasta this way not to save energy, but to save water (during one of California's periodic droughts). Because the pasta isn't being tossed about by the boiling action you can get away with a smaller pot, and less water.

Anonymous said...

I just found your blog thru simple,green, frugal co-op. I'm going to try the pasta cooking recipe. I've been reading some of your older post, where in SE pa are you able to have chickens. I'm in SE pa and my township won't let us have more then 2 of any type of outside critter....... :(


Dalinz said...

I am soooo going to try that with the pasta. Thanks

Damaris, Maryvale Qld

Kate said...

Joanne, I've used that technique for eggs too. I always heard it should be 10 minutes of resting in the hot water, but I like my hard-cooked eggs a little on the underdone side, so I've always gone with the 8 minutes you cite. I've done this with oven stuff too. For some reason it just hadn't occurred to me that pasta could cook just fine with this method.

Christy, I agree, the large pot and a lid are key. I'm thrilled that the recipe worked with dehydrated pumpkin too. For a pound of pasta I put 3.2 oz. of dehydrated pumpkin slices in a bowl and covered them with boiling water. I let that sit for an hour or so, and then chopped them up and proceeded with the recipe.

Hi Helen, and welcome. I'm in the US as well. Glad to hear you've found things of use in this blog. All the best!

Wendy, I imagine there's a whole range of recipes where the cooking time could be "trimmed" and the food coast to doneness. It could be a topic worth exploring with some level of rigor in order to report back. But then again, I wing it as often as I take notes.

Anon, I'm curious as to how much less water can be used and still have enough thermal mass to complete the cooking. If you care to share, I'd love to hear back from you.

Colleen, welcome and I'm glad you like the sound of this recipe. If you leave an email address, I'll be happy to contact you that way and discuss in greater detail where I live. I suspect that many people are going to be closely examining their local codes and working on changing them to allow more domestic poultry in the near future.

Hi Damaris, thanks for letting me know you found this tip of use.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the post! I have cooked pasta and eggs like this since college! (Won't mention how long ago that was!!) But with a twist. . . I put the eggs AND pasta in a pot of cold water and bring it to a boil, occasionally stirring to prevent sticking. When the water comes to a boil I boil it for 2-3 minutes and then turn the heat off and cover. I use an electric stove so the burner retains heat for quite some time; depending on the pasta (elbow or spaghetti etc.) it is usually done in 8-11 minutes. Both eggs and pasta have come out perfectly for me this way, and I have two cooking chores completed at the same time! My husband doesn't believe you should cook pasta without boiling the water first :) but I've never had a problem.

Thank you for all your great posts. I'm learning a lot!

Kate said...

Anon, very interesting. I use a different method for cooking eggs, but it is intriguing to think about doubling up the cooking of different things in one pot.

Carl said...

Has anyone applied the same principle to ironing clothes? Any advice about how well it works?

Kate said...

Carl, I have not tried this with an iron. The principle should hold, but there are some differences. A kettle of water has a lot more thermal mass than a thin plate of metal. And it can be insulated with a kitchen towel to hold in the heat. So I imagine the length of time you can "coast" with an unplugged iron would be rather short. But it's certainly worth trying. I myself do very little ironing though, so it may take a while to run that experiment.