Pasta is a popular dish that you’ll find on every restaurant menu in town, and with good reason: It’s easy to cook, it’s inexpensive, and you can use it in almost any kind of dish. You can turn pasta into a classic Italian dish, a Mediterranean meal, or make home style comfort food like macaroni and cheese that everyone loves.
There’s more to pasta than just boiling water and tossing it with sauce, however. While it’s one of those dishes that many people say can’t be screwed up, it can be much better, starting with using the right type of pasta for the right sauce, and also by making your own from scratch. If you’re a pasta lover and want to know how you can take your noodle dishes to a new level, read on.
Choosing The Right Pasta
Think pasta is pasta, and you should just pick your favorite shape to go with your favorite sauce?
This is definitely not the case. Of course you can eat whichever pasta you like with whichever sauce you like, and it will be edible, and maybe even delicious, but you can do better.
There are three things to think about when choosing pasta: Size, shape, and texture.
Let’s start with size. Tiny pastas are best for soups or salads. They cook fast, and lend texture without being the main ingredient. Think Acini di Pepe or Ditalini.
Smaller pastas, also called “short”, such as macaroni or shells are ideal for casseroles.
Long pasta, like fettuccine or spaghetti need a sauce. You wouldn’t put these in a casserole, and you probably wouldn’t eat them in a soup.
Shape is also important. There are two basic shapes of pastas: those with lots of waves and openings, and simpler pasta without either. A penne or shell shaped pasta is best for sauces that have some heft. Chunky vegetables and meats work best with these types of pastas. A silky cream sauce will work better with a flat pasta, such a long noodle.
Finally, the texture of your pasta is important as well. Ridged pasta will catch a heavy sauce; while smooth pasta will glide right though the sauce. Generally, textured pastas are better for heavier sauces, while smooth are more suited to light sauces.
How do you choose the right type of pasta for the right type of sauce? Well, much of it is trial and error. There are hundreds of different pasta shapes, sizes, and textures out there, and many work well with many applications. These “rules” are merely guidelines to help you find the right sauce for the right pasta. Common sense will guide you a little bit (you’re not going to use lasagna noodles to make pasta salad, for example), but experimentation will help you learn which pasta goes best with which sauce.
When choosing between different brands of dried pasta, the differences are in the types of flour used to make them. Higher quality imported brands are made with the best Italian flours, while cheaper store-bought brands are made with a lower quality product. If you’re making something special, then by all means, splurge on a high quality imported pasta, but for spaghetti and meatballs with the kids on a school night, no one will care what your pasta is made of.
On Making Homemade
Making homemade pasta is not nearly as difficult, or overwhelming as you may think, and if you are a pasta lover, it’s worth trying at least once.
If you want thin pasta, you will need a pasta maker to do it, but you can buy an inexpensive hand crank pasta maker at your local kitchen supply store. More serious pasta enthusiasts can buy higher end versions, or even stand mixer attachments to make the job easier. You can roll out pasta dough with a rolling pin, although it can get quite frustrating to roll out if you’re trying to make something super thin. Rolling out by hand is best saved for making thick and chewy egg noodles that you would eat with chicken and noodles.
You need only a few ingredients to make pasta from scratch: Flour, eggs, water, and salt. You can add other ingredients, such as garlic, spinach, or mushrooms, but for an easy, basic pasta, simple ingredients are all you need. It’s as easy as making dough and running it through the pasta machine.
What’s the difference? Well, for one thing, fresh pasta cooks much quicker than dried. You can cook a batch of fresh spaghetti or fettuccine in as little as two minutes. It also has a more tender texture, and a richer flavor thanks to the addition of the egg. You won’t be able to make fresh macaroni or penne at home, but you can make plenty of different varieties from noodles to stuffed pastas.
While fresh pasta is definitely not something you would put on your agenda for regular weeknight cooking, it can add a special touch to a special occasion meal.
- Always salt your pasta water liberally. It should taste very salty before you add your pasta to it. Don’t skip this step thinking you can add salt to the cooked pasta later; it makes a difference, and forgetting to do so will leave you with flat, bland tasting pasta.
- Don’t add oil to your pasta water however. While this may prevent the pasta from sticking together, it will also prevent your pasta from sticking to your sauce!
- A common mistake many cooks make is not using enough water or a large enough pot. About six quarts of water is required for one pound of pasta. It might seem like a lot, but since pasta expands as it cooks, it needs lots of room to move. A bigger pot is always a better choice when it comes to pasta cooking.
- The best way to tell if pasta is done? Taste it. Don’t throw it against a wall, or even rely on the time on the box. Take a piece out of the water, let it cool, and take a bite. Properly cooked pasta is done when it has a firm, flexible texture. Al dente is the proper term, which means “to the tooth” in Italian. It takes practice, but it’s not that difficult.
- Whole-wheat pasta will take longer to cook, and will have a chewier, heartier texture. If you’re looking for something soft and billowy, steer clear of pastas made of wheat flour, or gluten free versions made from rice flour, quinoa, or other gluten free grains. These will almost always have much more bite.
- If you’re cooking pasta that will finish cooking in a sauce or casserole, undercook it slightly so that it doesn’t overcook.
- Unless you’re making a pasta salad, you don’t want to rinse your pasta or you’ll rinse away all the starch that thickens your sauce and helps it stick.
Cooking pasta is definitely not difficult, but there is always room for improvement in the cooking process. Everything from choosing the right type of pasta for the right type of sauce, to seasoning the water you cook it in and whether or not to rinse, can have an affect on the outcome of your finished dish.