Pasta, or alimentary paste, is a class of foods made from an unleavened dough formed into a variety of shapes (most commonly, thin strips called "noodles"). It is a carbohydrate-rich basis for many meals.
Pasta comes in fresh and dried form. One is not necessarily better than the other. Dried pasta contains flour and water; fresh pasta also contains eggs. Egg noodles (fresh or dried) are always made with eggs.
Fresh pasta has a lighter flavor and a more tender bite, so it's better suited for more delicate sauces. Fresh pasta will keep for up to five days when refrigerated; dried pasta and egg noodles will keep almost indefinitely at room temperature.
Pasta is available in various forms, all shaped from a basic thin sheet of pasta-dough. Some types are served with a sauce, while others are used in soups.
- ramen: long, thin noodles, often served as a soup
- soba: short, thin buckwheat noodles
- udon: thick, round wheat noodles
- vermicelli: long, thin rice noodles
Pasta comes in two main types: fresh pasta fresca and dry pasta.
Fresh pasta includes egg pasta (pasta fresca all'uovo), and pasta made with water only. Filled pasta includes tortellini, ravioli, agnolotti, which are made of egg pasta filled with meat, spinach or ricotta cheese.
Decades ago in Italy, fresh pasta was made at home, or you can buy it at special shops or at supermarkets. But the best is home-made.
Dry pasta is an industrial product, and different types of pasta are of different thicknesses and sizes, and are made to be used in different dishes. The thinner and smaller a pasta is, the quicker it will cook.
Italians have a word for how to cook pasta best: al dente, which means "to the tooth". This means the pasta must not be undercooked - which leaves a taste of uncooked flour - yet it must not be overcooked. The pasta must be able to retain its texture and be softened, yet firm to the bite.
Italian dried pasta is made with water and durum wheat. This is a very hard wheat with a high protein content and it helps to make the pasta firm. Fresh pasta, pasta fatta in casa, is made with normal wheat and eggs. However, there are also types of dried pasta which have egg in them to resemble the taste of fresh pasta, as well as commercial fresh pasta made with a combination of wheat, durum wheat, eggs and water, which helps the pasta to keep longer. Both dried and fresh pasta are appreciated in Italy and used for a wide variety of dishes.
In the process of mass production of pasta, the end product is transported through an oven which dries the dough. With lower quality pasta this process is done relatively quickly, resulting in a darker coloring. High quality pasta is dried much slower and as a result is much lighter in color - and more expensive.
There are over 650 distinct varieties of Italian pasta, as every shape and size has its own name. Some of these are rarely seen outside Italy, while others are common worldwide. Note that the same type of pasta may have different names in different areas of Italy. Here are some of the common shapes:
- bucatini: thick-walled tubes
- capellini: known as angel hair pasta in English; a very fine, fast-cooking pasta
- ditalini: a small, tubed-shaped pasta (can be used in minestrone)
- farfalle: 'bow ties', usually made with egg and/or spinach
- fettuccine: wide flat noodles in varying lengths and widths
- fusilli: narrow corkscrews
- gnocchi: potato or ricotta pasta
- lasagne: a wide flat pasta, used for the classic baked dish
- linguine: long flattened ovals, similar to spaghetti
- cornetti: small maccheroni
- maccheroni: the ubiquitious small curled tubes
- orzo: pasta in the form of large grains of rice.
- pappardelle: a long inch-wide flat pasta with crinkled edges, usually served with a very rich sauce
- penne: long narrow tubes cut diagonally at the ends
- ravioli: square stuffed pasta, often filled with meat or a cheese-based filling
- rigatoni: inch-long ridged tubes, often used in baked dishes
- spaghettini: spaghetti with a small diameter
- spaghetti: the traditional long narrow noodles
- spaghettoni: spaghetti with a large diameter
- tagliatelle: ribbons of pasta, work well with hearty meat-based sauces
- tortellini: a crescent-shaped stuffed pasta
- vermicelli: thin, worm-shaped noodles, used most often in potage (broth)
- paternoster: pasta generally used for minestrone (small maccheroni)
- piombi and fregola: small balls pre-cooked or not about 5 mm
Both fresh and dried pasta are usually cooked by boiling in a large amount of water, which may be salted according to taste. Fresh pasta will cook in less than five minutes; dried pasta takes longer: 9 to 12 minutes, depending on the variety. If you are cooking an unfamiliar brand or variety, keep checking. Most people prefer pasta when it is al dente - that is when it still offers some resistance to the bite.
Consult the boiled pasta page for a more thorough explanation of how to cook pasta.
Plain pasta is usually bland. You may wish to flavor it with salt, olive oil, butter or a sauce. Tomato-based sauces are classically associated with Italian pasta dishes.
In some pastas the dough is flavoured or colored with an extra ingredient such as squid ink (for a black color), beet juice (for a vibrant red), tomato puree (for an orange tint) or spinach (for a green color). Pasta can also be flavoured with chili peppers for a spicy kick, or with truffles, for the unique flavour that only truffles can bring to a dish.
Notes, tips and variations
- Pasta names ending in -ini refer to a small variety of some type of pasta, and those ending in -oni or -one refer to a large variety. For instance, farfallini are small farfalle and farfallone are large ones.
- When making a pasta sauce (whether based on tomatoes, cream, bechamel or just 'dry' vegetables), it's a good idea to add a couple of tablespoons of the sauce's cooking fat (usually butter or olive oil) to the pasta when tossing it.
- When incorporating a flavoring or coloring ingredient into pasta dough, it's important to take the water content into consideration. Beets, for instance, contain a lot of moisture, so less water should be added to the dough to compensate.