Pasta is the Italian name for Italy's version of a basic foodstuff which is made in many countries by mixing a fine flour of ground grain with water to create a dough and then making into strips, ribbons and other shapes. Usually based on wheat flour, pasta may or may not be dried and it is cooked by boiling in water or stock and served with a dressing and or other ingredients. 'Noodles' is the name for this sort of foodstuff made in Asia, where it is commonly made with rice flour, but also with wheat or buckwheat.
Although pasta was made in most Italian districts with just flour and water, it can also be made richer and more nutritious with egg, egg yolk and/or oil - usually olive oil. Spinach is also widely used to make green pasta, though the spinach flavour is usually difficult to detect.
Dried pasta of many shapes and sizes is always available in all sorts of stores, from supermarkets to small grocers. Fresh pasta is increasingly available and its shelf life is typically noted on the packaging.
Choose the best
Although it's tempting to think homemade pasta is the better choice, the finest grade of commercially produced pasta is widely thought to be best. The reason for this is because it’s agreed the best pasta is made with strong flour, usually of durum wheat, with a high gluten content. Gluten is what develops in bread dough by kneading - the yeast forms bubbles and the loaf rises. The more gluten which develops in pasta dough after kneading, the more difficult it becomes to roll and shape. Thus it’s recommended that home cooks use soft or all-purpose flour, which contains considerably less gluten content.
Commercial factories feature heavy machinery that makes easy work of rolling and forming or extruding strong-flour pasta dough into the required shapes. And here is where you can use your eagle eyes when shopping...
The best way to shape factory-made pasta dough is through bronze extruders, which leave the surface rather rough (see Cook it, below). This pasta is then dried slowly, which produces a matte finish. The label should tell you about the bronze, using the word 'bronzato' for instance, and the pasta should look dull. If you nibble the surface of a piece gently with your front teeth, it should feel rough, exactly the same way that you test for a genuine pearl. In contrast, modern factories making lower quality pasta often use plastic to shape the dough and it is dried quickly. This process makes the pasta shiny to see and smooth to the tooth.
The best commercial dried pastas should clearly state they are made with hard (durum) wheat, mention they have been formed with bronze and have a dull appearance. Lower quality pasta is now made to look dull, but there will be no mention of bronze or of slow drying on the packaging.
You can’t tell these differences with fresh pasta however, which could be why Italians are said to loathe buying it. Some also say that the extra weight you pay for in fresh pasta is simply water content.
Whole-wheat pasta is little known or appreciated in Italy; it is most often thought of as something medicinal, used to help constipation.
Flavoured pasta is something which sounds better than it can possibly taste. Whether flavoured with black pepper or black truffle, orange, beetroot, tomato, anchovy, squid ink or basil, it stands to reason – if you think about it – that most of the flavour will be left in the cooking water. It's much better to cook plain pasta and add flavours or ingredients afterwards. Choosing these pastas for their colour is another choice, but it is more economical to choose cheaper but honest, dyed pasta than those which promise flavour they are unlikely to deliver in the quantity for which you have paid.
Pasta made with spelt, a heritage variety of wheat, is increasingly available and has the advantage of being more easily assimilated by coeliac disease sufferers, who are unable to digest gluten.
Dried pasta will keep for years if stored in a cool, dark place. The shelf life of fresh pasta depends on its ingredients and how it is packed.
There are only two secrets to cooking pasta. The first is to use lots of water so the pieces can move about and absorb plenty of liquid as they cook. Recommendations vary from at least 500mls to 1 litre per 100g of dried pasta. The thicker the pasta, or the more complicated the shape, the more water you should use: any pasta packaging that suggests a cooking time of more than five minutes should be boiled in the larger amount to allow for evaporation during the cooking as well as water absorption. If you use too little water, pasta gets sticky. Adding olive oil to the water does nothing to prevent this stickiness. The second secret is to use much more salt than you think you should.
What you do next in the cooking process of pasta is vital - and it's little understood outside Italy. The cooked, drained pasta must be allowed to steam itself dry a little before adding a sauce to it or vice versa. Remember those rough surfaces of pasta made from the bronze extruders? When these are allowed to dry they offer myriad surfaces for a sauce to be absorbed. This means the pasta will be flavoured rather than being a mere carrier. Even if you plan to simply add olive oil or butter, wait until the surface of the pasta is dried before adding them to enjoy a much better, bolder flavour. If you've ever wondered why so many Italian dishes are taken to the table as a pile of pasta with a sauce in the middle and then mixed just before serving, here lies the answer: drier pasta soaks up the sauce.
In contrast, the plastic extruded, quick-dried pasta benefits from the same technique, yet it will always be more a carrier of sauce rather than an absorber.
Broadly speaking there are three types of pasta:
Pasta lunga – long strips, ribbons and tubes, such as spaghetti and fettuccini.
Pasta corta – cut pasta, which includes the many smaller shapes. Smoother shapes are better choices for sauces that are simple and smooth, while more complicated shapes such as shells, ears and pens work better with more complicated sauces, including sauces with chunky ingredients. Very small pasta can also be called 'pastina'.
Pasta ripieni - pasta which is stuffed, such as ravioli and tortellini.
The Encyclopaedia of Pasta by Oretta Zanini de Vita (University of California Press) lists over 300 distinct shapes, many of which are also known by countless other dialect names, village by village. Ultimately, pasta is eaten in the shape in which it is most preferred. Whichever type you choose however, whatever you do, avoid rinsing pasta after it is cooked and don’t combine it with oil, butter, sauce or other ingredients until the cooked surface has dried and dulled a little.
And what about the business of adding some of the cooking water to a pasta sauce? This is the fiction of modern TV chefs and non-Italians. This might have been done in the unlikely case of a sauce that is too thick, but it was not commonplace. Pasta sauces and dressings are supposed to be thick so they stick to the pasta: as with salad dressing, there is something wrong if you find liquid at the bottom of the bowl. And you certainly don’t add cooking liquid if the sauce needs salt - that’s why Parmesan, Grana, Pecorino and other such sharp, cheesy condiments are on the table.
Copy by Glynn Christian, author of Real Flavours - the handbook of gourmet and deli ingredients