When I was in college, I moved into an old house with a couple of friends. One of my friends wasn’t really into cooking and ate pasta 99% of the time. He’d go to the grocery store on Sunday and stock up on whichever noodles and store-bought tomato sauce were on sale. We’d always have a great time together and thought very much alike on many topics. But there was one thing we could never agree on…
You see, to my college housemate all pasta was the same. The noodles were simply made in different shapes and sizes. In a way, he was right. He cooked pasta in a way that made spaghetti, rigatoni, and tagliatelle taste absolutely the same every night.
To me (and regular readers know my passion for Italian cuisine), each type of pasta deserved its own monument, biography, and cookbook. Penne was the absolute essential for Milanese pasta al pomodoro. Spaghetti were best used for a Roman dish of spaghetti alla carbonara or a Neapolitan plate of spaghetti alle vongole.
What struck me the most was that my housemate and I would go to the same store and shop for the same ingredients. We would even cook the same meals. But the pasta noodles we bought and the way we cooked them was so different, that our plates would look, feel, and taste nothing alike.
All of this got me thinking… is all pasta alike? A quick search on Google showed that I wasn’t the only one asking this question.
So here’s my take.
How Pasta Is Made
All pasta noodles are made with the same production process. Machines mix flour, water, and occasionally eggs and knead it into dough. The unleavened dough is pushed through pasta molds, known as dies, that work the dough into pasta shapes like spaghetti, macaroni, farfalle, and others.
The fresh-made pasta noodles are dried. Drying is a critical part of pasta making because it brings down the moisture of the pasta noodles. This makes them hard, helping to keep their shapes and last longer on the shelves of Italian delis, grocery stores, and supermarket chains.
Once dried, the pasta noodles are packed in producer-branded cellophane bags and cardboard boxes, and the product is distributed through resellers to stores.
Remember this and keep it in mind as you read the rest of this blog post. Because we’ll be looking at how small changes to a couple of steps in the pasta production process can lead to big differences in texture and taste.
Pasta Shapes Matter
Different shapes of pasta work with different sauces. I’ve seen that penne and rigatoni, for example, pair well with chunky tomato sauce. The small bits and pieces of tomato go inside the noodles and they’ll burst with aroma and taste when you bite into them.
One thing I learned from the late Antonio Carluccio is to use spaghettoni when making spaghetti alla carbonara. Spaghettoni are thicker in diameter compared to spaghetti, which makes them a great fit for a hearty recipe like pasta alla carbonara.
Here’s how to best pair pasta shapes with sauces:
- Use spaghetti, spaghettoni, and bucatini for seafood (Spaghetti alle Vongole), olive oil (Aglio e Olio), and grease-based (Amatriciana) sauces.
- Penne, rigatoni, and macaroni go well with hearty sauces like ragu and baked cheese dishes (think Italian-American macaroni and cheese).
- Tagliatelle, pappardelle, and fettuccine go with thick and meaty sauces. They pair nicely with creamy and egg sauces like Carbonara.
- Fusilli and other twisty pasta noodles are ideal for smoother sauces that need to cling to pasta noodles, like green and red pesto.
Fresh Pasta vs. Dry Pasta
Another reason why not all pasta is the same is fresh pasta and dry pasta. In fact, fresh pasta and dry pasta are two completely different types of pasta.
Dry pasta is made from semolina flour, water, and salt. Once the dough is mixed and shaped into noodles, the noodles are dried. Thanks to its hardness, dry pasta can hold on to the meatiest of Italian sauces.
Fresh pasta is also made from semolina flour, water, and salt. In addition, it contains eggs and more water than dry pasta. It’s more tender than dry pasta and takes 1/2 the time to cook. Its smooth texture makes it great for creamy and eggy sauces.
Expensive Pasta vs. Cheap Pasta
When you consider the quality of pasta sold in grocery stores, not all pasta is the same. When shopping for pasta, there are two reasons why you should always buy noodles from the best Italian pasta brands: the flour and the die. Here’s why.
Expensive Pasta Is More Nutritious
High-quality pasta is made with semolina flour. Semolina flour is an Italian flour made of durum wheat. Planted in spring and harvested in fall, durum wheat can be grown in the hot and dry weather conditions in the Mediterranean sea — hence why it’s a common wheat in Italy. Durum wheat has a higher protein content than any other type of wheat.
Pasta made from semolina flour is more nutritious than its cheaper counterpart made from all-purpose flour. The way that the carbohydrates and proteins in semolina flour are bound together make it slower to digest and a good and continual source of energy for the body.
Sauce Clings Better to Expensive Pasta
Second, high-quality pasta is made in bronze dies. The die is the mold that pasta makers use to turn pasta dough into pasta noodles. What material that mold is coated with can make all the difference.
Cheap pasta is produced in non-stick-coated dies because they’re less expensive and result in faster production. While this makes the pasta smooth and shiny on the surface, it also makes it hard for sauce to stick to it.
Bronze-cut pasta takes longer to make and is generally more expensive. The pasta noodles are coarser and more porous than the ones that come out of non-stick-coated dies. This makes for an excellent surface for sauce to cling to.
If there’s one thing I’ve managed to convince you with this blog post, I hope it’s that not all pasta is the same.
First and foremost, there’s fresh pasta. Tender and smooth, fresh pasta is best for creamy and eggy sauces. Then there’s dry pasta. Dry pasta can handle the lightest or heartiest sauces when cooked al dente.
Second, there’s high-quality pasta and average pasta. The best Italian pasta brands are pricier for a reason; they’re made from semolina flour, making it more nutritional than pasta made from all-purpose flour, and in bronze dies, making its surface coarser and easier for sauces to cling to.
Third, there’s a variety of pasta shapes and sizes for a reason. Some shapes, like long and thin spaghetti or bucatini, work well with seafood and olive oil sauces. Others, like penne and rigatoni, pair with chunky tomato sauces.