Like any good Italian, my mother, Victoria Perritano, made her first batch of pasta dough as young bride newly married to her Italian groom. She learned the technique from her mother, my grandmother.
Pasta making has been a technique and tradition lovingly passed down in Italian families for generations. In fact, renowned chef, restaurateur and cookbook author Mario Batali credits watching his grandmother make pasta for much of his current success.
"My grandma made fresh ravioli or gnocchi every single time we visited her for Sunday supper from my birth until her passing," Batali says in an email. "It was phenomenal and truly defined who I am as an Italian American, as a grandson, as a son, and as a father and a husband."
Batali says his first memory of pasta was watching his grandmother make her gnocchi and oxtail ragu, and then eventually her calves' brain ravioli.
I'm not sure my mother's pasta could stand up to Batali's grandmother's, but Victoria Perritano produces a dough that is worthy of Sunday ravioli. And while most Italian grandmothers will tell you that making pasta is an art, it's really not — it's a science, as this video from the American Chemical Society and PBS demonstrates. Whether my mother knew it or not, she employed the principles of chemistry to manufacture a pasta with just the right texture and moisture content.
In general, the science of pasta is the science of carbohydrates and proteins, pasta's two essential components. Most commercial pasta — the stuff you buy at the store — is made from semolina, the hard grains left over after durum, a hard red wheat, has been milled. The "dry pasta" made from semolina or finer durum flour, needs less water than dough made from other flours. There are no eggs in dry pasta.
But Batali says he actually prefers all-purpose flour when making pasta. "All-purpose flour is my go-to, but Italian '00' flour is the most authentic," he says. "The handy AP flour you use to bake cakes has a sturdy texture for beautiful homemade pasta and I love it, but the '00' adds a new level of smooth, yet toothsome texture."
Batali says semolina flour is best for an eggless dough, which is essential when making pastas like orecchiette, cavatelli and pici, but he combines it with all-purpose or durum flour. Eggs, he says, are key for everything else. "My basic pasta dough incorporates five large organic eggs into every 3 1/2 cups (420 grams) of flour. The eggs are absolutely essential to bind the dough, but adding too many eggs will leave you with a wet, sticky consistency that is no fun when operating the pasta maker."
This type of dough is called "wet pasta," or "egg pasta," which Luca Donofrio, head pasta maker at Eataly Flatiron in New York City, knows well. When Donofrio makes egg pasta, he uses "a sliding scale" of water, egg yolk and egg whites because he says they "all affect the texture of the finished product differently."
Donofrio also uses "soft flour" in his egg pasta, which contains less protein. Soft flour contains a significant amount of gluten, which traps carbon dioxide bubbles, ensuring his pasta has a silky texture. "The better the quality of the ingredients, the better the final result," he says.
Most pasta gets its shape because the dough is forced through a machine called an extruder. "Using semolina flour is perfect for making so-called 'extruder pasta,'" Donofrio says. Extruder pasta relies on heat, not on the formation of gluten proteins, to keep the dough together. The heat breaks down the bonds between starch molecules, causing the starches in the flour to essentially swell, or melt. As pasta cooks, heat and pressure from boiling water increases its size. As a result, the pasta absorbs water and becomes softer. The process is called the "gelation of starches."
When making extruded pasta, Donofrio says it is important to dry the pasta at low temperatures over a long period of time. If you turn up the heat and try to speed up the process — which most big pasta manufacturers do — "the finished product will be gummy, less toothsome and less nutritional."
If you're not baking pasta (read: manicotti, stuffed shells, lasagna), then you're boiling it. Boiling pasta is a science all to itself. Some people add oil into the water thinking it helps prevent the pasta from stick together. Fat chance! "I never do this because oil prevents the sauce from properly sticking to the noodle," Batali says. "I just add salt (and the right amount of it!) to the water. The taste should remind you of the salinity of the sea."
Plus, that oil can ruin your finished product. Donofrio says better quality dry pasta passes through a bronze die cutter mounted on the extruder. The die cutter gives the pasta a rough texture that allows the sauce to better adhere to it.
Don't over-boil your pasta, either. Pasta loves to absorb water. Fresh pasta cooks in one to two minutes, Batali says. "If you're using a dried pasta, cook the pasta one minute less than what is stated on the package instructions, and then drain and cook it in the sauce in the pan for the final minute."
You also don't want to undercook pasta. For one thing, the center will be as hard as a gallstone. If you cook it al dente (not too soft, but firm to the bite), good for you. "Crunchy is not perfect," Batali says. "Undercooking by too much time will simply leave the pasta too hard and it will not have that delightful chew. That's the beauty of tasting as you go — you are less likely to overcook it. For dry packaged pasta, follow the package instructions and my one-minute-less rule."
I don't know if my mom instituted the one-minute rule, but I do know she made her first batch of pasta dough 68 years ago. She mixed the dough, kneaded it, rolled it out and boiled it to lip-licking perfection. Pasta had to be on the menu to ensure marital bliss. I think it's safe to say she succeeded, science and all.