Choosing pasta

Pasta has a variety of textures, flavors, and styles.

With all the variety available, isn't it time you explored what could be waiting for you?  Let's take a look at what to consider when you're ready to branch out in the fascinating world of pasta.

Different pastas for every taste

Pasta comes in many different shapes, sizes, textures, and even flavors. Some people love to dig in and try every new kind of pasta they see. While others feel that anything other than the thin spaghetti they grew up with just wouldn't be right. Of course there are the elbow macaroni fans who would never renounce their loyalty to the classic.

Textures

Different pastas feel different in both the bite and on the tongue. The shape and texture are often created on purpose. For instance, some pastas have ridges, others have waves, and some are a little rough. These textures are put there intentionally to help hold on to more of the sauce. One of the best textured pastas to hold onto sauce is the rotini pasta. It's heavy spiral design grabs sauce and won't let go of it. But, even though it's very textured, it has a lighter feeling on the tongue and a softer bite.

Pasta in tubular shapes, such as rigatoni, elbow macaroni, penne, ziti, and others are perfect to create a good bite. They are also great for holding a lot of sauce because they are a hollowed out tube.  Of course, a shell shaped pasta also holds a lot of sauce in its 'cup' but it has a much more tender bite and is soft to the tongue. Thin spaghetti and angel hair spaghetti have a delicate, small bite, with a texture most everyone loves. Other long pasta like fettuccine and linguine have a thick, serious bite meant to be heavier than spaghetti.

Of course, not all textures are pleasing to all people. There are some textures that just bother people. For instance, pastas made with whole wheat generally have a grainy texture which is due to the natural coarseness of the whole wheat grain. Some people can't get beyond that particular texture.

Flavors

For the more traditional folks, anything other than the typical boxed pasta flavor is beyond the realm of understanding. Why would anyone want to try something different? Sure, they might try spinach flavored pasta or sundried tomato flavored pasta, but that's about as far as they'll go. But, you can infuse just about any type of flavor into pasta that you can dream up.

For the more eclectic and daring individuals, there are pastas that fall way off the grid.  You'll find squid ink pastas, carrot beet sweet pea pastas, and even chocolate peanut butter pasta.  Would you buy these or try to make them? Well, when you think about it, why not enjoy a dessert pasta that tastes like a peanut butter cup. If you can't quite wrap your brain around that, try to think of pasta as just another pastry, since they're both made with basically the same ingredients. Whether you try a savory or sweet, pasta can accept just about any flavor you want to try. 

Style

If there are hundreds of different flavors of pasta, there are probably thousands of different styles, each with their own unique qualities. While some styles you may never hear about, let alone cook, the folks immersed in the art and science of making pasta won't let you down. Aren't you glad somebody is creating all these styles of pasta so we can just enjoy them? There is a sort of “pasta personality” that, when we think about it, makes sense. We attach emotions to our food, so pasta does create a bit of a feeling when we see it in dishes.  Either we know it and love it, or it just seems wrong.

Specific shapes of pasta, along with the texture, varies from culture to culture.  The spaghetti sold in America is different than the spaghetti you would eat in Italy. For years, at least in America, spaghetti, the pasta, was confused with spaghetti, the dish.  It wasn't until the fact that spaghetti is the pasta got  straightened out that we started to see dishes using spaghetti in ways other than topped with red sauce. But, for many, ordering or making 'spaghetti' still means a dish of thin noodles piled high with red-sauce. Old habits die hard.

Other pastas went through the same naming process, where the dish became known by the name of the pasta itself.  Take, for instance, Baked Ziti.  This delightful casserole is simply named after the pasta used in making the dish - ziti. 

And then, of course, there's Macaroni and Cheese. The term 'macaroni' actually refers to the type of dough used to make this pasta.  But the shape, the elbow macaroni, is the original image of “Mac and Cheese” in every child's hungry imagination.  However, things changed, and now this cheesy plate of noodles, whether the noodles are 'macaroni' or not, is still called Macaroni and Cheese.  You can use rotini, shell, rigatoni, penne, rotelle, or any combination of these popular pastas and you still have “Macaroni and Cheese” on your plate.

No matter how attached we are to these styles of pasta dishes, we know that just about any pasta can be used in just about any dish.  It's fun to try new shapes in order to see if you stumble upon something better.  The first person to use shell pasta instead of elbow macaroni in their Macaroni and Cheese probably noticed the pool of cheese sitting in the shell.  Why not make it that way all the time?  Or perhaps a hearty meat sauce seemed even more hearty when served over penne pasta rather than spaghetti. Even lasagna doesn't need to be made with lasagna style pasta!

Choose the right pasta to suit the dish

There is an art to choosing the right pasta for a dish. Matching the best pasta available to the sauce in a recipe takes some knowledge of what's available and how the flavors and textures blend.  Let's take a look at how pastas stack up.

Choose the size

If every pasta was small like ditali, how would you be able to pick up large amounts of creamy, cheesy goodness with every bite? You would have a bunch of small noodles sunk in a sea of ricotta and Parmesan. Size is important when it comes to pairing pasta with a sauce or filling. Some pastas are small and delicate, not meant to pick up heavy sauce. Other pasta, like jumbo shells or manicotti are large and open so they can either be stuffed or the sauce will naturally fill the hollows.

In a world where pasta is all the same, it would all be spaghetti and it would always be served with a simple tomato sauce. That doesn't sound very exciting.  Matching a variety of pastas to a variety of sauces is how meals stay interesting, and tasty.

Small pastas are supposed to be light in their 'bite' and delicate, and served with light, fresh sauces. Ingredients should all be small and light in weight, such as freshly grated Parmesan cheese instead of chunks of Cheddar or melted mozzarella. Larger pasta is heavier and firm, suitable for big pieces of meat, vegetables, and heavy cheese, and can stand up to more flavorful, sturdy sauces.

Choose the texture

If your pasta has a heavy sauce it needs to 'grab' and hold, you want to think about texture. With just a change in the variety of pasta you use, you can make a big difference in how your dish turns out. Ridges, holes, openings, cups, spirals, bumps, waves, and whole grains are all ways that pasta hangs onto sauce to create a dish that is richer and deeper in flavor.

A delicate, slippery pasta, like angel hair, won't stand up if you serve it with a chunky tomato sauce. Your dinner guests will end up eating the pasta separately from the sauce, since the heavy chunks of tomatoes will slide right off the pasta.  Choosing a heavier textured pasta, like corzetti, orecchiette, or even rotini will grab the larger pieces and let your fork hold onto everything with greater success.

If you are trying to figure out what pasta would go best with your sauce, consider texture as a starting point. Find a texture that will do what you want with the sauce and then work from there to start narrowing down the pasta you choose.

Choose the function

After size and texture, function is a key to picking the right pasta for your dish. After all, if you have big chunks of meat and veggies in your dish, you will need a pasta that won't disappear under the weight and be useless. So, consider what you want your pasta to do.

If you need a pasta that just sucks sauce to it like a magnet, you might think about quadrefiore or fusilli. Then again, soups generally contain small hollow pasta like trottoli or tubetti rigati, such as pasta fagioli at an Italian restaurant.

Then, you have pasta intended to stuff and pasta intended to form a large pasta layer.  You have very, very tiny pasta that is used to make light fluffy salads that look more like rice than pasta salads. If you want a big, heavy, hearty dish, you need to choose a big, heavy, hearty pasta.  If you want a light, fluffy dish, you need to choose a light, fluffy pasta.  It's that simple. The key to success is learning what pasta is available to you.

Pick the best pasta to go with your dish to get the best results. Look at the size you will need, the texture the pasta has, and even the function the pasta should serve. By comparing these three elements, you can pick out a great style of pasta for your dish and impress everyone at the table with your perfectly executed pasta dish, at every layer.

Pink, white and green pasta with tomatoes in a basket.

Italian flag colors in pasta.