Pasta has always been popular for its versatility and ease of cooking. But how much do you really know about it? Do you know how to properly cook pasta? Are you familiar with the term “al dente”? Are you familiar with how pasta is made? Maybe you’d like to learn how to make your own fresh pasta. We’re going to cover the basics about pasta to help you in your culinary journey
What Is Pasta?
Pasta is a dough and is similar in production to items in the bake shop. Making pasta is relatively easy, and the main ingredients in pasta is semolina flour, egg and water. Semolina flour is a hard flour with impressive protein content. You’ll see it available readily in grocery stores and other food markets.
Macaroni is actually the proper term for all pasta produced with wheat flour and water. It is only in North America do we call elbow pasta “macaroni”. It’s one of those erroneous things that are deeply ingrained in North American culture. In your journey to become a better cook, these are the type of things you will notice and you will be better for it! Knowing what you’re talking about is important. For the purposes of this article we’ll refer to macaroni as pasta.
There is a myth that noodles were first invented in China and discovered by Marco Polo during the 13th century. The story goes he introduced the noodles to Italy and the rest is history. The truth is, Middle Eastern and Italian cooks were preparing pasta long before Marco Polo came along.
The pasta you find in the grocery store is a dried pasta that is extruded at manufacturing plants and left to dry into a hard dehydrated dough. As with any dried product, you tend to lose a bit of flavor and texture during the process and the appeal of fresh pasta is that you retain all of those qualities. Fresh pasta dough is easy to make, but it’s a bit more difficult to extrude into shapes and you’ll need a pasta machine in order to properly create your desired shapes. While it is very possible to use a knife or roller to cut your own shapes, it usually takes much longer and in the professional culinary industry speed is of the essence. There is nothing to say you cannot enjoy the process and take your time either – in fact we encourage it. Experimenting is the only way you gain speed.
We will help you get up to speed on the terms and categorizes of pasta. Due to the vast amounts in pasta, we’ll be sticking to the basic categories.
Types of Pasta
We’ll jump right in and describe with visual aid the different names and shapes of pasta. The importance of knowing these shapes is to avoid any confusion when looking or communicating pasta types to colleagues or customers.
There are 3 categories of Italian pasta
The ribbon category includes Lasagna (Long, and very fat), Fettuccine, Linguine (Smallest tongue pasta) Spaghetti (No tongue), Tagliatelli (Broader than Linguine), Pappardelle (Largest tongue behind Lasanga) and Capellini (Angel-hair). They are defined by their width and length. There are many variations and in-betweens for pasta. You will constantly see different names for different types, but these types define the pasta.
Tubes are the cylindrical tubes made by extrusion. They are generally short, but can be long (Canneloni, for example). They include Manicotti, Rigatoni, Ziti, Penne, Spira. Some of these you might not be familiar with, but have probably seen many times before. Ziti, for example, is what’s used in Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Spira is the name given for any spiral pasta, including fusili.
Shapes cover the rest of the pasta-sphere. These come in many different sizes and shapes, and there are new forms coming out on a regular basis. You’ll see these as Penne, Conchiglie (Shells), Farfalle (Bow-tie), Rotelle (Cart-wheel), and Orzo (Rice-shaped).
It is important to remember that pasta comes in hundreds of variations in shapes and size. It would be impossible to list them all here, as many of them are hybrids of the classic pastas.
Asian noodles do not have the wealth of variety that Italian pasta has. They aren’t usually flavored or colored by use of vegetables or herbs either. Virtually all Asian noodles are ribbons with varying degrees of thickness. The differences between then comes down to the type of flour used to produce the noodle.
Wheat Noodles – Also known as egg-noodles, they are the most popular and widely available of the Asian noodle. They are available fresh or dried, and can be deep fried after boiling to create crisp golden noodles (Chow mein) use mainly as a garnish.
The Japanese have their own types of noodles made from wheat as well. The thin variety is known as Udon, while the thicker variety is called Somen.
Rice Noodles – These are the dried, thin noodles made from rice flour. Ideally, you’ll want to soak these in hot water before cooking and rinsed in cold water after cooking to remove any starches and prevent sticking.
Buckwheat Noodles – Buckwheat noodles are used in Northern Japan and in the Tokyo region. These are called Soba noodles. They are available fresh or dried and do not need to be soaked before cooking. They are often used in soups or broth, but can be substituted for Italian-style pasta.
Is it much harder to recreate many of the shapes that you see in dried pasta. The manufacturers of dry-pasta have very expensive extruding machines that allow them to do the shapes you see in stores. While dry-pasta might have the edge when it comes to shapes, fresh pasta has a much bigger advantage.
Fresh pasta is much more flavorful and the texture of fresh pasta is much more refined. There is no real al-dente for fresh pasta, but rather the goal is to ensure even gentle cooking. Another advantage that fresh pasta has is it’s ability to form stuffed pastas, such as ravioli and tortellini. Creating pasta dough is simple and we have supplied a basic recipe for you to build off of.
Pasta Dough Recipe
|Basic Pasta Dough||Yield: 1kg (2.2lb)|
|Olive Oil||15mL (1 Tbsp)|
|Salt||10g (2 tsp)|
|Bread Flour or Semolina||600g (1lb, 6oz)|
Pasta Dough Method:
- Place eggs, oil and salt into a large mixer bowl. Use the paddle attachment to combine.
- Add one-third of the flour at a time until the mixture begins to form a soft dough. If all flour has been used and dough remains sticky, add more flour until dough is dry.
- Remove dough from the mixer and wrap it entirely in plastic wrap. Set aside at room temperature for about 30 minutes. This will help relax the gluten so it is easier to work with.
- Once dough has rested, roll into flat sheets by hand or with a pasta machine. Keep rolled out dough covered so it does not dry out.
- When the sheets are finished, you can cut them into desired widths or pass them through a pasta machine.
Garlic Herb: Roast 1 head of garlic, peel and puree the cloves. Add to the eggs. Then add 50g (2oz) of finely chopped fresh herbs just before the mixing is complete.
Spinach: Add 250g (8oz) of cooked pureed and well-drained spinach to the eggs. Increase amount of flour if needed.
Tomato: Add 100g (3oz) of sweated tomatoe paste to the eggs and omit the salt. If needed, increase the amount of salt. Use 5 whole eggs, and 3 egg yolks
Spiced: Add 12mL (2-1/2 tsp) of dry spice of choice
NOTE: You may use different combinations of semolina and other flours if so desired. A good alternative is 50% semolina and 50% white bread flour.
Once your pasta has reached the rolled out stage, you are at stage where producing stuffed pasta can be done. While the sheets are rolled out, you’ll want to create your mixture in a separate bowl. It is ideal that you use pre-cooked ingredients to ensure you do not overcook the pasta just to cook the filling.
Once your filling and you have sheets that are rolled, place the filling equal distances from each other to fill the entire sheet using a distance of 1-2″. After the filling has been placed, use an egg wash and brush the areas where there is no filling. This will seal the dough. Then, place the last sheet over top of the bottom sheet and filling, and using your fingers, press down as close as you can to the filling to make a pocket. Try to remove as much air as you can, because too much air will cause bursting during cooking.
Once the filling is neatly pocketed, you can cut using a mould or with your chefs knife. The resulting pasta will be filled and ready for service.
Storing Fresh Pasta
Once your fresh pasta is finished, the first thing you will probably notice is that it likes to stick to each other and it can soon become a general chaotic cluster of dough. To prevent this, you’ll want to employ a few key preventative measures. The first measure is that you want to have the pasta spread out as much as possible as the weight will contribute to the unwanted combining. If you have long, ribbon pasta, it is okay to have a 2 or 3 layers on top of each other as long as you employ the second preventative measure.
The second measure is applying generous amounts of flour between layers to act as a barrier. This will help keep the pasta separated. Be careful though: Long term storage in this manner results in the flour absorbing moisture.
Lastly, the best method is to cook the pasta once it’s ready. Once cooked and cooled properly it can be stored safely for up to 3 days.
Cooking Fresh Pasta
Cooking fresh pasta differs from cooking dry pasta in that if the dough is freshly made, it will be delicate and require a tenth of the time to cook. Start with a stock pot with lots of water. The more water the better, as the circulatory motion produced by simmering/boiling water helps prevent sticking. If you use too little water, you will see a starchy concoction that is neither desired nor is it efficient at all. Salt the water generously, as salt is absorbed into the pasta while it cooks more than afterwards.
Bring the water to a boil. The pasta should be durable enough to withstand boiling temperatures. If frozen, the pasta will sink to the bottom and rise to the top once finished. If you are finding your pasta is breaking up and dissolving in the water, either increase or change the amount of flour or knead the dough further to develop more gluten. Always keep stirring the pasta to ensure it does not stick.
NOTE: There is the myth of using oil in the water. There is absolutely no reason to use oil in the water. It does nothing, and is a waste of perfectly good oil. The oil will just remain on the top, never interacting with the pasta. If you have foaming or overboiling problems and use oil to solve it, try reducing the heat. It works much better and best of all, it’s cheaper.
The pasta is done when the starch has been cooked out. This is hard to tell without testing the pasta yourself, but depending on the thickness you should estimate around 5-7 minutes for ravioli/stuffed and around 3 minutes for very thin pasta such as spaghetti or linguine.
Once the pasta is finished, get a colander and gently dump the water through the colander ensuring the pasta lands inside. If you are serving the pasta right away, rinse the pasta using hot water to rid the surface of starches that can make the pasta stick once cooled. If you are storing the pasta for another day, rinse in cold water.
After you have rinsed it, pour olive oil over it and toss to coat evenly. This gives flavor and helps keep it separated.
Properly Cooking Dry Pasta
Similar to the method of cooking fresh pasta, cooking dry pasta has a few different steps. Use the same amount of water and salt in the water. Bring to a boil and add the pasta, stirring continuously until the water comes back up to temperature. Because dry pasta takes longer to cook, keep stirring often. You will get a feel for when pasta is done by stirring the pasta. The way in which the pasta hits the spoon/spatula when stirring can indicate doneness.
Dry pasta is done when it reaches the al dente stage. This is defined by pasta giving only a slight resistance when bitten into. It is Italian for “To the tooth”. Throwing pasta against the wall does nothing except dirty up your kitchen.
There are countless amounts of pasta sauces out there, but you can break them all down into 6 categories. These include: Ragu, Seafood Sauces, Vegetable Sauces, Cream Sauces, Garlic-oil Sauces, and uncooked sauces.
Ragu is defined as the sauce that remains after braising a dish. The flavorings, meat or poultry are browned, and then a tomato product and stock, water, wine, milk or cream is added. Very common in classic Italian dishes in which much of the tougher cuts of meat are cooked in this method and then combined into the sauce and poured over the pasta.
There are two types of seafood sauces – White and red. White seafood sauces are made and flavored with herbs and made with white wine or stock. A red seafood sauce uses tomato as its base. Very common in Cajun cooking and central American cuisine.
This type of sauce include both traditional sauces (Made from tomatoes and stock, flavored with garlic and peppers) and modern sauces, such as primavera.
Quite simple. Uses cream or milk and sometimes a roux. Cheese is usually added for increased flavor. A common base for these sauces is the bechamel sauce.
Olive oil is used as and is flavored with garlic and herbs. It can be served hot or cold, cooked or uncooked. Pesto is a popular uncooked, cold sauce.
There is an endless variety of uncooked sauces that can be used and are generally dressings and garnishes such as fresh tomatoes, basil and olive oil, or olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, basil and hot pepper flakes. Capers, anchovies, and olives are common due to their strong flavor. Fresh vegetables and cubed cheeses can also be used.
There is an order to the chaos that is pasta. It is one of the areas that has seen so much change that the classics have been all but lost. As long as you understand the different sauces and how to create those sauces you are farther ahead than the majority of amateur cooks.