Make Great Fresh Pasta at Home: Tips From My Italian Mother-in-Law

updated May 11, 2022
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(Image credit: Faith Durand)

We’ve talked a lot about homemade pasta here on The Kitchn, but I had never made homemade pasta noodles myself. Well, that has changed, and now I’m wondering: why did I wait so long? I did have one secret weapon, though: my Italian mother-in-law. To see what I learned from her about homemade pasta, read on!

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When my husband and I were married, we received a wedding gift certificate to a major cookware shop, and I wanted to use it on something we’d both enjoy. A pasta maker was the obvious choice: he’s a pasta fiend. Also, his parents were due for a visit, so we figured they could show us the ropes.

My mother-in-law’s family is from Southern Italy, and her mother made fresh pasta all the time. It wasn’t a gourmet indulgence or special project: it was a daily rhythm of life. Her mother would make huge batches and dry the noodles, then store them in jars or freeze them. Needless to say, there are quite a few pasta essentials she passed along from that history of family pasta-making.

We used the basic recipe Emma shared here:

Weekend Project: Make Pasta! – Here are our notes on a double-batch of this 3-egg pasta.

1. It is all about the dough.
The biggest thing I saw as she worked with the pasta is that it’s all about the dough. If you have a smooth, well-worked dough, it’s a cinch to roll it through the machine. In fact, that part was ultra-easy. We didn’t need any extra flour or time to roll it through. If the dough is strong and supple, you don’t even need to re-fold it back on itself as you put it through the machine.

So, how do you get that kind of dough?

2. Kneading is essential.
She worked that dough for at least ten minutes, kneading it and working it over and over again. She broke it in pieces and showed it to me halfway through, and it still had big air pockets (see above). It also still had crumbly bits of unworked flour sticking to the outside. When the dough was finished, on the other hand, it was completely smooth and elastic to the touch.

This is the hard work part! If you work that dough until it’s completely smooth to the touch, the rest of the project will be easy. And how do you know when it’s ready? Well, she said it was all in how it feels — I guess I’m going to need a few years of practice to acquire the instinct!

3. Don’t let the dough dry out.
After the dough is kneaded smooth, separate it into a few small balls. We did a double batch so she cut it into 8 portions. She kept each portion covered with a clean kitchen towel while rolling out the first ball of dough. She showed me how to roll the ball into a small oval no wider than the pasta machine. It’s important to work quickly, because dry dough is harder to work through the machine.

Also, the dough is hard to roll out at this point, which brings us to the next tip:

4. Pasta-making is better with two (or three, or four) people.
This was a group effort! My father-in-law stepped in to roll the dough portions into ovals, while my husband helped feed the pasta through the machine. It takes two to roll the pasta through the machine, especially as it lengthens. It helps to have one person holding the top of the dough sheet, and another to grab it as it comes out.

We ran the dough through the machine about six times, starting on the first thickness setting, and skipping one or two on our way up the sixth. We kept the noodles slightly thicker to stand up to the robust tomato sauce I was cooking. We finished them up with the fettuccine cutter on the other side of the machine.

I grabbed the “little ribbons” as they came through and immediately shook them into separate strands and laid them flat to dry. You have to shake them free of their clumps right away or they’ll dry together.

5. Making homemade pasta is very easy, and very fast.
I couldn’t believe how fast it was to make up this huge double batch of pasta. From the time we started to the time we were completely done, with noodles drying all over the house, it was barely 45 minutes. The pasta also cooks faster, of course: these thick noodles took only about five minutes.

It was so worth it, and very cheap, too. My husband and I want to get this good at making pasta; maybe we’ll start stocking up on it!

More on homemade pasta:
Weekend Project: Make Pasta!
Kitchen Equipment: Choosing a Pasta Maker
• On Making Your Own Pasta
• Look! Patricia’s Homemade Pasta Project

(Originally published March 9, 2009.)