Kitchen 101: Pasta
Have you ever stood in the pasta aisle at the grocery store and thought to yourself, “why are there so many damn pasta shapes?” If so, you’re not alone. But before I answer that question (hint: the answer is sauce – spoiler alert), let’s look at where pasta came from, and what makes up pasta.
What is Pasta
Pasta is, at its most basic, a kneaded mixture of flour and water. Pasta, at its most exuberant, is still essentially a kneaded mixture of flour and water – okay, and oil, egg, salt, and other flavorings. Like all great dishes however, the possibilities are endless. Most pastas use a semolina dough. Semolina dough and water makes a simple dough. Semolina dough with water, egg, and oil makes a rich pasta dough. Flavored and colored doughs can use herbs, vegetables, fruits, and more.
The History of Pasta
Pasta came from the same place that bread did – the early annals of history. It’s no coincidence either. After all, both were – and are – built on two ingredients: flour and water. Today, the only principal difference between pasta and bread dough is the yeast found in bread dough. However, before our ancestors knew how to harvest yeast – or what yeast was for that matter – the difference between pasta and bread was almost nonexistent. Lavened bread itself was an accidental discovery after some ancient Egyptian baker left a pile of dough out, letting it absorb the natural yeasts present in the air and slowly leavening itself into a fluffy pile.
Early pastas were not the tidy sheets, strips, rods, and shapes we know today. They were more closely related to dumplings, often used in soups and broths, and almost always out of necessity, and almost never out of art. And unlike bread, pasta did not become a staple for the poor, and a cherished treat for the rich. In fact, these early pastas weren’t really pasta. They were an in-between item that went by many different names throughout antiquity. “Pasta” does not exist in Latin, and historical accounts of pasta as we know it are quite young.
So, where did the pasta we know of today come from? Various sheets of fresh or dried doughs made with flour and water begin to show up all around the Mediterranean in Arab, Greek, Italian, and Jewish communities. Pasta was often used as a special treat in substitute of bread in the early part of the last millennia.
By the 1500s, pasta became much more a commonplace. Pasta making became a trade for many, with some focusing on certain kinds of pastas, most variations on what we know today as spaghetti or lasagne. As pasta continued to become more popular, ways to industrialize it were attempted. Even Leonardo da Vinci tried his hand at it.
In the early 1800s, pasta dies came into being, and the Buitoni family created the first “pastificio” or para shop. The flood of shapes, sizes, patterns, textures, and designs changed the way the world looked at pasta.
Shapes, Sizes, and Sauce.
So, why are there so many shapes, sizes, patterns, textures, and designs in pasta? Sauce. Outside of creative and artistic pursuit, a pasta’s shape and size has to do with the sauce it will be served in. And believe it or not, just like the plethora of sizes being new, the idea of eating pasta with sauce is daily new as well.
Look to the texture when determining if a pasta should be served with a lighter sauce or with a heavier or chunkier sauce. Size can play a role here with sauce as well, but will also tell you if it can be cooked in a sauce or soup, must be boiled, or can be baked. And shapes can determine if a pasta can be served with a sauce that has other large ingredients in it.
Smooth – Smooth pastas (without ridges, frills, flutes, or holes) are best suited for lighter sauces. The smooth sides do not cling to sauce too well.
Ridged (rigate) – Ridged pastas are best suited for heavier sauces, as the ridges catch the sauce.
Holes & Tubes – Pasta with holes or pastas that are tubes are often good pastas to be used with chunky sauces, or sauces that contain large ingredients (peas, small chunks of vegetables, etc.) as the holes and openings will catch and hold on to these pieces.
Tiny – Tiny pastas, or minute pastas, are often perfect for soups or pasta salads. These small pastas can even be cooked in the soups as they will have a short cooking time.
Short – Short or small pastas often work well in applications where the pasta is baked in a casserole.
Long – Long pastas rarely work in casseroles or soups, and need to be boiled on their own. Some fresh long pastas however can be cooked in the sauce they are being served with.
Intricate – Intricate pastas, or pastas with a lot of frills, waves, or openings, are good at catching ingredients and sauces, and thus are great for heavy or chunky sauces. Long cooking times however can cause them to lose their shape.
Simple – Simple pasta shapes are better for lighter sauces, or possibly heavier sauces, depending on other details. A lack of holes or frills and shapes to catch ingredients don’t make them good for chunky sauces.
Telling Pasta Apart (Italian 101)
Incase you haven’t noticed, most pastas are noted by their Italian name. If you don’t speak Italian, the never ending strange sounding names can be confusing, not to mention all the -otti, -ini, – elli, – acci suffixes that can turn one pasta into 4 different pastas. So, what do all these suffixes mean, and how does that help me understand pasta?
The suffixes you’ll find on pasta will often indicate size, though it can also be used to denote specific details about the preparation or the pasta itself.
-ini, -elli, -illi, -etti, -ine, -elle
These extra words in pasta titles can give you a clue above their texture, how they were made, or their purpose.
This infographic contains 188 – yes, that is one hundred eighty-eight – pastas organized by category. Knowing the category is helpful in determining a pasta’s use; however, there are exceptions, so under each pasta is the size, how best to cook it, and which sauces or dishes it can be used in. Click the image to zoom to learn all about your favorite pasta – and a few you may not have heard of before.
(Click image to zoom.)
Buy a Poster
Want this poster for your kitchen? Buy it below or visit our store! And for the first time, we are offering this poster in the 24 x 36″ size, so don’t worry, you’ll definitely be able to read it at home.
A special thanks to our resident Italian Alessio Fangano for ensuring I got the pastas right, and to Molly Allen for making sure I spelled everything correctly.
What’s your favorite pasta and how do you like to serve it? Share it with us in the comments!