The Physics of Al Dente

Spaghetti in a pot of boiling water.

It’s a simple weeknight routine: toss a handful of spaghetti noodles in boiling water, wait a few minutes, and enjoy with the sauce of your choice. But there’s a surprising amount of physics in the humble strand of spaghetti, and a new model focuses on the way spaghetti sags and curls as it cooks.

Spaghetti, like most pastas, is made of semolina flour mixed with water, extruded (in commercially produced spaghetti), and then dried. Once immersed in water, the rod of pasta begins to swell and soften as water works its way slowly inward. At the same time, it will lose some of its starches to the surrounding water. If the water is hot enough, the pasta undergoes an additional process, starch gelatinization, which is responsible for cooked pasta’s characteristic texture. That perfect al dente condition occurs right as the hydration front reaches the pasta’s core.

As all of this happens, the initially straight spaghetti strand sags, settles, and curls. Researchers found that, even with a relatively simple model that assumes spaghetti doesn’t stick to the pot, they could capture shape change of individual spaghetti strands, suggesting it’s possible to identify perfectly cooked pasta by shape alone. (Image credit: Pixabay; research credit: N. Goldberg and O. O’Reilly; via Ars Technica)

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