That one-pot pasta…so hot right now. Martha’s doing it, Southern Living is doing it, all the bloggers are doing it, and now I’m doing it. For good reason! One-pot pasta is fast and simple and making it dirties minimal dishes, so everyone wins.
The first time I heard about one-pot pasta it reminded me of something I saw Rachel Ray do (say what you want about RR, she was an early influencer in my n00b kitchen) back in 2007. She broke up pasta and added broth a little at a time, while she stirred, until the pasta cooked through. It was kind of like risotto-ing the pasta rather than boiling it in a steaming cauldron of salt water. Then I realized that I’d seen a more accurate one-pot pasta parallel even before 2007, on the back of a red cardboard box with an anthropomorphized hand in the corner, telling me how to brown ground beef. That’s right. One-pot pasta is really just jazzed up, deconstructed, hipster Hamburger Helper.
Hey, a good idea is a good idea. But what kind of cred can a cartoon glove man command in the face of an Italian grandma with generations of kitchen wisdom to back her up? If I’d just listened to that weird old hand-with-a-face, I could have saved myself a lot of gallons of pasta water and all the BTU’s required to heat them. So as a cheeky tribute to my late realization, I one-pot pasta’d an Italian classic: cacio e pepe.
Cacio e pepe (Italian for cheese and pepper) is the perfect recipe to help us understand one-pot pasta because its about as stripped-down as a recipe can possibly get. The ingredient list is four items long, so all we’re really worrying about is a pasta:liquid ratio and the task of stirring until the pasta is al dente. Once you get the ratio and the method, you can one-pot pasta any noodle you want, with any flavoring you fancy. Such power is heady, no?
What’s probably the coolest thing about one-pot pasta is the cooking water it produces. If you make pasta with any regularity, you’ve probably heard the old trick of adding a scoop of starchy pasta water to your sauce to help the dish come together, and it really works – even when you’ve cooked a pound of pasta in a gallon of water. So, if you reduce that ratio of water to pasta, you end up with super-charged pasta water, that’s almost a sauce by itself. Built-in sauce is helpful when your pasta recipe has four ingredients, plus it means that all you have to worry about adding to the pot is pure flavor. Like parmesan cheese and black pepper.
One-Pot Cacio é Pepe
note: I usually half this recipe, for a more manageable two-person amount of food. It works really well.
-1 pound angel hair pasta
-1 quart water (that’s 4 cups), salted (plus another cup of water on standby)
-1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese (or pecorino, or both (on a microplane if you have one))
-lots of fresh-cracked black pepper
1. Drop pasta in a pot that will allow it to fit lengthwise and add water. All the pasta should be submerged in the water with the one pound to one quart ratio.
2. Season your pasta water with salt, keeping in mind that the water will reduce and be entirely absorbed by the pasta. You can add more salt at the end if necessary.
3. Cook the pasta over medium heat, stirring the noodles periodically to keep them from sticking together.
4. Taste your pasta to determine it’s doneness, and pull it off the heat when it’s just barely al dente. There should be a little bit of pasta water left in the bottom of the pot by the time the pasta reaches al dente (like 1/4 inch). If there is more than that, scoop out a tiny bit of the water with a ladle. If there is less, add a bit of water from your standby cup.
5. Add parmesan cheese and stir it into the pasta until the cheese is melted. Taste for seasoning and add salt if necessary. By the time the cheese is stirred in, the pasta water should be mostly absorbed or thickened enough to coat the noodles. If the pasta starts to lose it’s sheen or stick together, add another splash of water and stir.
6. Top with fresh-cracked black pepper and serve immediately
Because this pasta is sauced with super-starchy pasta water and cheese, it will want to start sticking together as it cools, just bring it back with a splash of water and a stir. You can also add a little olive oil or butter to help things out, but the best solution is just to eat it. If you can’t finish a whole pound of pasta in one sitting, make a half batch. You can re-heat the pasta over low heat with another splash of water, but the more water you add the further you get from al dente, because hot pasta will always want to absorb liquid, and the more it absorbs the mushier it gets. Basically, the faster you can eat this stuff the better.
Want to see how this method works with gluten-free pasta? Check out my One Pot Gluten Free Macaroni and Cheese.