Pasta is an American favorite. What makes it so popular is that it’s convenient to store, it’s easy to fix and it’s good for you. Check out the Food Guide Pyramid you’ll find pasta in the broad bottom band, the band that calls for six to eleven servings per day. One-half cup of cooked pasta contains about 100 calories, 0.5 grams of fat and less than 5 milligrams of sodium.
But there’s more to pasta than convenience and good nutrition: It’s just plain fun to cook with. Who can resist a cool salad made with radiator-shaped pasta or a hearty soup dotted with shell-shaped pasta? You can bake pasta and fill it, toss it in a salad, stir-fry it, layer it or smother it in sauce.
And if you are looking for flavors, pasta has it! Pasta flavors range from the common--spinach, tomato and whole wheat--to the exotic--beet, lemon, herb, garlic, hot chili, red wine, chocolate, fruit and squid ink.
So how is pasta made? Dried pasta, the most common kind, is made from semolina flour, which is ground from durum wheat. The flour is mixed with water, or sometimes egg, to form a dough. The dough is kneaded, then pushed through a metal disk with holes in it to create the incredible variety of pasta shapes. Then the pasta is dried. Whether made at a pasta factory or in your own kitchen, the process is the same.
Picking Out Pasta
Pasta is available in three forms: dried, fresh and frozen. Dried pasta is usually found packaged or in self-serve bulk bins. Look for fresh pasta in the refrigerated section of your supermarket. Some varieties of frozen pasta are lasagna noodles, egg noodles and filled tortellini and ravioli.
When buying pasta, keep these tips in mind:
- Dried pasta: Look for unbroken pieces. Avoid dried pasta with a marbled surface (many fine lines) this indicates a drying problem, and the pasta may fall apart during cooking.
- Fresh pasta: Look for smooth, evenly colored, unbroken pieces. Fresh pasta will look dry, but it shouldn’t be brittle or crumbly. Avoid packages with moisture droplets or liquid, because the pasta may be moldy or mushy.
- Frozen pasta: Avoid packages with the pieces frozen together in a solid block, as well as those with ice crystals or freezer burn, which looks like dry, white spots.
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From twists to ribbons to wagon wheels, check out all the "pastabilities" for shapes and sizes at your supermarket. The endings on some Italian names give you a hint on pasta size: "oni" means large "elle," "ina," and "iti" mean small. Here are just some of the pastas, with serving suggestions too, to choose from:
Acini de Pepe: Spaghetti cut to the size of peppercorns. Top with any sauce, or add to a casserole.
Agnolotti: Small, crescent-shaped, stuffed pasta that resembles priests’ caps. Usually served with light sauces to let the flavor of the filling shine through.
Anelli: Tiny rings of pasta. Excellent for soups, salads.
Bucatini: Long, hollow noodles that resemble drinking straws. This pasta originates in Naples, and the word bucato means "with a hole." Break into thirds, if desired, and serve with any sauce.
Capellini/Angel Hair: "Fine hairs" of pasta, the thinnest of spaghettis. Legend has it that Parmesan cheese clings to this pasta like gold clings to an angel’s hair. Takes just minutes to cook because it’s so thin. Serve with more delicate sauces, or break in half for stir-fries.
Cappelletti: Small, stuffed pasta similar to tortellini but with the ends pinched together in the shape of "little hats."
Cavatappi: Corkscrew-shaped pasta with a hollow middle, making it perfect for thick and creamy vegetable, meat and seafood sauces.
Cellophane: Also called bean threads or glass noodles, these noodles are made from the starch of mung beans, which we know as bean sprouts. These dried, translucent noodles must be presoaked before using in most recipes unless they are added directly to soups or simmering liquids. The dry noodles also can be deep-fried they puff up instantly and dramatically to a size many times larger than when dry. You can substitute rice sticks if you can’t find cellophane noodles.
Chinese Egg Noodles: A type of wheat-egg noodle that closely resembles Italian pasta and is available either dried or fresh. Noodles range in thickness from very thin to thick and round. If you like, you may substitute narrow egg noodles, spaghetti or linguine.
Couscous: The tiniest pasta, it’s made from granular semolina and is a staple of North African and some Middle Eastern cuisines. Often used as an alternative to rice. Available in regular, precooked (which cooks in just 5 minutes) and flavored varieties.
Ditali/Ditalini: Very tiny, very short tubes. In Italian, they’re "little thimbles." Available in two varieties: grooved and smooth. Top with any sauce, toss into soup or bake in casseroles.
Egg Noodles: Flat or curly short pasta strips usually made with eggs or egg yolks there’s also an eggless variety. Top with sauces, or serve as a side dish.
Elbow Macaroni: Curved, short, hollow "elbows" of pasta. Perfect for soups, salads, casseroles and, of course, macaroni and cheese!
Farfalle: The bow-tie or butterfly pasta its mini version is tripolini. This shape adds interest to soups and salads and is also wonderful with colorful sauces.
Fettuccine: Long, flat, narrow, "little ribbon" noodles. Perfect for heavier cheese and meat sauces. Available in many flavors, including plain and spinach.
Fusilli: A long or short spring-shaped pasta from southern Italy. Hailing originally from Naples, it is also known as eliche, or "propellers," for its quality of trapping some of the sauce and propelling the flavor.
Gemelli/Twist: A short, twisted pasta that resembles two strands of spaghetti wound together. Like fusilli, it adds interest to salads and also works well with sauces.
Japanese Curly Noodles: Quick-cooking, wavy, thin, long noodles sold in rectangular "bricks." Toss in stir-fries, or top with stir-fried meat and vegetables.
Lasagna: Flat noodle, about two inches wide, with ruffled or straight edges. It’s great for layering with sauces, such as the Italian Sausage Lasagna (page 398). Look for fresh, dried, frozen and precooked lasagna.
Linguine: Long, flat, thin noodle, usually 1/8 inch wide. Italians call it "little tongues" because its original shape resembled the thickness of a songbird’s tongue. A good shape for all sauces.
Mafalda: Mini lasagna noodles-short, flat with ruffled edges. Popular used with seafood sauces and for casseroles.
Manicotti/Cannelloni: A large, four-inch tubular noodle usually stuffed and baked. Derived from the word canna, it means "hollow cane."
Mostaccioli: A short cut pasta about two inches long. These tubular "mustaches" have slanted cuts at both ends. Mostaccioli can have a smooth or grooved finish.
Noodles: Noodles can be fresh, frozen or dried and are made with or without eggs. This flat pasta comes in a variety of lengths and widths, including extra-wide, wide, medium, fine, ribbons and dumpling.
Novelty Pasta Shapes: Fun, funky new pasta shapes are popping up in larger supermarkets and gourmet stores everywhere. You can find pasta in the shape of pumpkins, trees, rabbits, hearts, states, cars, birthday cakes, alphabets, grape clusters and garlic bulbs. Beyond shapes, how about unique flavors: smoked salmon, porcini mushroom and more.
Orecchiette: The name means "little ears." This tiny disk-shaped pasta is great with chunky vegetable or meat sauces.
Penne: A short cut pasta, about 1 1/4 inches long. Tubular in shape with slanted cuts at both ends, penne can have a smooth or grooved finish it is narrower than mostaccioli. The word penne means "feather," indicating either the lightness of the noodle or the shape that resembles the wing of a bird. It is excellent with tomato and vegetable sauces.
Radiatore: Shaped like old-fashioned home-heating radiators or air conditioners the ruffled edges help catch all the flavors in the sauce or dressing. An interesting shape for sauces, salads and soups.
Ramen Noodles: These are instant, deep-fried noodles sold in cellophane packages with a broth mixture and sometimes little bits of vegetables. The noodles can be cooked or used dry as a crunchy addition to salads. Some brands bake rather than deep-fry the noodles, so they are lower in fat.
Ravioli: Pillow-shaped pasta, usually made with a stuffing of cheese, meat or spinach, that’s popular in several Italian regions. Ravioli also can be filled with less traditional ingredients such as crabmeat or pumpkin. Typically served with butter or Parmesan, this pasta is delicious with tomato and meat sauces.
Rice Noodles/Rice Sticks: These noodles are opaque white in color and sold fresh or dried. Dried rice
noodles are the most widely available and usually come in the form of very thin strands. Rice sticks are often fried, but when cooked, they have a creamy, soft texture. Angel hair or linguine can be used in place of rice sticks.
Rigatoni: Short cut, wide tubular pasta with lengthwise grooves, about one inch long. It suits most chunky sauces and meat sauces.
Rosamarina/Orzo: Looks like large, fat grains of rice. Terrific in salads, side dishes and soups and is a great substitute for rice.
Rotelle: A wide, corkscrew-shaped pasta. Its curves are great for catching any kind of sauce.
Rotini: A skinny version of rotelle, it’s plain or tricolored. Rotini is a favorite for pasta salads.
Soba: Slightly wider than somen noodles, soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour. They have a chewy texture and nutty flavor and can be round or flat. They make a great addition to soups and stews or can be topped with a delicate sauce. Use whole wheat spaghetti if soba noodles are unavailable.
Somen: These noodles are made from wheat flour and formed into very thin strands. In a pinch, you can substitute vermicelli or angel hair pasta.
Shells: Shells are available in jumbo, medium and small sizes. Jumbo shells are great stuffed medium and small shells are more suited to thick sauces, soups and salads. Conchiglie and conchiglioni are the Italian names for shells, or "conches."
Spaghetti: Means "little strings" in Italian. These long, thin strands of pasta are round and solid. Whole-wheat spaghetti, high in fiber and flavor, is increasingly popular.
Tortellini: Little rings of pasta filled with cheese, originally from the city of Bologna. The fresh, refrigerated products are offered in many flavors with a variety of fillings such as Italian sausage and chicken. Tortellini usually is served with a tomato or cream sauce. It’s also well-suited to soups and salads.
Udon: Fat and slippery noodles made from wheat flour. They can be flat, square or round and are available both dried and fresh. Substitute fettuccine or linguine if udon noodles are unavailable.
Vermicelli: A long, very thin pasta. "Little worms" is the original meaning of this word, so named for the squirming motion the noodles undergo when surrounded by sauce and twirled around a fork. It was the original pasta for spaghetti and meatballs. Use vermicelli with lighter sauces and in soups.
Wagon Wheel/Ruote: Called wagon wheel pasta because its shape resembles a spoked wheel. A fun pasta to add to casseroles, soups and salads, especially when you want to boost the kid appeal. Some brands may also label this pasta rotelle.
Ziti: Medium-size tubular pasta that’s perfect for chunky sauces and meat dishes. In Italian, it means "bridegrooms."
Keep dried pasta in a cool (60° or less), dry place. You can leave it in its original package or transfer it to airtight glass or plastic containers. Label the containers with the date you filled them. Although dried pasta can be stored indefinitely, use it within 1 to 2 years for the best quality and flavor.
Fresh pasta is perishable, so keep it in the refrigerator and use it by the "use by" or expiration date on the package. Store opened, uncooked pasta in a tightly covered container for no more than 3 days.
Store unopened pasta in its original package in the freezer until ready to cook. Put unused amounts in airtight containers to avoid freezer burn. Freeze unopened pasta up to 9 months, opened pasta up to 3 months.
If it’s completely dried, you can store homemade pasta like dried pasta. Refrigerate freshly made pasta in a tightly covered container for up to 3 days or freeze in an airtight package for up to 1 month.
Tips for Cooking Pasta
- Here’s an easy way to measure 4 ounces of long pasta such as spaghetti: Make a circle about the size of a quarter with your thumb and index finger, and fill it with pasta.
- Pasta shapes can be substituted for one another, as long as they’re similar in size.
- Use plenty of water, at least 1 quart (4 cups) water for every 4 ounces of pasta. Be sure the water is boiling vigorously before adding the pasta which helps to prevent it from sticking together as soon as it’s put in.
- Do not add oil to the cooking water. It isn’t necessary and sauces will not cling to oil-coated pasta. Keep pasta from sticking to the pan by adding it gradually to rapidly boiling water, then stir frequently during cooking.
- To salt or not to salt? The answer is, it’s up to you. Salt isn’t necessary for cooking, but it does enhance the flavor. As a guide, use 1/2 teaspoon salt for every 8 ounces of pasta. For a slightly different flavor, add a tablespoon of dried herbs or lemon juice into the water during cooking.
- Follow the package directions for cooking times, or refer to the Pasta Cooking Chart on right. If using the pasta in a baked dish or casserole, slightly undercook the pasta it should be flexible but still firm. (It is a good idea to begin testing the pasta after 5 minutes of cooking.) While the pasta bakes in the oven, it will become more tender as it soaks up the sauce.
- Taste the pasta to tell if it’s done. Perfectly cooked pasta should be al dente, tender but firm to the bite, without any raw flavor. Another way to check for doneness is to cut several pieces with a fork against the side of the pan. There should be some resistance, but the pasta should cut easily. Overcooked pasta is mushy and watery and loses its flavor.
- Do not rinse pasta after draining unless the recipe says to do so, or sauces will not cling to the pasta. Pasta usually is rinsed only when it is to be used in a cold salad.
When preparing pasta, allow 1/2 to 3/4 cup cooked pasta per side-dish or appetizer serving. If you plan to make pasta your main dish, allow 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups per serving.
Two ounces (2/3 cup) dried pasta will yield approximately 1 cup of cooked pasta. This yield will vary slightly depending on the shape, type and size of pasta.
To measure 4 ounces of spaghetti easily, make a circle with your thumb and index finger, about the size of a quarter, and fill it with pasta.
Uncooked Cooked Servings
Macaroni, Penne, Rotini, Shells, Wagon Wheels
6 to 7 ounces (2 cups) 4 cups 4 to 6
Capellini, Linguine, Spaghetti, Vermicelli
7 to 8 ounces 4 cups 4 to 6
8 ounces 4 to 5 cups 4 to 6
Storing and Reheating Cooked Pasta
- Toss the cooked pasta with a small amount of vegetable or olive oil (1 to 2 teaspoons per pound of pasta) to prevent sticking during storage.
- Store in an airtight container or plastic bag in the refrigerator up to 5 days or in the freezer up to 2 months. Store pasta and sauce separately.
- Place pasta in rapidly boiling water for up to 2 minutes. Drain, then serve immediately.
- Place pasta in a colander, and pour boiling water over it until heated through. Drain, then serve immediately.
- Place pasta in microwavable dish or container. Cover and microwave on High for 1 to 2 minutes per 2 cups of pasta or until heated through. Serve immediately.
Pasta Cooking Guide
You’ll find cooking directions right on pasta packages, but if you’ve bought the pasta in bulk or stored it in a different container, this reference chart gives you approximate cooking times for the most popular types and shapes of pasta.
Making Fresh Pasta
In Italian, pasta means "paste," and the paste is made from wheat flour and water. Flour is at the heart of pasta. Wheat, which is ground into flour, gives pasta its structure and texture. Although you can make pasta from just about any type of flour, we’ve found some flours work better than others.
Semolina flour: Semolina flour is made from durum wheat, which is a variety of wheat particularly high in protein. Semolina flour doesn’t produce satisfactory baked goods, but it makes excellent pasta. With its springy texture, pasta made from durum wheat is less likely to become starchy or sticky when cooked than pasta made from all-purpose flour. The dried pasta you buy at the store is made from durum wheat.
Semolina flour is more coarsely ground than most flour and looks similar to yellow cornmeal but is paler in color. Semolina flour may be difficult to find, but it is likely to be available in most large supermarkets, gourmet shops and Italian markets or through mail-order sources. Pasta dough made with semolina is slightly drier and stiffer than dough made with other flours because it absorbs liquid more easily.
All-purpose flour: All-purpose flour, as its name implies, can be used for making all types of baked goods, as well as pasta. This flour is a blend of hard and soft wheat varieties, not durum wheat. Because of the types of wheat used in all-purpose flour, pasta dough made with it is easy to work with. You will notice how smooth and elastic the dough is when made with all-purpose flour.
Unbleached flour: Unbleached flour is more cream colored than all-purpose flour (most all-purpose flour is whitened by a bleaching process), and it has a slightly higher protein content. Unbleached flour will yield the same results as all-purpose flour and can be used interchangeably in scratch pasta recipes that call for all-purpose or semolina flour.
Whole wheat flour: Whole wheat flour is made from the whole grain of wheat, with the outer covering of the grain left intact. Whole wheat flour may be coarsely ground or finely ground. Pasta made from whole wheat flour will have a slightly heavier texture and nuttier flavor than pasta made from semolina, all-purpose or unbleached flour. If the dough seems dry and difficult to work with, add a little extra water (1 to 2 teaspoons) to help make it more manageable. Because whole wheat flour has a higher fat content than other flours, it can become rancid more quickly. It is best to store this flour tightly wrapped in the refrigerator or freezer.
From "Betty Crocker's Complete Cookbook, Everything You Need to Know to Cook Today, 9th Edition." Text Copyright 2000 General Mills, Inc. Used with permission of the publisher, Wiley Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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