Do you think you know everything there is to know about pasta? The time has come to put your knowledge to the test.
Here we look at the difference between fresh and dry pasta, the 4 essential characteristics of good quality dry pasta and 4 different ways to cook your pasta.
Why are we talking about pasta?
Having been born and raised in a Southern Italian family and having worked as an Italian chef for many years, I’ve been eating and cooking pasta for a very long time. Whether it’s fresh or dry, homemade or shop-bought, there really is an art to the perfect pasta dish.
Pasta is one of the most famous Italian foods all around the world. In Italy it’s a very important part of the diet because in a plate of pasta you can get all the nutrients you need, by simply changing the sauces, toppings and ingredients each time. You don’t need a starter, main and side dish - a pasta provides all this in one healthy and balanced meal. This is why I think it’s the best food in the world.
Dry pasta or fresh pasta?
There’s a time and a place for fresh pasta. Fresh pasta isn’t better than dry pasta or vice versa. Yes, we think that when we make homemade fresh pasta our dishes will taste better. This is because we’ve put our hands and love into the pasta making and so it makes the meal feel much more special.
Making pasta from scratch is a surefire way to turn a simple pasta dish into a memorable occasion. But when you buy the right brand, there has also been a lot of love and attention by the factories to make the dry pasta too. So the decision of when to use one pasta or the other mainly comes down to which sauce you are pairing with and which occasion you’re eating it.
Fresh pasta tends to be far more chewy and therefore perfect to match with creamy and buttery sauces. In Italy fresh pasta is considered more of a treat, perfect for special occasions, like a Sunday meal or friends and family reunions. Even though everyone thinks Italians are in the kitchen making fresh pasta everyday, this is not the case.
For example when making a Ragù alla Bolognese, a sauce that involves 5 hours of slow cooking, here you would celebrate the ragu by using some lovely fresh homemade pasta. Yes it takes more time, but this time feels worth it because the silky, thicker, fresh egg pasta pairs beautifully with the ragu sauce and the more glutinous texture allows the sauce to “stick” well to the pasta.
Dry pasta is used more in everyday cooking and is perfect paired with something like an Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino (garlic, olive oil and chilli sauce) or with rich, hearty sauces like a delicious Puttanesca. This is because dry pasta can be cooked al dente as the dough has been dried and has far less water content than fresh pasta. This gives the pasta more of a “bite” and allows it to hold its texture when cooking. Dry pasta is also ideal for soups or even pasta al forno (oven baked pasta) because it can hold up to this extended cooking time.
Different types of fresh pasta.
Depending on where you go in Italy, "pasta fresca" can be made in many different ways. There are two main recipes, one that uses 00 flour and fresh eggs and another that uses simply water and fine durum wheat semolina. Overall pasta dough is mainly made up of 5 key ingredients: fine durum wheat semolina, 00 flour, water, egg and olive oil. You can use a combination of flours and liquids to get the consistency and flavours that you desire.
Semolina pasta dough is a vegan pasta dough made with fine durum wheat semolina and water and is a Southern Italian speciality. Plus, because there are no eggs in the recipe, it's easier to preserve. The end result is a pasta dough that’s much more pliable and therefore perfect for particular shapes like culurgiones and lorighittas from Sardinia, orecchiette from Puglia and Busiate from Sicily.
Another Southern Italian speciality from Sardinia is semolina saffron pasta dough. The saffron gives the dough an intense yellow colour and a kind of light, sweet aroma.
You can use this dough to make any type of pasta, in the same way that you would do with a normal semolina dough.
Egg and flour pasta dough is traditionally used in Northern Italy. The end result is a silky pasta dough heavier and richer in flavour as there is egg present in the dough.
Perfect for shapes like for pappardelle, garganelli, tagliatelle, tortellini and agnolotti.
The main difference between the two types of fresh pasta is in the flour and therefore in the texture. A pasta made with semolina will give you more of a bite, a way between fresh and dry pasta. A pasta made with 00 four will give you more of a chewy dough.
How to recognise the 4 essential characteristics of a quality pasta
Let’s start by saying that If you don’t buy the right pasta, you cannot make good pasta dishes. So here are five tips that you should remember when buying your pasta.
When you find yourself in front of a shelf of bright yellow/orange coloured pasta, it means that the pasta has been put through a violent drying process, that is, at high temperatures. The starches the pasta contained were literally burnt, going from their naturally light colour to a caramel colour. The result will be a pasta with a sweetish taste and a bitter aftertaste, typical of the caramelisation of the sugars.
The friction between the surface of the bronze gives the dough that classic abrasive effect, typical of bronze-drawn pasta, which will help to create a nice and creamy sauce that will incorporate well with the pasta.
Pasta that overcooks easily and doesn’t hold it’s consistency (ie the al dente bite) demonstrates that it was made with low quality wheat. Alternatively, when the pasta is made from durum wheat with a high protein content, it holds the texture well during cooking and so this ability to hold it’s shape is also an indication of a good quality pasta.
Pasta Package mentions
4 different techniques/ways you can cook pasta
Pasta express - Traditional way
This is the most common way of cooking pasta whereby you cook the pasta in boiling water with plenty of salt and finish cooking the pasta in the pan with the sauce for the final 2 minutes of cooking time.
This can be very controversial for many Italian pasta lovers but is something that have been experimented with over the years and has become viral on social media. It is now being used by top Italian chefs and in in many Italian homes. In fact, by cooking everything all at once, the flavours blend well and the pasta releases its starch into the sauce making the pasta dish creamier. The result is very similar to the pasta risottata. Start by making the sauce, adding all the ingredients to a pot of water, apart from the pasta. Bring to the boil, add the pasta and stir often. For every 200g of pasta you need 1.5L of water. Cook for 10 min and finish with herbs and olive oil.
With the passive cooking method, you only boil the pasta for two minutes, then you turn the heat off, cover the pot with a lid, and let the pasta sit in the water for the remaining minutes. So a 10 minute pasta would boil for two minutes and sit for eight.
This is another controversial way of cooking pasta but it is very helpful for those who have limited space on their stovetops, as the pasta pot can be removed from the stovetop, freeing up room. The passive cooking method is also considered better for the environment as a person who prepares pasta using this method will be using less fuel by not having the burner on constantly in order to keep the water boiling.
So when it comes to deciding which pasta is better for your dish, ask yourself a few important questions beforehand. What’s the occasion? How do I want to cook the pasta? What is the sauce I’m making? What kind of pasta shape is better to pair with the sauce? Is it something that pairs better with a chewy texture or with more of an al dente (to the tooth - with a bit of a bite)?