Cooking School Day 12: Pasta & Noodles
- Today’s Topic: Pasta & Noodles
- The Goal: 20 lessons, 20 days to become a better cook at home
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Pasta is one of the first things that many of us learned to cook, right after learning how to boil water. Could anything be simpler? Today, we’re moving beyond what you probably already know and taking a look at fresh versus dried pasta, pasta cooking pitfalls, and yes, how to make a batch of fresh pasta.
Day 12 Lesson: Pasta & Noodles
Dried pasta vs. Fresh Pasta: Dried pasta is typically made from semolina flour and water. It’s pressed into shapes, like long spaghetti noodles or small pasta shapes, then dried. Dried pasta will keep on the shelf for years. Fresh pasta is typically made with flour and eggs, and needs to be used or frozen within a few days. Because of the eggs, fresh pasta usually has a richer flavor and more pleasing chewy texture than dried pasta, but otherwise, neither kind of pasta is necessarily better than the other. Fresh pasta is fun to buy or make for special occasions, but dried pasta is perfectly fine for everyday cooking.
Other Kinds of Noodles: Italian pastas aren’t the only noodles out there, of course! Soba noodles, udon noodles, ramen noodles, rice noodles, and many other kinds are available for our home cooking pleasure. Most of these noodles are also dried and shelf-stable, though trying them (or making them!) fresh is a fun change of pace.
Long Noodles vs. Small Pastas: Pastas of all shapes and sizes can generally be used interchangeably, especially if we’re just talking about a quick weeknight meal with a basic sauce. But there are a few instances when you might want to choose one over the other. Long noodles are great in simple, creamy sauces, like fettuccine alfredo and spaghetti carbonara. Shaped pastas, like shells and spirals, are better for catching thick sauces with a lot of hearty bits, like pork ragu or a cheesy mushroom sauce. Small shaped pastas also tend to be better choices for casseroles and pasta salads.
Cooking Pasta and Noodles: All pasta — fresh or dried, long noodles or small shaped pastas, Italian or Japanese — cooks the same way: by absorbing water. Most pastas are dunked in salted, boiling water and cooked until tender. Use a lot of water so that the pasta has room to bob around and give it plenty of salt — pasta water should be “salty like the sea,” as the Italian saying goes. Cooking time varies, so the best way to tell when pasta is done is to taste it — run a noodle under cool water for a few seconds to cool it and then bite into it. When it’s chewy and there’s no longer any crunch in the middle, it’s done. Some pastas, like rice noodles, are fairly tender and should be soaked in water rather than boiled; if in doubt, check the package instructions.
Pasta in a Recipe: Be aware that it can take 10 minutes or more for a big pot of pasta water to come to a boil. Recipes don’t always specify this, and there’s nothing more annoying than waiting for water to boil while the rest of your meal gets cold. You’ll get a feel for the timing the more that you do it, but a good rule of thumb is to start the water heating when you begin cooking so that it’s boiling by the time you’re ready to cook the pasta. It’s also ok if cooked pasta sits for a minute or two, though it will start to dry out if you wait too long to mix it into your dish.
Pasta cooking water is one of the unsung heroes in cooking. Always save some of the starchy, seasoned water before you drain your pasta. Add some of it when you toss your pasta and sauce or ingredients together, especially for pasta dishes that have little or very thin sauce, and this pasta water will add silky body to your pasta.
Every lesson has three homework options. Maybe you’ve already got one down, or you just have time for a quick study session. So pick one, and show us by tagging it with #kitchnschool on Instagram or Twitter.
Study: If you can boil water, you can make pasta. Even so, there are a few tricks! Take a look at these posts for some do’s — and don’ts!
Practice: Make a batch of spaetzle! This is a dish of fresh noodles, but without all the kneading and rolling involved in Italian pasta. Here’s our favorite recipe: Ricotta Spaetzle. Make it and serve it with any sauce you like.
Improve: Have you ever made fresh pasta from scratch? Or has it been a while? Tonight’s the night! All you need are flour, eggs, water, and a pasta roller. Here’s what to do: How To Make Fresh Pasta From Scratch. If you’re an old pro at fresh pasta, why not try your hand making this simple filled and shaped Agnolotti Pasta, or even a batch of Homemade Soba Noodles?
More on Pasta & Noodles in The Kitchn Cookbook
The Cooking School was inspired by our new book, The Kitchn Cookbook— and there’s plenty in the book to help your Cooking School experience.
Today’s tip: See page 213 for three of our best-ever pasta sauces!
5 Recipes to Practice Cooking Pasta & Noodles
The Kitchn’s Cooking School
The Kitchn’s Cooking School is 20 days, 20 lessons to become a better cook at home. Every day we’ll tackle an essential cooking topic and explain what you should know. Each lesson has three different homework options, so you can choose the one that teaches you what you need. Whether you want to refresh your skills or start from scratch, come to school with us!