Italians at boiling point over how to cook pasta with less gas

Can you cook pasta with the gas off? This is a pressing question for me – and millions of Italians – now that the Kremlin is using natural gas as a weapon to punish Ukraine’s allies.

As Gazprom cuts gas supplies to Europe and fuel bills soar, Italy has urged its citizens to save energy by taking “virtuous measures” such as shorter showers, turning down the heating and fully loaded washing machines and dishwashers. What caught my eye, however, was the official advice to turn down the flames on stoves as soon as pots of water are boiling — a seemingly cryptic guideline that Italians immediately took to instructing them to use less gas when cooking pasta.

As a reluctant cook, I often rely on pasta for quick meals, which I prepare using the traditional Italian method in an open pot of vigorously boiling water. However, I am well aware that European energy consumers are funding Russia’s war machine. This summer, every salad I made felt like an act of solidarity with Ukraine. But with my energy bills still rising and winter coming soon, I need to find out if it’s possible to cook pasta more energy-efficiently.

According to Nobel Prize-winning Italian physicist Giorgio Parisi, the answer is definitely yes. In a recent Facebook post, Parisi advised that pasta can be cooked over low heat with the pot covered to prevent heat dissipation. Prominent architect Alessandro Busiri Vici went further, insisting that pasta can also be cooked without a flame – so-called “passive cooking” – further reducing gas consumption. The trick, Busiri Vici wrote, was to boil water, add the pasta, keep the water on full blast for two minutes, then close the flame and keep the pot covered for the rest of the cooking time.

In fact, Dario Bressanini — a chemistry professor who also makes videos exploring food science — was promoting “pasta without fire” well before the current energy crisis. “It’s not the cooking that cooks the pasta,” Bressanini explained in 2017. “We only need the thermal energy already trapped in the water.”

I’m not one to argue with prominent scientists. But I still called Vicky Bennison, producer of the cult YouTube channel Pasta Grannies, which shows videos of older Italian women making pasta by hand using treasured family recipes. Bennison, who has documented more than 400 pasta makers, said that her household cooks typically “didn’t make that much fuss” about keeping the water at a rollicking boiling point and mostly just simmered her pasta. They also tend to economize, using the smallest pot and as little water as necessary to save on cooking costs.

“Gasoline has always been expensive in Italy, and the grandmothers I film always grew up on thrift,” she told me. She also suggested that vigorous cooking wasn’t so much about cooking the pasta as it was about keeping the pieces from sticking together — something her pasta grandmas avoided by stirring regularly. However, she said she had never seen either of them fully extinguish the blaze and was skeptical. “Technically it may be possible, but is it good?” she asked.

There was only one way to find out. My 10-year-old daughter scoffed when I announced my plan to experiment with “passive cooking.” “I don’t eat stupid dinners,” she informed me. “If it doesn’t work, you can eat it.” I decided to start with what I thought was the toughest test: rigatoni — a thick tubular pasta that takes 13 to 15 minutes to cook. The result was, as I had suspected, bad: the noodles were uncomfortably sticky on the outside and undercooked on the inside. It went into the bin.

But Bressanini says many factors can influence non-cooking, from the type of pasta to the pot and lid to the speed at which the water cools — so he urges efficiency-minded cooks to keep trying.

My next try was with spaghetti quadrati: long and thin like spaghetti, but square, with a shorter cooking time than rigatoni. I did a control batch of boiling water on a low flame and another with the flame off after the first 2 minute boil.

The two were practically indistinguishable. I tossed the cooked pasta with fresh tomatoes, olive oil, salt and pepper and then, dear readers, ate it. Delicious.

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