In culinary circles, Italy and pasta go together like — well, like spaghetti and meatballs. Lush pale noodles of all shapes and sizes make the perfect accompaniment to almost any dish, and they often are the heart of the dish itself. The name is derived from the Italian language that bore it — a reference to the “paste” created by combining the trinity of main ingredients: water, flour and eggs.
Sure, you love a heaping plate of well-sauced pasta, but how well do you know your way down the pasta aisle in the grocery store? Here’s a crash course in some of the most popular shapes of pasta waiting to hop in your cart.
Arguably the quintessential pasta consumed in America, this strand-like noodle works well with a variety of sauces but is most commonly paired with tomato-based concoctions in American recipes. In Italy, however, one of the most well-known pasta recipes is spaghetti aglio e olio — spaghetti dressed simply with toasted garlic, olive oil, crushed red pepper and fresh parsley.
Spaghetti falls squarely in the middle of the thickness gauge of pasta noodles and is rounded in shape. Thinner versions of spaghetti-like noodles are called cappellini (angel hair), while thicker, flat versions are called linguine, fettuccine and pappardelle in order of increasing width.
You can cook pasta to any firmness you please, but the Italians prefer theirs cooked al dente, which means “to the tooth.” Al dente spaghetti is soft but still a bit firm when bitten into. The easiest, least messy way to figure out if it’s ready is to gently bite a piece in half and examine the remaining cross-section — there should be a very small dot of white in the middle. If it’s larger than a pinhead, leave it boiling for another minute or two and check again.
It’s easy to determine what lasagna noodles are primarily used for — their namesake is enjoyed in various forms across the country. In Italy, lasagna noodles are typically flat, but in the U.S., the edges are crimped to help hold in the sauce. Lasagna noodles are layered in a baking dish and alternated with other ingredients before being baked into a finished dish. These ingredients can include tomato sauce, ricotta, shredded mozzarella or other Italian cheeses, herbs, meat or vegetables. Authentic Italian lasagna uses a white bechamel sauce, while Americans prefer theirs served with layers of rich red sauce.
When making lasagna, experts advise that you keep the noodles in a bowl of room-temperature water after cooking, rather than lumped in a strainer. As the noodles dry, they become more prone to breaking and sticking, making layering difficult. Additionally, a rectangle of parchment paper in the bottom of your baking pan before assembly can help immensely with preventing a baked-on mess.
While spaghetti and lasagna tend to star in savory main dishes, rotini branches out a bit to join the cold dish menu as well. This curled, spiral-like pasta holds up well to marinades and dressings, making it a favorite inclusion for picnic-ready pasta salad. The ridges of its twirls also hold onto sauce particularly well and has an excellent bite and a hearty finish. A shorter, fatter version of this noodle type features more slender ridges and is called radiatore, or “little radiators” after the old-fashioned heating systems that share the shape.
Rotini and other spiral and tubular pastas are difficult to make at home, as most crank-style pasta makers only produce flat noodles. However, they can be successfully made with a home extruder, which pushes the dough through a small opening rather than rolling it flat and cutting it into strips. Professional extruded pastas are usually crafted using a bronze die in a heavy-duty extruding machine and are referred to as bronze cut on the packaging.
Penne pasta is a round, tube-shaped pasta with noticeable ridges on its external surface. These are not only a mark of the extruder that created them; they’re purposely molded in to help hold onto sauce and make every bite delicious. Penne has angular or pointed ends at each end of the noodle, as opposed to the flat edges of smooth-sided ziti or elbow macaroni pasta. This and other tube pastas should always be cooked al dente, as overcooking will lead to limp, hard-to-pick-up forkfuls of finished product.
Unsurprisingly, penne derives its name from its resemblance to an old writing utensil called a quill. Thicker in width at its walls than similar pastas, it can take longer to prepare and must be carefully watched to avoid over- or undercooking. It works best with thick, chunky sauces, such as those with sliced sausage or vegetable pieces incorporated into the finished dish, but it also pairs well with lighter sauces and dressings.
The Secrets of Pasta
Want to prepare pasta like a pro? Here are a few pro tips you should keep in mind when making pasta at home:
- Never rinse your pasta. Many people grew up mindlessly running water over noodles in a pasta strainer once the boiling water had drained away. This washes off the starch and gluten in the noodles, which basically means sauce will slip and slide right off, making for a disappointing forkful of dinner.
- It’s easy to make your own. While tubular pastas can be tricky for newbies, an inexpensive counter-clamped hand-crank pasta maker will turn an easy dough into pasta in mere minutes. Making pasta is a great from scratch effort that won’t take all night. For even faster results, most major stand mixer brands offer attachments that mix the dough, roll it out and automatically cut it into noodles.
- Use more water than you think you need, and salt it. A common concept in true Italian pasta prep is to create a boiling pot of water that “tastes like the sea” — i.e., a healthy dose of salt. Your water should easily cover your noodles and give them room to move. If not, get a bigger pot and add more water.
- Stir, stir, stir. The gluten in pasta noodles expands like a sponge and easily tangles with the gluten on other noodles. If you don’t stir, particularly when pasta first meets water, you’ll end up with a pasty clump of half-cooked noodles, rather than a beautifully prepared bowl of al dente pasta perfection.
Pasta is a dish that works hot or cold, with rich tomato sauces and savory oil-based marinades, for hearty meals and light appetizers. While its origins and ingredients are deceptively simple, it’s a classic pantry staple for Americans of all walks of life. Boil a pot of your favorite pasta, add a little meat, a little cheese, and a lot of love and you’ll have a dish that warms your heart, soul, and stomach in equal measure.