Perfect pairings: How to match pasta shapes to sauces

Choosing a pasta shape to suit the nature of your sauce makes a big difference to the finished dish. Do it the Italian way with help from our guide to expert pairings and how to cook your pasta to perfection.

Venetian duck ragu

While spaghetti Bolognese is one of the world's most well-known pasta dishes, it is fundamentally inauthentic. Italian cooks would seldom serve a thick, saucy ragu with thin pasta ribbons - they're far more likely to team such a sauce with large shells or tubes to capture the sauce, or thicker long pasta, like tagliatelle and pappardelle. 

Generally, the larger shapes work better with thick, robust sauces, while skinny shapes, like strands of delicate vermicelli, suit light, cream sauces. Follow our suggestions of what shape to combine with what accompaniment - and share your own ideas with us below. 

Long & skinny pasta shapes

Serve long, skinny pasta shapes such as spaghetti, linguine, fusilli lunghi, vermicelli with light seafood sauces, cream- or oil-based sauces.

Long ribbon pasta shapes

Serve long ribbon pasta shapes such as tagliatelle, pappardelle, fettuccine, mafaldine with rich, meaty sauces.

Shell pasta shapes

Serve shell pasta shapes such as conchiglie and lumache with heavy cream or meat sauces; large ones can be stuffed.

Twist pasta shapes

Serve twist pasta shapes such as fusilli, trofie, strozzapreti, caserecce and gemelli with lighter, smoother sauces which will cling to the twists, such as pesto.

Tube pasta shapes

Serve tube pasta shapes such as penne, rigatoni, macaroni and paccheri with hearty vegetable sauces, or baked cheese dishes. Also good with Bolognese or ragu.

Mini shapes

Serve mini pasta shapes such as orzo, fregola, canestrini and stelline in soups and stews or as pasta salads.

Filled pasta

Serve filled pasta shapes such as ravioli, tortellini and cappelletti as the filling contains lots of flavour, these are traditionally served with a light butter or oil sauce.

Top cooking tips

Man cooking pasta in kitchen
• Always cook pasta in a very large pan of salted, boiling water. If you don’t give the pasta enough space to move in the pan, it will stick together. Italians say the water should be as salty as the sea to flavour the pasta.

• There is no need to add olive oil to your pasta when cooking. It won’t prevent it from sticking together, and will just end up down the drain.

• The classic British version of spag bol usually consists of cooked spaghetti topped with saucy mince, but in Italy, the pasta and sauce are always combined in the pan to ensure every piece of pasta is coated.

Don’t cook the pasta all the way through in the water. Instead, drain it when it still has a little bite, then add to the sauce and continue cooking for a few minutes more until the pasta is cooked and has absorbed a little of the sauce.

• When draining the pasta, make sure you save a cup of the pasta water. Then, when you add the pasta to the sauce, splash in a little of the water if it looks too dry. The starch in the water will help the sauce cling to the pasta.

Draining pasta in kitchen
What are your top pasta tips? Share your thoughts with us below... We also have plenty of pasta recipes to get you inspired, plus a guide to the pasta shapes of Italy.

Comments, questions and tips

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suecable's picture
31st May, 2014
Having lived in Italy for the past 20 years and married an Italian, I can absolutely vouch for these tips. I've gone from being a total Philistine to appreciating the finesse of pasta shape combined with type of sauce! To me pasta was pasta, but I have to admit that I have seen the light! The real secret is using a biiiig pan to cook the pasta in - make sure the water is boiling before you add the pasta, throw it in, salt (coarse, not table), lid on to get the water back to the boil, then time as per packet, minus 1 min and taste for personal preference... It's true that we tend to drain the pasta, put it back in the pan, add a ladle of sauce and let it bubble up, then serve with another ladle of sauce on top... Buon Appetito!
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