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'Eat'aly - Part 2: Ten Commandments of Pasta Making

ITALY | Wednesday, 13 August 2014 | Views [2308]

It would not be a fruitful trip to Italy without me finally learning the art of making the quintessential Italian culinary staple. As my trip took place in Emilia-Romagna, I got my hands on learning the traditional way make to egg pasta, from scratch and by hand, that is. It was not my first attempt at making this Italian ‘noodle’, to be honest, but acquiring the knowledge of making it right in its motherland is something so surreal. I find myself super lucky to be able to learn not only once, but three times with incredible mentors during the trip (cue my exclamation). Though that was not enough to make me a pasta making ninja, it helped me absorb some key points to success.


1. Egg + Flour = Pasta

I learned that it is unnecessary to throw my entire pantry into pasta dough. Italian cuisine is all about simplicity, so two common ingredients are more than enough for the iconic culinary staple. In general, use 1 free-range egg per 100 grams of ‘00’ flour. Make sure you use the best quality produce available, as it does make the difference. I could not forget the look of the vibrant lusciously yellow egg pasta during my days in Italy. The color intensity was phenomenal, and to my surprise, that all came from the egg!

2. Knead till you bleed

Well, we do not need to be that extreme, but it is important to keep kneading until all the loose bits of flour are thoroughly incorporated, no large air bubbles are visible, and the finished dough is completely lump-free. It took me quite a good amount of constant kneading to reach that stage.

3. Pasta loves siesta

Who does not love a good rest? When it comes to making pasta, it does wonders to the dough as does beauty sleep to us. Resting allows the gluten in the dough to relax, resulting in an ultra soft and pliable dough that does not curl up or retract when rolled out. Just let it sit for 20 - 30 minutes on the counter and cover with a bowl to keep it from drying out, or as a safety measure, wrap it loosely with cling film. In particular hot days (well, like almost every day in Vietnam), I tend to pop the wrapped dough in the fridge, since it contains raw egg.

4. Roll, roll, roll the dough, till it’s paper thin

The best tool for the job is the wooden rod-type rolling pin, thin and super long, as it is able to accommodate large pieces of dough and surprisingly wieldier than a big chunky roller. What I used in Italy was perhaps more than 50 centimeters. If your pin is short (like what I have at home), consider ‘divide and conquer’ when tackling the dough, or buying a new one. The dough should be rolled until amazingly thin and almost transparent when held so that we could see our hand put behind it. As we roll, we can really tell the benefit of resting the dough, as it does not put up much resistance, saving us severe frustration. Initially I was deceived by how effortlessly the mentors did it, but it turned out to be no easy task for me. But hey, practice makes perfect, eh?

5. To dry or not to dry

No-brainer here. Dry when we wish to make cut pasta (e.g.  tagliatelle, fettuccine, lasagna, pappardelle), and do not when we fancy shaping or stuffing our pasta (e.g. cavatelli, farfalle, ravioli, tortellini). Drying slightly toughens the pasta sheet, paving way for cleaner cuts. As it loses its elasticity, it tends to tear apart and crumble when pressed, thus becoming unable to be shaped. To keep pasta from drying out, cover it with cling film. When it comes to shaping, work in batches and remember to cover standby portions. Keep in mind that overexposure to air can cause pasta to lose all of its moisture, making it impossible to be transformed into any kind of shape (except for maltagliati – the “badly cut”, I guess).

6. It’s all about the shape

A delectable pasta dish is strongly stressed on the perfect marriage of pasta and sauce. The choice of sauce can make or break our previous effort. As a rule of thumb, flat and long shapes happily goes with light sauces (think tomato, olive oil, and cream-based), while sturdy shapes cry for chunky sauces with bold flavor. Whatever we do, we want the pasta we worked so hard for to shine!

Combinations I came across: Tagliatelle with ragù (not Spaghetti alla Bolognese, folks), Tortellini with broth, Tortelloni with sage butter, Garganelle with Black olive cream sauce, etc.

7. Remember, seawater

Size does matter here. Get a big pot (no, a huge pot), fill with a lot of water, and season with a lot of salt. It is essential that the pasta should swim in a sea of water while the water itself should taste like the sea (minus the fishy smell). One tablespoon of salt per litre should do the trick. The surplus amount of water cooks the pasta more evenly, while the generous amount of salt ensures the rather bland pasta is well seasoned internally. In addition, bringing water to a rolling boil before adding pasta prevents mushy and deformed pasta. One more piece, SKIP THE OIL as it hinders pasta from adhering to the sauce later on. For stick-free card, stirring the water (not the pasta) ever so often would suffice.

8. Fresh means less

Fresh pasta generally requires less cooking time than its dry counterpart does.  Therefore, it is vital that we keep an eye out on the pasta as it cook to prevent overcooking. What I do: stay by the pot and watch like a hawk. It usually takes a couple of minutes (or even seconds), not that long.

9. Al dente = Eccellente

The desirable texture of the perfectly cooked pasta could be described as having a slight resistance in the center (i.e.  “to the tooth” or “to the bite”). The only way I learned through my cooking sessions to get this sorted is by experience. We have to cook pasta for a few decades to learn that sense of doneness.  Forget about the timing (as there are many variables involved) and notice the change of the pasta. In case of stuffed pasta, wait for it to rise to the surface whereas for other forms, fish out a piece and have a taste. Trust yourselves! (I was fortunate enough to have an Italian mentor to tell me when the pasta was ready.) Quickly drain it when it is just a breath away from ‘al dente’ and toss right into the sauce to finish cooking.

10. Hurry, it’s munch time!

Voilà! Freshly made egg pasta cooked to perfection in truly Italian way. Take time to have a glass of wine, pat yourself in the back. DIG IN IMMEDIATELY! Make haste as the flavor deteriorates as it cools. In that sense, serving pasta in warm plates, bundling neatly in the center is not too shabby an idea. Aesthetic and practical – two birds one stone!

Tags: cooking, eataty, emilia-romagna, passport & plate: italy 2014, pasta making

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