The Story of One-Pan Pasta (and 5 Wintry Recipe Ideas)

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Nealey Dozier)

Type “one-pan pasta” into your search engine and you’ll unearth a bounty of recipes and blogs touting the merits of a now well-recognized method for cooking pasta: Cook dry pasta start to finish with its sauce and aromatics, water and all, in the same, single skillet. As it boils, the ingredients magically turn into perfectly cooked pasta and a simple pasta sauce — no huge pot of water necessary to boil pasta, no washing of multiple pans and colanders, no time-consuming sauce-making.

One-pan pasta is one of the best things to make any time of year, but especially during the holiday season. It’s a cinch to make on the nights after or leading up to meals that take more prep, when you need to eat but don’t want a big production (or a big mess).

How I Discovered One-Pan Pasta

While I can’t take full credit for the method, I can claim responsibility for bringing the recipe back from Italy and introducing it to Martha Stewart herself, during the days when I worked in her television test kitchen.

A friend and I were traveling around Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. We landed one night in a haunting and hidden hilltop town on its northern coast, called Peschici (pronounced: pes-key-chee). We settled into a restaurant, befriended the proprietor’s son, Matteo, and ate platefuls of his mother’s pasta. It was so good that, at the end of dinner, we started picking Matteo’s brain about his mother’s recipes to learn just how she made everything so delicious.

And that’s when he told us that they cook the pasta in the same pan as its sauce —without boiling the pasta first.

At first I thought I was having trouble understanding his Italian. But, Matteo confirmed that yes, it was a shallow skillet, long noodles, with a bit of water and the rest of the ingredients, all in one pan. Still, I was skeptical: My years of classical cooking training got in the way of comprehending what he was saying until finally, he coerced us into the kitchen and made us a plate, all within about 15 minutes.

The Genius of the One-Pan Pasta

It was a life-changing moment for so many reasons. It’s certainly a plus that cooking pasta this way cuts down on dishes to wash. This method also cuts the cooking time virtually in half.

But the real merit to the method is its taste. Since the sauce and the noodles are cooked all together, the pasta water reduces to a starchy, binding agent, which makes for an integrated and nearly viscous sauce. Consider: It’s well-known that adding a ladleful of pasta water is the key to making your pasta sing. One-pan pasta is basically capturing this water from the get-go, and using every last starchy drop.

5 Wintery One-Pan Pasta Variations

When I came back from the trip, I made the pasta for Martha to taste and developed the exact dish Matteo taught me that night — a simple combination of cherry tomatoes, garlic, onions, red pepper flakes, basil, and plenty of olive oil — for Living magazine (Martha knows a good thing when she sees it).

When it went to print, the recipe went viral, and it’s this recipe that you see most frequently online. But this one-pan pasta isn’t a one-trick pony. Here are some variations because, like any recipe, the original version of this dish can be considered a template.

The Basic Ingredients for One-Pan Pasta

  • 4 1/2 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 4 cloves thinly sliced garlic
  • 12 ounces linguini

Into the pan, along with the basic ingredients of 4 1/2 cups water, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, 4 cloves thinly sliced garlic, and 12 ounces linguini, add the following:

  1. Squash and ricotta: Finely chopped butternut squash, a pinch of chile flakes, thinly sliced red onions, and finish with fresh ricotta, fresh thyme, and buttery toasted breadcrumbs.
  2. Chestnuts and leeks: A handful of cooked chestnuts and thinly sliced leeks. Replace 1/3 cup water with 1/3 cup heavy cream, and garnish with chopped chives.
  3. Lemony sausage and kale: Cook loose sausage in skillet with a pour of olive oil. Then add remaining base ingredients, plus several handfuls of torn kale. Finish with fresh lemon zest and juice, and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
  4. Clams and capers: To base ingredients, add capers and a generous amount of sliced shallots. Six minutes before the end of cooking, add small clams and a knob of butter. Finish with chopped parsley and lemon wedges.
  5. Mushrooms, artichokes, and crème fraîche: Cook 1 pound wild mushrooms in skillet with olive oil until crispy. Remove from skillet and add base ingredients, along with trimmed and thinly sliced baby artichokes. Return mushrooms to skillet 2 minutes before final cooking, along with a generous dollop of crème fraîche. Finish with a pinch of very finely chopped rosemary, toasted hazelnuts, and a squeeze of lemon.

3 Key Points to Keep in Mind

  • This won’t work with gluten-free pasta. Part of the technique relies on the glutenous starch that releases from noodles during cooking, helping the sauce bind to the pasta.
  • Use a shallow skillet. Water won’t evaporate and reduce as quickly in a deep skillet, which can result in overcooked pasta.
  • Use plenty of olive oil. Do this both at the start of cooking, and also to finish, for serving. The fat helps make for a richness in texture and flavor, and emboldens the other ingredients in the sauce as well, nearly simulating a sauté rather than a boil.