Despite my attempts to try and stick up for Olive Garden, patrons with taste buds don't think much of the food at the Olive Garden.
The hedge fund operator Starboard Value doesn't think much of Olive Garden's food and presentation. One of their chief complaints was that Olive Garden doesn't salt the pasta water; citing that if you Google how to cook pasta, the first instruction would be to salt the pasta water.
As food expert Stephen Colbert noted, Olive Garden makes up for the lack of salt in the pasta water by putting salt in everything else: sauce, soup, salad, even the salt.
We've seen Giada de Laurentiis and Mario Batali salt the pasta water on TV. We've seen non-Italian cooks do the same on TV probably because de Laurentiis and Batali salt the pasta water on TV.
When I first starting cooking as an adult, I poured a little vegetable oil and a little salt in the pasta water because this is the way my mother did it (neither of us are Italian).
After a short time, I didn't see how either step was helping my spaghetti and stopped doing both.
This was back in the time of white flour spaghetti. Even when I moved in the direction of whole wheat spaghetti, I never saw the need to bring back the salt shaker.
When I make my own everyday sauce, I rarely put salt in the sauce and would deliberately pick tomato products without added salt. And I never missed the salt.
When my mother would visit and eat my everyday sauce, she always went for the salt shaker, but not because of the pasta.
None of the TV cooks ever poured oil in the water, so that step was never necessary in that world.
With the uproar over Olive Garden's cooking philosophy, I decided to bring out the salt shaker and see if salting the pasta water would make a significant difference.
Before we start, I should note that when I did salt the pasta water, I made the mistake of salting the water when it first went onto the stovetop. You are supposed to salt the water after it has reached a boil.
I tried this experiment with whole wheat spaghetti, white flour spaghetti, two different kinds of sauces, and a lot of salt and a little salt.
Honestly, all I got was a taste of salt. No extra fun, no extra flavor. The dishes didn't pop out, except for the salt.
The salt taste was more apparent when I used more salt. For me, the taste of salt doesn't help the taste outcome.
Using salt in the pasta water is supposed to make the pasta cook faster. As someone who doesn't own a microwave, saving a minute isn't that important.
Salty foods — anchovies, pancetta, kalamata olives — do add flavor and do compliment a plate of pasta. I usually add them to the dish at the end so the pasta and sauce haven't absorbed the salt.
As I noted in the last time we mentioned the Olive Garden, I don't remember the taste of the pasta dish the last time I ate there. Chances are the dish was too bland, but for me, that comes down to spice not salt. Mainstream restaurants usually cook food that is too bland to serve to those who can't handle the smallest of spices.
Perhaps the issue with the Olive Garden is not salting the pasta water, but getting better quality pasta. When you eat good quality pasta, the sauce isn't as important. A great sauce can't save a lousy plate of spaghetti.
I have likely eaten countless plates of spaghetti in restaurants where they added salt to the pasta water, and haven't particularly noticed. When I tried the experiment at home, I couldn't help but notice, but in a negative fashion.
Using fresh pasta vs. pasta in a box could make a difference. In my experiments, I only used dried pasta. de Laurentiis uses dried pasta on her TV shows and she still salts the water.
As much as I like Italian food, I will likely never be included in the club because a) I get bad headaches from mozzarella cheese and b) I don't salt my pasta water.
You normally shouldn't take culinary advice from a hedge fund operator, even if expert cooks agree with them. You should decide for yourself which way to go on putting salt in the pasta water.