Pasta Primer

Basic Principle of Pasta

Pasta is a simple combination of flour and water or eggs that is made into dough and formed into different shapes — 3,500 different shapes to be exact. But before we delve into what shape pasta to use and when, let’s learn some basic principles.

Fresh pasta vs. dried pasta – Dried pasta is most available commercially, although some companies have come out with fresh pasta varieties available at your supermarket. Dried pasta has a longer shelf life and takes longer to cook than fresh pasta and is probably the best choice for heavy or thick sauces.

Pasta ingredients – The best pasta is made with 100% durum wheat semolina flour which gives the pasta a rough finish that is perfect for holding onto sauces. Some pastas,such as pastina and egg noodles, use egg rather than water as the liquid. These pastas have a distinct flavor and are best served with the simplest of sauces or some butter and grated parmesan cheese.

Storing pasta – Dried pasta (without eggs) can last up to two years in your pantry. Fresh store-bought pasta will stay fresh in the fridge for up to a week. Fresh homemade pasta can be refrigerated for a few days or dried and stored in an airtight container. Pasta should never be frozen unless it is incorporated into a casserole-type dish first.

Flavored pasta – Pastas with additional ingredients in the dough that both color and flavor the pasta. Most common are tomato, spinach and squid ink pasta. Try to buy pastas that are flavored with the real deal and not artificial flavorings and food dyes.

Cooking Pasta

Pasta was meant to be boiled. Full stop. Some rogue companies have come out with pasta varieties that are meant to be incorporated into dishes and baked without preboiling. While this type of pasta might just save you 10 minutes or so in the kitchen, your dishes will certainly suffer for it. Stay away from them.

How you cook your pasta is as much of an art as it is a science. Basically, you will bring a pot of water to a rolling boil, add your pasta, turn down the heat so the water comes to a slow boil, cook the pasta to the desired tenderness stirring occasionally so that the pasta doesn’t stick together and then drain. Here are a few additional tips that should come in handy:

Make sure the pot has plenty of water. A general rule of thumb is one gallon of water for each pound of pasta.

Add plenty of salt to the water. Any good Italian grandmother would tell you that your pasta water should taste “like the sea”. Add a good handful of Kosher or sea salt to your pasta water while you’re waiting for it to boil. It will make a huge difference in the taste of your finished product.

Do NOT add oil to the water. Whoever told you that adding oil to the water would keep the pasta from sticking lied to you. Don’t do it.
Do not overcook the pasta. Most people like their pasta “al dente” which means “to the tooth”. Pasta cooked al dente will be slightly chewy. This is particularly important in pasta that will be cooked again in a casserole such as macaroni and cheese or baked ziti. Generally, regular dried spaghetti will take 9 to 10 minutes to cook. Larger pasta, such as rigatoni or ziti, could take 12 to 15 minutes or more. Smaller shapes of pasta such as elbows should take in the 6 to 8 minute range, and very tiny pasta like pastina will take just a few minutes. Always taste the pasta a minute or two before your timer goes off to be sure you’re not overcooking.

Your pasta doesn’t need to shower. Cooked pasta should not be rinsed under cold water. The only exceptions to this rule are pastas that will be used in a cold pasta salad or casserole. Drain your cooked pasta in a colander and always be sure to reserve a cup or so of the pasta water, as some sauces will benefit from the addition of some of the water.

Pasta Shapes and Types

First, let me state that I will not cover all 3,500 shapes here. We’ll stick with ones that you are most likely to be confronted with on the store shelf or a restaurant menu.

Why is it important to know about the different pasta shapes? Because each type of pasta works well with certain preparations. Thicker, tubed and ribbed pastas generally hold up well with thicker sauces or casseroles, while a thin Angel Hair pasta would be completely lost served with an Alfredo sauce. Manicotti is meant to be stuffed, while lasagne is meant to be layered. Rigatoni would overpower an Alla Olio preparation, and pastina would get completely lost Carbonera style.

It’s a tricky balance to get just the right amount of pasta with the perfect bit of sauce in a bite. Just remember that the thicker and larger the pasta, the heavier the sauce it will stand up to.

Spaghetti Family
Varieties:

Spaghetti – Long rods of pasta. Works best with light sauces.
Thin Spaghetti (Spaghettini) – Thinner version of spaghetti. Light sauces only.
Vermicelli – Long rods somewhere between spaghettini and angel hair. Light sauces.
Angel Hair – Thinnest of the common spaghetti pastas. Light sauces only. Great accompaniment to seafood.
Bucatini – Like a thick spaghetti that is hollow in the center. Holds up well to light and medium sauces.

Pasta Ribbons
Varieties:

Lasagna noodles – Large flat ribbons with either straight or curled edges. Sole use is layered with meats, cheese and/or vegetables with sauce and baked.
Fettucine – Long and somewhat thick ribbons of pasta approximately 1/4″ to 1/3″ wide. Holds up well to medium to heavy sauces.
Tagliatelle – Just slightly narrower than fettucine. Holds up well to medium to heavy sauces.
Mezze Linguine – Wider than spaghetti but thinner than fettucine. Holds up well to light to medium sauces.
Pappardelle – Flat ribbons at least 1″ wide but not as wide as lasagne. Works well with both medium and heavy sauces.

Tubular Pasta
Varieties:

Elbow – Short, thin, somewhat curled tubes. Also called “macaroni”. Probably the most versatile pasta as it works well in soups, casseroles, pasta salads and with most sauces.
Ziti – Short tubes approximately 2″ long. Holds up to most sauces and works well in casseroles as well.
Rigatoni – Short ribbed tubes approximately 1″ to 1-1/2″ long, wider than ziti. Holds up to most sauces and works well in casseroles as well.
Penne – Short tubes approximately 1-1/2″ long cut on the diagonal. Holds up to most sauces and works well in casseroles as well.
Penne Rigate – The same as penne, only the tubes are ribbed. Holds up to most sauces and works well in casseroles as well.

Soup Pasta
Varieties:

Pastina – Very tiny star-shaped pasta made with egg dough. Goes well in light broths, or served simply with butter and grated parmesan cheese.
Alphabets – Shaped like letters of the alphabet. Best served in broths or light soups.
Ditalini – Tiny pasta tubes. Best in soups or very, very light sauces.
Conchigliette – Shaped like small conch shells. Used mostly in soups.
Orzo – Shaped like rice or barley. Good basis for sauces or addition to most soups.
Ruote – Also known as “wheels” as they are shaped like small wagon wheels. Great in soups but stand up well to sauces also.

Shaped Pasta
Varieties:

Conchiglie – Also known as “shells” as they are shaped like conch shells approximately 1″ long. These stand up well to most sauces and also work in casseroles or pasta salads.
Cavatelli – Small, slightly heavy pasta shells shaped to look like hotdog rolls. These work best with think and chunky sauces.
Gnocchetti – Pasta shaped to look like the potato dumplings, gnocchi. Holds up well with most sauces, although best used with very thick and heavy sauce.
Farfalle – Commonly referred to as “bow tie pasta” as it is shaped to resemble bow ties. Works very well with light sauces or in pasta salads.
Fusilli – Also known as “corkscrew pasta” as it is shaped like a corkscrew or spring. Fusilli comes in either short, thicker pieces, or longer, thinner pasta more like a curly spaghetti. Both hold sauces well due to their shape. The smaller corkscrews also work extremely well in pasta salads.
Campanelle – A short pasta shaped like small lilies. Best used with thick and chunky sauces.
Rotini – Small twisted rods similar to the shorter fusilli pasta. The curls hold most sauces well, and it also works very well in pasta salads.
Oroechiette – Shaped like little ears or small bowls. Holds up best to thick and chunky sauces.

Stuffed Pasta
Varieties:

Cannelloni – Tubes of pasta approximately 1″ by 6″. Usuallly stuffed, covered with sauce and baked.
Manicotti – Similar to cannelloni, only the tubes are ribbed.
Ravioli – Squares of pasta usually filled with meat or cheese. Usually served topped with a sauce alone, or topped wiith sauce and cheese and then baked.
Tortellini – Pasta circles that are filled with either meat or cheese and then folded in half and shaped like small hats. Work well with light sauces or in soups.
Conchiglioni – Shaped like large (approximately 2″) conch shells. Generally stuffed with a ricotta/spinach mixture, topped with sauce and baked.

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