What to know
There are hundreds of different shapes and varieties of pasta in Italy, some are unique to a region or town, some are so local that they can only be found in one particular village and some are known around the world.
Contrary to popular belief, Marco Polo did not bring pasta to Italy from China. Evidence suggests that pasta was actually introduced to southern Italy, specifically Sicily, by the Greeks or Arabs. Marco Polo probably brought back different shapes of pasta not yet being used in Italy.
Pasta may be dried or fresh. Dried pasta is deceivingly simple, yet there is a huge difference between poor-quality dried pasta and pasta that has been carefully made, producing a pasta with superior flavour.
Dried pasta must be made with the hardest variety of wheat, durum wheat. Durum wheat has a high gluten content which gives pasta its unique texture and “bite” when cooked.
Fresh pasta is often egg-based and used in dishes like lasagne, or filled, as in ravioli or tortellini.
By law, all dried pasta made in Italy must be made with durum wheat. Pasta made outside of Italy may contain softer, lower-quality blended flours.
Pasta is extruded through Teflon or bronze plates. Bronze plates are traditional and produce the highest quality pasta. The bronze extrusion produces a rough surface, which leaves a little starch on the pasta and allows the pasta to absorb liquids and the flavours of sauces.
Pasta can be combined with vegetables, fish and meat. In Italy, each type of pasta is traditionally used with a particular sauce.
The shape of the pasta dictates the type of sauce that will complement it best. Always consider the type of pasta being used, then determine the best sauce for that shape.
Long pasta, such as spaghetti or linguini, is usually served with oily or delicate sauces, short tubular pasta, such as penne is better with tomato or cheese sauces. For pasta salads, select short, thick tubes, not egg pasta or fresh pasta. For casseroles, select tubes with thick walls or sturdy shapes such as penne. Cook the pasta for two-thirds of the recommended cooking time in water first, and then finish cooking in the casserole.
Different sizes and shapes of pasta cook at different rates, so select shapes of similar sizes if you’re combining pastas.
Don’t freeze cooked pasta unless it’s in a baked casserole.
How to use
Perfectly cooked pasta is al dente, an Italian term meaning “to the tooth.” Well-cooked pasta is cooked through, yet still firm enough to offer some resistance to your bite.
It’s important to use a pot large enough to to hold at least 1l of water for each 100g of pasta. A common mistake is to use too small a pot or not enough water, which results in sticky pasta.
Season the cooking water generously with salt (10g for each litre) as soon as it comes to a boil, then add the pasta when the water returns to a boil. The pasta will not be too salty, but will be properly seasoned.
Do not add oil to the pasta water.
Stir occasionally to make sure that the pasta doesn’t stick together. Do not cover the pot again.
Test for doneness early and often. Pasta should feel firm and slightly resistant when you bite into it, but if it sticks to your teeth when you chew it, it’s not ready.
Before draining the pasta, save some of the cooking water to add to the sauce. This adds extra starch to the sauce, emulsifying it, and helping it to cling much better to the pasta.
Drain pasta 1 or 2 minutes before the indicated cooking time and finish cooking in the pan with the sauce.
Use a colander to drain the pasta. Do not rinse after draining, this washes away the flavourful starches that will help sauces cling to it later.
Pasta is a food rich in carbohydrates, key for healthy eating and a staple of the Mediterranean diet. The pasta production process helps slow the digestion rate of carbohydrates, increasing its nutritional benefits. Slow-release carbohydrates may have benefits for healthy longevity as well as physical and cognitive performance.
Pasta is usually eaten with other healthy foods, including olive oil, tomatoes, vegetables, cheese, beans, lean meats and fish, which result in a delicious, convenient and affordable way to deliver balanced, healthy meals. Healthy-sized portions of pasta served with other nutritional ingredients can easily be part of a healthy diet.