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How to salt pasta water the right way. Hint: not as salty as the sea.

(Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Nicola Justine Davis for The Washington Post)

You’re making pasta. The water comes to a boil, and it’s time to add the salt. But how much? Do you even pay attention?

Count me among the people who typically dump some indiscriminate amount in and move on. Count me also among the people who have at some point or another repeated the oft-cited benchmark that you should salt the water “until it’s as salty as the sea.”

“The sea is really salty,” says cookbook author Katie Parla. “You want to spit it out right away.”

“Spit it out right away” is not the flavor I’m going for when cooking.

Salt in pasta water should elevate the flavor of a dish, not overpower it, says chef Michael Friedman of Washington’s Red Hen restaurant, where the Bidens recently dined on two orders of the no-doubt-perfectly-seasoned rigatoni with fennel and sausage.

Consider the water one point of several along the way where you’ll be reaching for salt. To build flavor, “you salt throughout the process,” says Parla.

Parla, who just released “Food of the Italian Islands,” says she’s never actually measured salt for pasta water. Her “general rule of thumb” is that pasta water should taste as salty as well-seasoned soup. But you won’t know that unless you taste it, which I watched Friedman do with his fingertips when we cooked the rigatoni together in The Post’s Food Lab. If you’re worried about burning the tips of your fingers — we don’t all have Teflon chef hands! — scoop out a little bit of water with a spoon, blow on it until it’s cool and then taste.

If your pasta dish contains a particularly salty component, such as lots of cheese or cured meat (pancetta, bacon, etc.), Parla says you may want to dial back the salt in the water.

Avoiding overly salted water is also important because so often the water is used to bring together, or emulsify, a simple pasta sauce, as in Spaghetti Carbonara, or help heartier ones, as in the aforementioned Red Hen rigatoni, coat the noodles, since starches released from the pasta remain in the water. Add too-heavily-salted pasta water to your sauce and “you’re done,” Friedman says, and not in a good way.

Salt in pasta water is crucial to regulating that starchiness to keep it from getting out of hand. When pasta is cooked in water, its starch granules take on water, swell, soften and release some of the starches, Harold McGee writes in “On Food and Cooking.” “Salt in the cooking water not only flavors the noodles, but limits starch gelation and so reduces cooking losses and stickiness,” he says.

There is, in fact, an acceptable range of salt to add to pasta water, Daniel Gritzer says over at Serious Eats, which is good considering that needs may vary depending on the dish or personal preference. Gritzer’s experiments showed that water at 1/2 percent to 2 percent salinity (as measured by weight of the salt divided by the weight of the water) was acceptable, equating to 3/4 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon fine sea salt per liter of water (approximately 1 quart, or 4 cups).

For its part, America’s Test Kitchen recommends 1 tablespoon table salt per 4 quarts of water (a.k.a. 1 gallon) for well-seasoned pasta, which aligns with the low end of Gritzer’s range.

As you’re deciding on your ideal level and measuring, keep in mind that if you change the type of salt, you may need to change the amount. Here are the equivalencies to remember:

  • 1 tablespoon fine sea or table salt
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons Morton kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt

If you’re worried about salting pasta water with regard to your health, don’t forget that home cooking is not the biggest source of sodium for most people. More than 70 percent of sodium in American diets comes from restaurant and packaged food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. America’s Test Kitchen had an independent lab evaluate how much salt was absorbed by six different pasta shapes. The result: “Give or take a few milligrams of sodium, all the shapes absorbed about the same amount of salt: 1/16 teaspoon per 4-ounce serving or a total of 1/4 teaspoon per pound of pasta.”