Pasta - Why salt the water and not the dough?

I’ve heard it many times as a TV chef cooks pasta. Some variation of “Be sure to salt your water as this is the only chance to season the pasta itself.”

So this begs the question: Why not properly season/salt the pasta dough in the first place?

I imagine salt has some effect on the dough’s texture? What effect does it have? Can homemade pasta makers clue me in?

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When you make pasta dough you tend to make it quite quickly and then roll it out. Adding salt to a dough slows the gluten formation which isn’t a problem in a bread as you form the dough over a longer period of time. But will be a problem in a quickly formed pasta dough i.e. adding salt will mean you need to work the dough longer to get the right consistency from the gluten.

So simpler to add the salt to either the water or pasta after you cook it.

One slight problem with heavily salting pasta water is that it is useful to use a scoop or two of the water to loosen and thicken (from the starch released from the pasta) the sauce for the pasta - if the cooking water is very salty this can make the resulting sauce salty.

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I wonder if using water with salt already dissolved in it when making dough would be different from using salt as a dry ingredient in the dough.

For fresh pasta you only use flour and eggs: no water.

And even if you did use dissolved salt it would still slow the gluten formation in much the same way.

Yes! Thank you. I always wondered why I don’t see this mentioned anywhere. If your cooking water tastes “like the sea”, then you pretty much can’t use it in your sauce.

I don’t season a sauce until the very end, so the saltiness of the pasta water usually isn’t an issue.

As far as salting pasta water until it’s “like the sea,” that’s just silly and something thrown around by tv chefs. I mean, are we talking about the Pacific, Atlantic or Mediterranean? Or, god forbid, the Dead Sea? :wink:

And who tastes boiling hot water to see if it is as salty as the wave that knocked you over last time you were in Hawaii, anyway?


Thank you. I’ve wondered this for a while now.

Is this really true? Salt inhibits yeast but does it really inhibit gluten?

A quick search from King Arthur makes me think not too.

“Salt tightens the gluten structure. The tightening gives strength to the gluten, enabling the dough to efficiently hold carbon dioxide, which is released into the dough as a byproduct of the yeast fermentation. When salt is left out, the resulting dough is slack and sticky in texture, work-up is difficult, and bread volume is poor.”

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Your explanation for metering the saltiness of the sauce makes lots of sense.

Egg-based fresh pasta is typical, but water (or even wine) are also used to make fresh pasta. Guiliano Bugialli’s “Bugialli on Pasta” and Flour+Water’s “Pasta” have recipes for several water-based and egg-based pasta doughs, and more often than not they incorporate salt into the dough. Cook’s Illustrated’s Book of Pasta and Noodles said they found no benefit to adding salt to the dough.

Salt has a two stage affect - most baking textbooks focus on the second stage because the lengthy kneading masks the first stage (although apparently it has a material impact in industrial baking with salt added after kneading and before proving).

During the initial stage salt slows the hydration of the gluten which extends the mixing time needed to form a dough. But once the gluten structure has formed the salt acts to strengthen the gluten matrix and can counter the loss of elasticity in the matrix (so helping the dough rise).

In a pasta dough you want to form the gluten structure quickly to give it elasticity. Generally pasta dough is mixed, rolled and shaped quickly and therefore you don’t want an inhibitor.

Bread making involves a different technique. You are less concerned about the time for gluten formation as the kneading process is often lengthy (and high robust) and you need to allow sufficient time for the dough to prove (for the yeast to produce the C02 and aerate the dough) and then often a second proving.

One of the general features of “No Knead” doughs is that they are often left for a few hours or overnight to allow the gluten to form - the reason for this is the slowing effect of the salt in the mix. And as you note without the salt the gluten structure doesn’t hold and you get a flabby dough.

I understand that water based dough are more generally used for dried pasta and assume the salt in the pasta itself will help with drying and preservation.

Also water based pastas are more usually machine worked so the gluten could develop quite quickly given the force and speed these machines mix then extrude.

That said there are as many ideas and recipe variations for pasta as there are Italian grandmothers. Some will be based on good practice honed over many generations whilst others will be based on bad habits passed from generation to generation e.g. I understand that ineffective heavy salting pasta water is from that tradition.

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Maybe salt one half of the dough and not the other , And vise versa . Try it . I’m interested . For the Italians it could go as far back as having a tax on salt ; the war of 1540.

Pasta has evolved over the years from the time the arabs imported it to Italy thousands of years ago* after they conquered Sicily. In the 1500’s it was probably still cooked with sugar and spices and cooked for a long time - “al dente” had yet to be invented.

It is a dish that has evolved and will continue to evolve and I suspect history is no better a guide to great pasta as food science.

  • The Marco Polo story was invented in 1929 by Italian pasta exporters who wanted a good marketing story for the US market.
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From a manufacturer’s standpoint, it’s better to minimize salt and give the customer the flexibility to season the pasta water, or sauce, as they want. I am curious though— gluten, texture, etc. notwithstanding, i wonder how much salt you’d need to add to a pasta dough to get it to taste the same as an unsalted pasta cooked with 1 Tbs. of kosher salt per quart of water (Dan Gritzer tested different salt to water ratios, and preferred 1-2% .

As @PhilD points out, there are structural consequences to adding salt. Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking says that salt in the water adds flavor, limits starch gelation, and reduces cooking losses and stickiness. When talking about Asian noodles, he says that salt tightens the gluten network and stabilizes the starch granules, keeping them intact as they absorb water and swell. Very interesting. So, salt helps the pasta, but hurts the pasta water (assuming you wanted to use it to thicken a sauce).

Page 478 of an article on industrial Asian noodles confirms what salt does to dough. A zero to 2% increase in salt improves sensory evaluation scores, especially for low-quality flour. Salt decreases water absorption and increases the dough development time, results in a more uniform gluten structure, leads to an avoidance of strand breakage, toughens noodles during the sheeting (rolling out) phase, and increases yellowness but decreases brightness. However too much salt isn’t good. They don’t go into detail, but say that high salt (>3%) results in deterioration of raw noodle rheological (flowing) properties.


Great information on how salt reacts with dough! I always felt like bread dough was easier to work with when I used more salt, but dismissed it as just my imagination.

I always thought you salted the water because it made the boiling point higher. Although what the big deal about that is I have no idea to tell the truth.

Though inxperienced in restaurant craft, we’d speculate that water in the continuously boiling pasta pot in a busy restaurant kitchen is salted to the cook’s taste. The kitchen would use unsalted pasta dough, because cooking salted pasta without frequently changing the water would render the water and each succeeding portion of pasta saltier and saltier as service wears on.

I find pasta water useful only when I’ve cooked pasta in relatively small amount of water…like spaghetti noodles in a skillet.

I assume you mean only fresh pasta. My two cents: any salt, but especially the coarse Koshers favored by cooks, will spend a good deal of time having the same effect as putting equivalently sized ground glass particles into the dough, effectively working as a “cutting” agent during kneading, as regards forming gluten strands.

Plus, fresh pasta seems so receptive and absorptive to salt and sauced cooking environments, so all’s well that ends well.

I use a decent size pot for 250g of pasta with probably 2 litres of water. The water seems to get enough starch to work well in loosening a sauce like a carbonara ensuring its not too stiff or gluggy and coats well.

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