You've probably seen the dozens and dozens of pasta shapes at your local market. Some of them look complicated, like those wagon wheels complete with spokes, or charming, like the tiny bow ties. Pasta can be confusing. That's a lot of complex engineering for simple dough made with flour, maybe some egg and water. Is the proliferation of complex pasta shapes anything more than regional one-upmanship? Exotic pastas look cute covered with marinara sauce and nestled next to Parmesan cheese curls and sliced prosciutto, but what do they really add to Italian night at your house?
It turns out that the pasta shapes you buy or make do produce different results in recipes. Think of it as ingredient construction that's as much engineering as it is art. The shape of the pasta can enhance a recipe by working with or against the sauce you choose. It's a marriage of flavor and function.
The sauce has most of the flavor, and the pasta delivers it to your mouth in the right proportion of carbs to saucy goodness. Here's how it works: Wide, flat noodles and large, tubular shapes favor thick sauces or sauces that contain large chunks of meat, tomato or vegetables. That's because they grab and hold onto the sauce until it reaches your waiting taste buds. Shorter noodles are better for thick sauces, too. Thin sauces, smooth sauces and simple olive oil-based sauces favor long, narrow shapes like spaghetti and vermicelli. Dimpled and ridged shapes hold sauces in their depressions so you don't miss a drop -- or spill any on your tie.
The rest, including swirls, knobs, switchbacks and little flourishes in pasta shapes are mostly for show. A vast expanse of beige (or light brown in the case of whole wheat pasta), can start to look boring compared to, say, a mixed vegetable medley. Adding a twist here and there, literally, can keep mealtime from getting too dull.
Pasta Pairing Tips and Tricks
We mentioned that some pasta noodle recipes use egg as an ingredient. This practice is more common in northern Italian style cooking (pasta all'uovo). Rich, eggy noodles are typically paired with the wonderfully creamy sauces of northern Italian cuisine, while simple durum wheat and water noodles work well with the tomato- or olive oil-based sauces popular in southern Italy. Sure, you can mix and match, but before you do, try making fettuccine Alfredo with a traditional quarter-inch-wide ribbon noodle made with egg. You'll see how well the shape and richness of the noodle complements the creamy Parmesan based sauce.
The flour you use is important in pasta prep, too. Soft wheat flour, like the all-purpose flour sold across the U.S., can result in gloppy, water logged pasta, while high-gluten flour is more likely to produce pasta with a satisfying al dente bite. Look for semolina flour (sometimes referred to as semola flour). It's the Italian standard for dry pasta. Don't use it exclusively in your recipes, though, especially if you're making pasta you don't plan on drying for future use. Blending unbleached white flour with semolina flour creates dough that's easy to work with, has good texture and holds its shape. (A good ratio is four parts white, unbleached flour to one part semolina flour.) Another option is to use flour designed for bread making. It has higher gluten content than all-purpose flour.
In the last decade or two, pasta purists have been inundated with new pasta recipes that call for adding everything from beet juice to squid ink to change pasta's color or texture and add a little flavor. Here are a few ingredient examples:
- beet juice (magenta pasta)
- carrots (orange pasta)
- chili powder
- chopped spinach (green pasta)
- cracked black pepper
- porcini mushrooms
- squid ink (black pasta)
- tomato puree
Perfectly Prepared Pasta
It's fun to experiment, but much of the flavor in any pasta dish comes from the sauce, or in the case of stuffed shapes, from the filling. The best way to prepare perfect homemade pasta is to keep it simple and follow these basic but important cooking guidelines:
- Use plenty of water. Four quarts of water for every pound of pasta isn't too much.
- Add salt. Don't be afraid to include 2 tablespoons per pot of water. Most of it will go down the drain, and the rest will give your pasta loads of flavor.
- Bring the water to a rolling boil not just a soft simmer. The pasta will be less likely to stick together, and the pot will come back to a boil more quickly.
- Cover the pot after adding the pasta. The water will boil faster, which will cook the pasta faster and keep it from absorbing too much liquid. After the water starts to boil again, stir the pasta to keep it separated. (In the case of stuffed pasta, use a gentle hand.)
- Don't overcook fresh pasta. Fresh pasta only needs a few minutes cooking time: That comes out to about three minutes for thin noodles and four minutes for thicker shapes. Of course, always follow the directions on the recipe you're using.
- Davidson, Alan. "The Oxford Companion to Food." Oxford University Press. 1999
- Easy Home Cooking Magazine. "How to Make Pasta." HowStuffWorks.com. (1/10/12). https://recipes.howstuffworks.com/tools-and-techniques/how-to-make-pasta.htm
- Easy Italian Cooking. "How to Make Pasta." (1/10/12). http://www.italian-cooking-made-easy.com/How-to-make-pasta.html
- National Pasta Association "Pasta Shapes." (1/10/12). http://www.ilovepasta.org/shapes.html
- Roberto's. "Pasta FAQs." (1/10/12) http://www.robertos.com/Pasta-Pantry/Pasta-FAQs.html
- Sicilian Culture. "The Food: Pasta." (1/10/12). http://www.sicilianculture.com/food/pasta.htm
- Wright, Jeni. "The Pasta Bible." Lorenz Books. 2001.