If you own an insulated travel coffee mug, you have a powerful pasta cooking tool at your fingertips that can cut cooking and cleaning time and energy use!
First – we need to better understand the science (thermodynamics) of …. WATER. This will only take a minute but is enormously powerful, critical information for the energy efficient cook (or any human for that matter), so hang with me here.
The water molecule
You see, water (H2O) is made up of 2 hydrogen and one oxygen atoms and is a polar molecule. This means that due to the way the hydrogen and oxygen connect to each other, the resulting molecule is partially positively charged (on the H side) and partially negatively charged (on the O side). This creates all kinds of unique properties.
Now, we know that electric charges, like many human relationships, opposites attract. This means that electrostatically, a positive (+) charge is attracted to a negative (-) charge (an opposite charge). And so, when two water molecules get close to each other (like what happens in, say, a coffee cup filled with liquid water), the “+” side of one water molecule gets “stuck” to the “–“ side of another molecule with what we call a hydrogen bond. The strength, or stickiness of this bond is only about 1/10th as strong as the strength of the bond that holds each molecule together, but they are stuck together all the same. I think of it as a bit of a “do-see-do” dance around the mug.
What is temperature?
One more tidbit of physics we need to know is that temperature is a measure of the average motion (kinetic energy) of the molecules. This motion can be translational (moving around), rotational or vibrational. So, if we want to increase the temperature of a substance, we need to get the individual molecules moving faster. This is tricky with water since as I’ve already mentioned, they’re all somewhat “stuck” together doing this “do-see-do” thing and so they’re resistant to let go and just quickly start zooming around and spinning.
Because of this, water is “THERMALLY SLUGGISH” (or, in physics terms, water has a high specific heat). In other words, it takes a lot of energy to increase water’s temperature. And I’m not talking about a little bit more energy – water requires about FOUR TIMES MORE energy to change a degree than most other liquids (or solids) we encounter in the kitchen.
Cooking – The bad AND good news about water
So – now let’s put this all together to help us cook smarter. While this all may initially seem like bummer news in the energy-efficient kitchen since we are pretty much stuck with water for most anything we do and water is so energy “hungry”, the good news is that specific heat is a measure of thermal sluggishness both in heating AND cooling. Aha!! So – while we do HAVE to put a lot of energy into water to increase its temperature, once it’s there, it drops in temperature very slowly. In fact, in the amount of time it takes pasta to cook, it will drop less than 10 degrees F in an insulated mug.
While we have to deal with the bad news heating side of specific heat, we rarely take advantage of the good news cooling side.
Passive cooking = low energy cooking
Enter the insulated coffee mug – your new favorite cooking “pot” for small quantities.
Say you want to cook one serving of spaghetti for dinner tonight. Now that you understand specific heat of water, try this passive cooking method:
Spaghetti for one (cooked passively in insulated coffee mug)
Fill a coffee mug with water to the top, pour this water into an electric water boiler (or whatever you use to boil water).
While the water is heating, take a bundle of spaghetti (angel hair and thin spaghetti works best but regular works too, it will just take longer to fully cook).
Since the coffee mug isn’t tall enough for the spaghetti, grab the whole bunch and break it in the middle and drop it into your empty coffee mug.
Add ½ teaspoon of salt (or whatever you prefer)
Once the water boils, pour the boiling water over the pasta and salt.
Cap the insulated coffee mug with the lid, give it a little swirl and leave it alone
About 12 minutes later, open the mug and try the pasta.
If it needs a few more minutes, put the lid back on and wait
If it’s good, drain the water and enjoy the spaghetti!
What about bigger quantities of pasta?
The good news is that this isn’t only true for small quantities of water in a coffee mug. If you’re cooking spaghetti for my whole extended Italian family (may the force be with you, my friend) – you can apply this same strategy.
Spaghetti for a crowd (the coffee mug is no longer large enough):
Heat a limited amount of water to boiling in a pot
Note that you only need about 5-6 CUPS per box of pasta. That’s about ¼ of what the box recommends (4-6 QUARTS = 16-24 cups) and therefore requires ¼ of the energy to get the water to boiling. That’s your first energy saving step. This will not feel comfortable the first time you try it, but trust me here.
Add the spaghetti to the pot with some salt.
Stir the pasta in the boiling water for the first minute when the starch starts to burst from the pasta’s surface. These initial starch bursts can cement two pieces of pasta together if it happens between two pieces without much water. The goal is to mix the starch throughout the water so it’s diluted and does not cause sticking. After the first minute the starch bursts are over.
Turn OFF the burner, put a lid on the pot and leave it on the cooling burner.
Set the timer for the time listed on the cooking directions on the box plus a couple minutes. Don’t open the pot to “check on things” – just let it be to passively cook your pasta.
Once the timer rings, taste the pasta before draining the water and add another few minutes if it’s too stiff.
Once the pasta is the perfect al-dente, drain the water and you are ready to top with your favorite sauce and enjoy!
Final note – not just for pasta
Don’t stop with pasta….this technique also works great with quick-cook oatmeal and instant white and brown rice. These are great items for travel as the dry ingredients pack easily in your luggage and almost any hotel has a coffee maker which will boil the water for you!