« A Baltimore Restaurant Week disaster | Main | Freda's Kitchen and the Charm City Cafe »

February 19, 2009

How to boil water

BoilWater.bmpOwl Meat makes his triumphant return to the Dining@Large pantheon of guest posters with this Funtastic Thursday. However, I have to say that I always thought you put salt in the water you're about to boil pasta in for the pasta's sake, not the water's. My bad. Here's Owlie. EL

Boil, boil, toil and trouble

Yes, I used the common misquote of the witches from Macbeth, but it serves my purpose slightly better than:

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

In a confluence of circumstance and grudging open-mindedness, I found myself without my techno-mental exoskeleton. (My PC died a slow death.)  After an initial panic attack I used the situation as an opportunity to retreat into myself and shed some layers of habit and hubris.  In that spirit I set out to write this post about the simplest task in the culinary realm – boiling water. ...
I'm not unfamiliar with physics and probably use it in my daily life more than most.  That's why I am astounded at how truly stupid I am sometimes.  When I boil water for pasta I toss a little salt in the water.  Why?  I thought it was to make the water boil quicker.  Wrong.  Adding impurities to water raises the boiling point, so it will take slightly longer for salted water to boil.  Why add salt then?  The idea is that because the boiling salted water will have a slightly higher temperature than boiling tap water, the pasta will cook slightly faster.  Sounds like a wash to me.

1 a: to come to the boiling point b: to generate bubbles of vapor when heated —used of a liquid

While I was thinking about this subject, I stumbled upon an episode of MythBusters.  The myth posed had something to do with exploding water.  Little did I think that I would question the nature of boiling water.  You just never know.  Take a look at the video.  Apparently it is the impurities in the water that cause the familiar bubbling that we recognize as boiling.  So distilled water doesn't boil?  What?  It has always been my understanding that water (meaning pure H2O) boils at 212 degrees at sea level.  

Do I not understand the basic nature of boiling?  To quote Bill Murray from Ghostbusters (NSFW):  "Human sacrifices, dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!" 

I just don't know what to believe anymore.  That's good.

 The boiling point of water is lower at higher altitudes, say if you move from Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill.  We've seen the havoc that this caused for contestants on Top Chef when they cooked in Colorado.  The boiling point for water drops 10 degrees at 5,200 feet above sea level.  Exactly how did that effect their cooking?
Other water topics that will have to wait:

Does hot water freeze faster than cold?

What is the best method to heat water for tea?

Why do my ice cubes seem to shrink in their trays without melting?

So you think you can boil water?  Assume nothing, grasshoppers.

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 10:52 AM | | Comments (69)


I grew up believing that the salt interfered with the starch in pasta or rice and kept them from clumping. I have since learned that olive oil is used for the same purpose. Personally, I don't care which is used, but the olive oil people seem to want to be Absolutely The Only Correct People, so I sometimes find myself arguing pro-salt when I'm really thinking, Go away, you pretentious donkey's butt!

The boiling point of water is lower at higher altitudes

Do cake mixes still carry warnings about adjusting oven temperatures at higher altitudes?

I believe the salt is also good for the pasta as regular ol pasta (versus spinach or another such flavor enhanced version) has little to no taste and needs the seasoning. If you season in the water, I also believe you won't need to use as much salt to finish.

Mario of TFN says that the salt is for flavoring the pasta. It should be added after the boil so as to not slow up boiling time and a very large amount should be used (like a handful) to be sure that the pasta swimming in that vast sea of H20 will be seasoned properly.

Eve - I've used olive oil and not, the pasta does seem to clump more without, but that's just my opinion for what that's worth. And, yes the higher altitude warning was on the last box of brownies that I made for some school fundraiser not long ago.

Welcome back, Owlie. Thursday is Funtastic once again.

I believe that the notion that hot water freezes faster than cold water is hooey. I've had arguments about that idea before.

And about the shrinking ice cubes: I've been told that ice, as well as water, can evaporate.

After I retire for good, I'm going to take some physics classes at a community college or somewhere like that. Nearly everything that befuddles me in life is related to physics.

Do cake mixes still carry warnings about adjusting oven temperatures at higher altitudes?

Yes, and we follow the high altitude directions.

I have wondered that about the shrinking ice cubes myself. Sometimes I just chuck 'em in the sink and make more.

IIRC, Harold McGee did a column in the NYT sometime in the past year on if boiling water freezes more quickly than room temp water.

I believe the answer was, "it depends."

If anyone goes to wiki for objective information on the subject... do so at your own risk. Professor McIntyre may be forced to edit your conclusions.

It's actually called sublimation when a solid (like ice) turns into a gas. It occurs, for example, when wet clothes dry on a line in sub-freezing weather - basically, freeze-drying.

There's a decent explanation of ice cube sublimation at we go...

If it takes water X minutes to freeze when the water starts out at, say 70 degrees, the water that starts out at 212 degrees takes Y minutes to go from 212 to 70 plus the X minutes it takes to go from 70 to ice.

Even if the second water starts out at 71 degrees, it takes an increment of time to go from 71 to 70 (maybe not much, but some)...then both take the same time to go from 70 to ice.

How can that be wrong?

Wikipedia, like encyclopedias, has its place. Like the encyclopedia, it is a good place to get an overview of a subject. Like an encyclopedia, you should always get two more sources on any fact you find there.

Of course, I'm old enough to remember teachers railing against evil encyclopedias.

I used to add salt to season the pasta during boiling, but switched to Parmesan and fresh ground pepper (after boiling and draining).

Long as we have all you scientists in one place: why does cheddar cheese taste better warmed to room temperature than it does chilled?
And Bucky, what's room temperature in Colorado?

Owl Meat -- if your have a frost-free refrigerator-freezer, the same apparatus that keeps the freezer frost-free also attacks the ice cubes, since it can't distinguish between "good" and "bad" frozen water. (Yes, the ice cubes shrink in my freezer, too.)

The shrinking ice cube thing is actually one of my favorite physics phenomena – sublimation. What a beautiful term. It's the transformation of a solid to a gas without it ever having a liquid state in between. Beautiful! I always get the term confused with transubstantiation, which is another really odd change.

N.B. Thanks to Texter I can finally get a proper en dash instead of using a skimpy hyphen (-) or the egregious double hyphen (--) without having to find the special characters set. I feel better already.

Uh oh, Heather is texting me again.

I thought water boiling, freezing, etc. was chemistry, not physics - ?

There are as many opinions as there are shapes of pasta. I think Food Detectives did a segment on both salt and oil in the pasta water and concluded that neither affects the boil or the clumping, but both affect flavor.

One way to speed the boil [no David Mamet jokes] is to put a lid on the pot. The science folks will tell you it has to do with Boyle's or Charles' Law relating to pressure and heat. But I was an English major so I won't try.

Sublimation is why they call frozen carbon dioxide "Dry" ice. It never melts, going directly from a solid to a gas via sublimation.

P.S. Don't try this at home or in any small room. The solid CO2 will freeze your fingers darn near instantly if you touch it and, while the CO2 gas may not be poisonous per se, it can reduce the oxygen level to the point where it is dangerous.

No, boiling and freezing is physics. No chemical reactions here, just state changes.

Habibi, I love the idea of mixing up transubstantiation and sublimation! Next time I'm in therapy, I must bring that up.

Thanks habibiti.

(Trans)sub* = magic

I always add salt to the pasta water. Years ago I did it to raise the boiling point to speed the cooking. Then I became aware of the seasoning aspect of the addition.

I used to add olive oil to the water as my mother did for the anti clumping factor. The I started watching FN and learned the best way to cook pasta as espoused by Mario, Giada, et al.

The pasta is supposed to be a bit undercooked and added to the sauce to finish cooking. While this is happening the sauce is being absorbed by the pasta. If there is olive oil in the water the pasta is coated and is less likely to absorb the sauce.

It is really much better without the oil!

Clumping? Here's the solution: stir it.

Adding oil is a terrible idea. Yes the FN gods are right: cook it al dente and add sauce so that the sauce sticks to the pasta.

Never rinse pasta in water.

Most of us probably learned to make pasta from our non-Italian mothers who probably butchered it.

Putting a snug lid on water will help it to boil faster because of pressure and conservation of energy.

The whole idea of a pressure cooker is that it cooks faster because water boils faster under pressure, hence the clever name. They always scared me.

Doesn't that super-heated distilled water in the video bother anybody else? I'm adrift in a sea of uncertainty.

I should have said kosher salt for pasta water. I use table salt for non food contact steaming, again to raise the boiling point.

from elsewhere:

Adding salt to water raises the temperature that the water boils at. The more salt you add, the higher the temperature. Adding 2 tablespoons of salt to 2 cups (473 milliliters) of water can raise the boiling point from 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius) by 5 degrees to 217° F (102.8° C).

Suppose we add salt to the water that's about ready to boil. Now the surface has both salt molecules and jiggling water molecules. So, a water molecule has a smaller chance of getting kicked by a neighbor hard enough to escape because some neighbors are lethargic salt molecules. So, fewer water molecules at the surface get past the air molecules. The water won't boil until the temperature is higher and the water molecules on the surface are bopping around faster.

OMG here:

If adding a tablespoon of salt per cup raises the boiling point 5 degrees, then the the amount most cooks add to a large pot of water probably only raises the boiling point 1/4 to 1/2 of one degree at most. It sounds like the whole boiling point thing is bogus.

Sorry ... Late again to the party! Boiling and freezing, are we ...

Hot water for tea ... we keep a Zojirushi hot "air pot" on the kitchen counter for our beverage of choice during this time of year, and even though it is on 24/7 it seems a good deal. Since we use filtered water, we haven't had to "Descale" the thing in five years.

I know that many of these comments have had to do with heat, but I want to take this in the opposite direction.

Dry Ice ... I have spent way too much time tonight on my knees looking for my vintage early 1970's collection of recipes by Sci Fi authors for directions for the "Busted Kneecap." The book is not in its usual place, which makes me think that my daughter has secreted it to Cambridge (along with all of my brewing texts). Here it is from memory -- and forgive me for not having the actual degrees worked out.

So a famous SF author did not win the prestigious literary award he thought he was entitled to, but was still forced by circumstance to be at the party with the inane SOB who won it. Deciding (and who's to judge?) that sudden inebriation was the appropriate response -- and knowing enough science to be a sci-fi writer -- his eyes quickly noted an open bottle of bourbon and a punch bowl nestled in a bucket of dry ice. A glass and a pair of tongs later and said dry ice was doused with a triple measure of said bourbon and held up for an admiring crowd to ooh and aah at the rising vapors.

The story goes that the dry ice froze the water out of the bourbon leaving a significantly higher proof beverage than before, leading in its turn to a quicker and more potent intoxication, which led to its own, unfortunate, consequences. Your imagination will, no doubt, take it from here.

I tried a significantly limited version of this experiment ... just once. 'Nuff said.

MD Canon, my husband is a chemist. I can't tell you how many grad school parties featured some sort of punch with dry ice. I rarely get a hangover--but I can tell you from personal experience that with dry ice the odds are raised significantly!

MD Canon, my guess is that you've read _Bimbos of the Death Star_? If not, you need to. Early Sharon McCrumb. She does _not_ wish to discuss this literary gem, or its followup, _Zombies in the Gene Pool_.

Adding salt to water does elevate the temperature that water boils. However, it takes one ounce of salt per quart of water - around the same salinity as the ocean - to raise the boiling point just 1 degree F.

Adding salt not only flavors the pasta but more importanly limits the starch gelation which reduces cooking losses and stickiness.

All this compliments of Harold McGee's tome "On Food and Cooking" - 800 pages of cooking science and that delves inot what happens when you cook something. McGee dispels many urban cooking legends including the infamous "searing to lock in the moisture" - actually seared meats have less mositure than non-seared meats. The book is a good investment for serious cooks.

yall is like like the fat girl on the prom commitee. plenty of time to decarate the gym. let a life nurds.

Wow skinny pete - I sincerely hope you MEANT to respond in that manner. If not, well...

Oh, and in response to "GET a life (again, I hope you did that on purpose), you obviously have enough time on your hands to follow this conversation.

(By the way, caps are for emphasis, not yelling)

Skinny Pete, your post doesn't sound authentic. But I really, really hope it is, if only for the syntax, grammar, and spelling.

sounds like Owl Meat to me

gosseyn- I'm sure you're right; only Owl Meat Guttersnipe would say decarate the gym when he meant desecrate the slim.

I've always had much better things to do than to decorate the gym for jocks.

I love when people think I'm other people. lol. Lissa, what up with _the undersores_? Is that some relic from the typewriter days. You can bold or italick easily.

Bring it, skinny pete, I love prom metaphors. I thought you might dessicate jim. aren't you the guy from the phone commercial?

thanks for the info EdG. The starch thing is new to me but seems like the only real thing of significance with regard to salted water.

In Bourdain's first book he talks about how they used the same salted ever-more-starchy water to boil pasta all night long in a hotel restaurant.

Owlie, the underscores were the standard shortcut for "I can't underline this because of the limitations of this newfangled technology". Bold and italics are wrong for the title of a book. I'm old fashioned that way.

Found my copy of _Kitchen Confidential_ last weekend, weeding my book collection (it made the cut, 18 boxes of books didn't). Have to reread it soon.

Ah yes, I truly enjoyed Kitchen Confidential...

Lissa, I still don't get the underscores. Isn't italics the replacement for underscores from the typewriter days? Bold was for volume numbers?

One of my favoriirte parts of KC is the chapter on how restaurants go bad.

Lissa, if you want to be all retro-card-cataloggy and underline books you can use the "a" command in angle brackets. For example: "I enjoyed reading the book The Red Rubber Balls". This will underline books but it may turn them blue.

Owl, the anchor command ( <a> ) is not the appropriate way to achieve underlined text. Unfortunately, the blog software here doesn't support the proper command ( <u> ).

I first thought of the ul tag, but that is an unordered (bulleted rather than numbered/lettered) list.

PCB Rob, the ul tag is not underline as you'd think. It's the undordered list tag. The underline tag is just a u, but the Sun blog software doesn't recognize it.

you guys sure waste a lot of time hollering on about nothng. like nike said jusy do it. yammity yam bibbidy dibbity blah blah blah. just eat it

Thank you, Mr Pete. We try very hard to waste as much time on as little as possible.

yall are too funny,. you sshould get xbox or something miore fun

Skinny pete doesn't waste any time on spelling or grammar. Or manners.

Maybe skinny pete needs a good meal. malnutrition makes some people ornery.

Are you getting enough to eat skinny pete? Did the smell of D@L waft into some sports blog? what's your interest in food?

Maybe we should all spend more time playing xbox or something miore fun [sic]

I'm guessing skinny pete is pierre's cousin.

Mr Pete thinks he's being clever and putting us in our place. He doesn't realise the amount of entertainment his little mind provides us. Please, Mr Pete, come back some more.

har har har. sounds like yuor just a bunch of fancy boys with yuor snails and parlsy and such. haha my girlfreind is coming over for pizza later so have fun on your danety squiddys and raw stake dueds. cook your food man thats how you die doyly boys uh duh

Why am I suddenly reminded of Beevis and Butthead?

Skinny may be Pierre's cousin, but he also could be Sneaky's cousin. Or Sneaky's brother, Or dad or uncle or granddad...

Hey, no demeaning of the late lamented Sneaky Pete Kleinow, please!

Skinny pete is no Pierre. Pierre was actually amusing.

Skinny Pete wrote: "har har har. sounds like yuor just a bunch of fancy boys with yuor snails and parlsy and such."

Oh dang - I'm not a boy so I don't belong here.

Also, I'm not a single mom so I guess I'm the "ilk" (by the way, RiE, I loved your suggestion for a new name - Retired in Ilkridge).

robo-bull shooters fro evrybody! more natchos waitress and dont be cheap on the guaucomoly I love me some natchos you aught to try real food sometimes tiny sandwitch people tada

Fancy lads and parsley as far as the eye can see. Just curious, when did good restaurants stop using parsley as a garnish. Poor skinny pete, trapped in wherever he's trapped.

Elizabeth, you should do a little post on garnishes. Have there been trends and fads? I remember the ubiquitous (chew on that pete) parsley. Then there were edible flowers. The pointless rosemary spear and lemon slices, wedges, etc. Carrot origami, radish flowers. Have I missed anything?

I hate to even ask what a "robo-bull" shot is,

Okay, Skinny Pete is a joke, right? Someone suggested (Dahlink? Joyce?) that he mistakenly wandered over from a Sport's Blog. I believe that - those bloggers seem to have an underlying anger.

That wasn't me, Carol in Hampden, but it makes sense. Maybe if we ignore him he'll wander off again.

skinny pete is one of OMG's personalities, not as clever as some

I actually like parsley as a garnish. It is just the thing to end a meal with, a tasty, slightly bitter shot of vitamins and crunch.

see made you think of parsly har har fancy boys and get with it gramps a robobull is roboutsin and red bull. giddyup cowboy. omg? you been watching too much gosip girl oh my god is right it's skinny pete giddy on up famcy ladies

Owl was the one who suggested that pete came from a sports blog.

I should have said sports bog.

what's wrong with sports? duh, noithing, man-up. here's what you should do put some utz crab chips on burger. now that's cookin sports fans

I originally came here from a now-defunct sports blog (Roch Around the Clock) and there is nothing wrong with sports.

We appreciate hearty sports foods (for the most part) as much as anyone and are a very accommodating group as long as you are civil.
Your posts skinny pete, so far, have been anything but.

Somebody tell me why I work so hard for you.

Post a comment

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

Top Ten Tuesdays
Most Recent Comments
Baltimore Sun coverage
Restaurant news and reviews Recently reviewed
Browse photos and information of restaurants recently reviewed by The Baltimore Sun

Sign up for FREE text alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for dining text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Food & Drink newsletter
Need ideas for dinner tonight? A recommendation for the perfect red wine?'s Food & Drink newsletter is there to help.
See a sample | Sign up

Stay connected