It's difficult to overstate pasta's popularity around the world. In Italy the average person eats more than 57 pounds of pasta every year, and in the United States the amount is close to 20 pounds per year. From such a simple combination of flour, water and sometimes egg, we have endless possibilities. And those infinite possibilities have given shape to some of the world's most iconic dishes, from spaghetti and meatballs in America to stir-fried chow fun in China and all of the beautiful stuffed pastas of Italy.
We spoke with chef Steve Samson, of restaurants Rossoblu and Sotto in Los Angeles, to debunk common pasta myths and unlock the secrets of exceptional pasta. He said that when he was growing up in Bologna, "My grandmother would roll pasta out every morning, and it would be served with lunch and dinner — twice a day!" Whether you're an experienced pasta cook or just a wannabe, these unexpected discoveries just might change the way you look at your next plate of pasta.
1. Egg Doesn’t Belong in Pasta Dough
Sure, pasta dough can be made with nothing more than flour and water. But when it comes to achieving an ideal texture for handmade pasta dough, you're likely going to need more than just water to hydrate the flour. According to Niki Achitoff-Gray of Serious Eats, if you make fresh pasta with just water and flour at home, it can turn out bland and gluey. But adding egg solves a lot of problems. Achitoff-Gray explains, "Yolks contain about 48 percent water, 17 percent protein and around 33 percent fat. More yolks [in your dough] will deliver more color, more egg flavor and silkier noodles."
For Samson, the introduction of egg has everything to do with geography and culture. "As a rule, in Southern Italy pasta is made with just semolina and water, and in the North, they use egg and double-zero flour. And in Piemonte, the tradition is to use four egg yolks for every 100 grams of flour." The more egg, the richer the pasta.
Up next: Don't assume all-purpose flour is the best for making pasta.
2. Always Use All-Purpose Flour
All-purpose (AP) flour is in every pantry, and it'll work just fine for making pasta dough, but it isn't the best choice. AP flour is a blend of high-protein and low-protein wheat strains, yielding something that is incredibly versatile, but not necessarily suitable for all recipes. Different flours made with different strains of wheat have varying amount of protein (i.e., gluten), and the protein percentage will affect the texture of your final product. Aside from AP flour, you'll likely see pasta recipes that call for semolina. Semolina, according to Achitoff-Gray, <ahref="https: www.seriouseats.com="" 2015="" 01="" best-easy-all-purpose-fresh-pasta-dough-recipe-instructions.html"=""> </ahref="https:>"adds a heartiness and a rougher texture that'll help sauces cling better to your noodles."
Another flour you'll see in the pasta aisle is "00," or as it's known in Italian, "doppio zero." According to Samson, "Double-zero flour has nothing to do with protein content, it's all about how finely ground the grains are. You want a fine grind because that makes it easier to develop gluten while you're making pasta dough." Achieving the right portion of gluten will make your dough perfectly stretchy and give your finished pasta an ideal bite.
Up next: Here's how much water you actually need to cook your noodles in.
3. You Need a Huge Pot of Water to Cook Your Pasta
Though it's widely believed that pasta must be cooked in a large pot of rapidly boiling water, scientific research doesn't back that up. There's nothing inherently wrong with cooking pasta in a lot of boiling water, but it certainly isn't efficient. Samson explains, "[How much water you need] all depends on the shape of the pasta. If you're doing a dried noodle like penne, you can use less." If you want to save some money on your gas or electric bill, try cooking pasta like J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats. "Put your pasta in cold water, bring it to a boil, then cover the pot and turn off the heat," advises Lopez-Alt. He explains, "Your cooking time will remain the same and you'll save yourself (and the environment) the energy bill."
How does that work? Using less water is essential to this technique: You only need enough water to just cover the pasta in your smaller saucepan. Yes, the temperature of the water will decrease more than a large pot of water when pasta is added, but because of the smaller surface area, it will also return to a boil more quickly than in a larger stockpot.
Up next: Adding oil to the water keeps pasta from sticking together, right?
4. Always Add Oil to the Cooking Liquid
If you were taught to add a splash of oil to the cooking water to prevent the pasta from sticking together, you've been misled. Samson says, "I don't do it. It's a waste of oil!" Because of the relative densities of water and oil, any oil added to the boiling pot will just collect at the top instead of coating the noodles. So how can you prevent the noodles from sticking together?
According to Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats, "Pasta sticks when the surface starches gelatinize and bond together, and this happens during the early stages of cooking. So the only thing you need to do to prevent sticking is give the pasta a few good stirs after the first minute or two." Lopez-Alt's suggestion for that oil? "After the pasta is drained, a quick drizzle and toss will keep drained pasta from a post-cook clump," but that's only if you plan on saving it to use for later. Otherwise, skip the oil and sauce it immediately.
Up next: Here's why pasta water is worth its weight in gold.
5. Pasta Cooking Water Is Worthless
Every knowledgable chef and Italian grandma will advise you to save your pasta water — but why is it so important? Throughout the cooking process, pasta releases microscopic starch molecules into the boiling water, which is what causes the water to become opaque. And those starch molecules in solution are very useful. A splash of pasta water will help thicken any sauce, from tomato-based sauces to oil-based sauces. On a molecular level, you're actually creating an emulsion in the pan, using the starch molecules to bind dissimilar ingredients (like oil and water) into a cohesive unit that will silkily coat your pasta.
If you follow Lopez-Alt's advice and begin cooking your pasta in far less water, you'll actually have even more potent pasta water with a higher concentration of starch molecules per liter than in the traditional method of pasta cooking. Samson encourages cooks to "undercook your pasta just a little, and finish it in the sauce so the pasta releases some of its starch in the second pan and makes it more homogenous." He adds that "a splash of pasta water will always help" bring the sauce together.
6. Pasta Shapes Are Randomly Paired With Sauces
Though they may seem fanciful or random, pasta shapes are actually very precisely constructed. In many cases, noodles are the vehicle delivering sauce to your mouth. And since all sauces are a little bit different, it takes a unique vehicle for each one to be successful. Steve Samson says that, traditionally, "You want thinner pastas with seafood and thicker with meat sauces." Long, thin noodles (spaghetti, linguine, vermicelli, etc.) are best served with lighter sauces (oil-based, cream or quick seafood sauces). Wider ribbons (tagliatelle, pappardelle, fettuccine, etc.) are perfectly constructed to transport heavier, meatier sauces like bolognese from the plate to your mouth. Twisting shapes (fusilli, gemelli, radiatori, etc.) are great for smoother, thicker sauces like pesto because the ridges provide crevices for the sauce to hide in. Tubes (penne, rigatoni, paccheri, etc.) are terrific with cheesier sauces and also hold up well in baked dishes, while smaller shapes (orzo, fregola, orecchiette, etc.) are designed to float in soups and stews.
Up next: Do you think noodles only come from Italy? Think again.
7. All Pasta Comes From Italy
Throughout Asia you'll find noodles made from wheat, rice and bean flours. In Chinese, "mein" means "noodles made from wheat" (e.g., chow mein, lo mein, etc.) while "fun" denotes "noodles made from rice or other starches" (e.g., chow fun, mei fun, etc.). Though it's difficult to trace the exact origins of pasta, it's believed that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy after a trip to China in 1271.
And then there's the ever-popular ramen noodle, which is in a category all its own. According to Harold McGee, "Adding alkaline ingredients [as is tradition with ramen noodles] has a significant effect on the texture, color and flavor of the noodle." By changing the chemical environment of the dough, the components in the flour change their behavior, and they change in various desirable ways." Samson advises to anyone making ramen noodles from scratch that "rice flour drinks differently than wheat flour, so you'll have to adjust the amount of liquid in your recipes carefully."
Up next: Got gluten allergies? There's still hope.
8. Got Gluten Allergies? No Noodles for You
"I think it's interesting, there's this move away from wheat as being not healthy because of the carbs," Samson notes. While wheat can absolutely be a part of a healthy, balanced diet, there are a multitude of noodle options for gluten-intolerant folks. Many of these gluten-free noodles aren't technically pasta, but they'll hold up well in some of your favorite dishes.
Spaghetti squash is a member of the pumpkin family, and when it's cooked the interior can be shredded to resemble strands of pasta. Zoodles are strands of zucchini that can be boiled and cooked like pasta or tossed with sauce and served raw. Shirataki noodles, on the other hand, are made from the starch of a Japanese sweet potato. Very low in calories, these noodles require no cooking and have a neutral flavor. Some versions are blended with tofu, resulting in a heartier noodle with more protein. Mung bean noodles — also known as cellophane noodles because of their translucence after being cooked — are generally sold as a dried product and require only a little cooking or soaking in hot water to become pliable. These noodles work well in stir fries and soups.
Up next: Here's a huge myth that we need to debunk.
9. Eating Healthy Means Eliminating Pasta
Why is pasta vilified in America as an unhealthy food but adored in Italy? According to Fred Plotkin, author of the "Authentic Pasta Book," the problem in America is three-headed: "We overcook pasta, we serve it in immense portions and we oversauce it." Samson agrees with Plotkin. He says, "I generally weigh out 80 to 90 grams of pasta per portion. Any more than that and I'm not going to have room to eat anything else!" In America, we speak of "sauce" when we discuss the liquid served on top of pasta, but in Italy it's called "condimento," which translates to condiment. So if you're trying to be health-conscious, steer clear of that mountain of spaghetti drenched in sugary tomato sauce and covered in cheese and meatballs. Instead, have a reasonable portion of high-quality pasta with a purposeful and delicious "condimento."
What Do YOU Think?
Do you make fresh pasta at home? What are your favorite pasta dishes to cook? Are you surprised by any of these eye-opening pasta discoveries? Let us know in the comments.