Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Guide to Dry Pasta

Pasta, dried or fresh, is an amazingly versatile ingredient. I like to think of it as a foundation ingredient, providing a basic building block for a near infinite variety of tasty and delicious dishes.

Dried pasta, along with grains and beans, form the backbone of any good pantry. Dried pasta keeps very well in cool, dry, places. It will stay “good” for up to two years if it's kept this way. This fact alone makes it a wonderful staple ingredient for long term food storage, an important topic for most Mormons.

Dried pasta comes in all shapes and sizes. Authentic recipes will use specific shapes, but most types of pasta are interchangeable. Shape is mostly a matter of personal choice, although certain shapes lend themselves better to certain sauces.

Short Pasta

Shell shaped pastas, such as conchiglie or lumache, are great when paired with chunky sauces. They hold the larger chunks of meat and vegetables much better than other pastas.

Tubular pasta is fun, too. Macaroni is probably most common tubular pasta. I like some of the others, such as penne (quill) or rigatoni, better. Smooth shapes are best served with creamy sauces. Larger, fatter, or ridged varieties, can be good for trapping chunkier or meatier sauces.

Shorter solid shapes, like fusilli (corkscrew) and farfalle (bow tie) are very popular. They are versatile shapes and go well with most sauces. I think they work particularly well with cream or vegetable sauces.

Wide eggs noodles are great when served with stroganoff, or broth soups.

Long Pasta

In America, the most popular long pasta is undoubtedly spaghetti. Sturdy, thick spaghetti goes well with most any sauce, as long as the chunks of meat, fish, or vegetables are small. Spaghettini, spaghetti's more narrow cousin, is best with lighter sauces. If you really want to go thin, try capelli d'angelo (angel hair pasta). It's an ultra-fine noodle so, it works best tossed with ingredients that will stick all by themselves – olive oil, butter, pepper, grated parmesan or romano cheese, come to mind.

Wider long pastas, such as tagliatelle and fettucini, do well with most sauces, as well. Some of the wider pastas are sold coiled up into “nests,” but there's really no advantage to them over the stretched out variety. Usually these are served with robust meat sauces, but I also like sauteing chopped fresh vegetables, and tossing them with fettucini and olive oil.

Sheet Pasta

Rectangular sheets of lasagne are used to make wonder baked dishes, most of which take their name as the noodle. If you want to avoid pre-cooking lasagne noodles, buy the “no precooking required” varieties. I don't know that it's absolutely necessary, though. My wife makes a really good lasagne without precooking, and uses the regular noodles.

Stuffed Pasta

Prepackaged cannelloni tubes, or very large shell pastas, are often stuffed with cheese or meat and then baked in a tomato or white sauce.

Chinese Noodles

The Chinese make several different kinds of noodles. The most common for Americans is ramen. Sold dried, ramen looks a lot like tangled yarn that's been pressed into small bricks. Most varieties don't really need to be cooked. Just letting them soak in warm water for a few minutes is generally enough. They make great additions to stir-fries and soups, and can serve as accompaniment to many dishes.

Colored Pasta

Sometimes additional ingredients will be included with the pasta dough, giving it a distinctive color – spinach for green pasta and tomato for red pasts, for example. The added flavor tends to be very light, bordering on non-existent. When cooking colored pasta, or whole wheat pasta for that matter, if you want to taste the distinct flavors, pair them with mild sauces that won't compete with the pasta for flavor.


William Morris said...

Do you have any favorite dried pasta brands, John?

In terms of long pasta, the most flexible, best all-purpose shape is linguine. It's flat shape means that sauces stick better than they do to spaghetti. Because it is thin but not too thin, it is easy to cook perfectly and hold up well to both chunky and simple, thick and thin sauces. Linguine works great for all dishes that one would use spaghetti or even fettucini for.

mark's dutch oven said...

Y'know... This is fascinating. I never gave that much thought to the sauce/pasta pairings. This is some great info!

In the stuffed pastas, you left out ravioli and, my personal favorite of all, tortellini.

I LOVE spinach (green) tortellini in alfredo sauce with sausage chunks. Maybe that's what I'll cook in the black pot this week...


John Newman said...

Hey William,

When it comes to dry pasta, I usually just buy Western Family or American Beauty. I've not found enough of a difference between the few brands I've tried to make me want to spend a lot of money.

Linguini is wonderful, I agree.

John Newman said...

Hey Mark,

The reason I didn't take on ravioli and tortellini is that they're "fresh" pasta, not dried.

I do love them, though.