Science Behind Spaghetti Bolognese

At the age of 9, I began learning how to cook from my grandmother. What started from just helping her crack eggs and sauté vegetables, had evolved into an understated passion of mine to try out new recipes and cooking techniques. It is surprising to see that even with the proliferation of online cooking videos, many people cannot seem to cook a plate of spaghetti bolognese the proper way. There is actually plenty of science behind the makings of a good serving of spaghetti bolognese, and I am going share with you some simple (and scientifically sound) tips which I believe can help everyone improve their recipes.

Firstly, I implore everyone to salt the water you use to boil the pasta! I was more than appalled to find out that some of my friends only added two or even zero teaspoons to a whole pot of water. I would say add about 1.5 to 2 tablespoons of salt for every 500 grams of pasta. When salt is dissolved in water, it splits into sodium ions and chloride ions, allowing it to penetrate the food more deeply. This makes the pasta taste better from the inside out, rather than just on the surface.

Salt generously after the water boils!

Some people who do salt the pasta water prefer to do it before the water comes to the boil. They argue that it allows the water to boil faster. On the contrary, adding salt actually increases the boiling point of water. Furthermore, allowing the water to come up to boil with salt present gives rise to pitting corrosion of stainless-steel pots. The chloride in salt reacts with the chromium in stainless steel and oxygen in water, which results in holes and stains created on the surface of the pots. Since water at higher temperatures have lower amounts of oxygen, it would be better to add salt after the water boils to reduce the likelihood of such corrosion happening.

Do you drain your pasta with a colander and finish the plate of pasta with a few ladles of sauce? Then I am quite certain you would have seen red watery puddles of sauce on your plates. This phenomenon happens because the oil and water in your bolognese sauce have split. Oil is hydrophobic, which means oil molecules repel themselves from water. This is where the discarded pasta water comes in handy. In a process known as emulsification, immiscible liquids are bound together by an emulsifying agent. In our case, the starch in the pasta water acts as the emulsifying agent to bring the hydrophobic oil molecules and the water molecules together. This starch is released from the pasta because the pasta contains flour. The starch also binds the pasta and the sauce together, ensuring that you are not eating your spaghetti and bolognese sauce separately. The sauce also becomes thicker and less watery with the addition of pasta water, creating a more luxurious experience when you savour your pasta.

I watched Gordon Ramsay say “no colour, no flavour” once and that statement has stuck with me ever since. Other than making the meat more aesthetically pleasing, searing to create brown meat also imparts a lot of flavour to the meat. It also improves the texture of the meat as it adds a crust to the meat, making it crispy rather than spongy. When cooking at high temperatures of above 140 °C, the Maillard reaction occurs between reducing sugars and amino acids in the meat. This is different from caramelisation, which is specific to the browning of sugars. The Maillard reaction releases hundreds of flavour compounds, giving the meat more flavour. I highly discourage anyone from using low heat and letting the meat gradually heat up in the pan. At lower temperatures, the meat eventually cooks but the Maillard reaction does not occur. This is why you might end up with meat that looks grey and unappetising. Oh, and please salt your meat as well. Nobody likes bland meat.

Cooking is an art, but more importantly, it is science. I believe there is a reason as to why Italians have been cooking while utilising these tricks for so many years. And that reason is probably because they make your spaghetti bolognese taste better. Give them a try!

Be careful in the kitchen!

Written by Nicholas Chang
Illustrations by Toh Bee Suan