Pasta is Italian for ‘paste’ or ‘dough’. It’s a staple food for many of us but just how does it get from dough to bowl?
Making dried pasta
Although we think of pasta as being made from flour, dried pasta we buy is actually made from durum wheat semolina. Durum wheat is the traditional wheat used to make dried pasta, used for its relatively high protein content.
To make dried pasta, semolina and water is mixed into a dough and kneaded. For flavoured pasta, eggs, vegetable juices and herbs can be added. For some shapes, the dough is rolled thinly, pressing out air bubbles and stretching the dough. Some shapes are stamped out from the sheet or the sheet is cut into strips. For most pasta, the dough is extruded — forced at high pressure through holes in a die — then cut to length.
Traditionally, bronze die are used to extrude pasta, which gives the pasta a slightly rough surface — you will sometimes see the words ‘al bronzo’ or ‘bronzato’ on this kind of pasta. Modern extrusion machinery uses Teflon die, which makes a smoother-textured pasta.
Early pasta producers had to leave pasta for days or weeks to dry. Today’s pasta goes through a rapid pre-drying followed by a slower drying phase, with both phases completed within 24 hours or less. The pre-drying inactivates enzymes which would discolour the pasta, preserving the yellow pigments from the durum wheat and egg, if it’s included. It also allows the gluten to form cross-links which harden the pasta and make it less sticky. The slower drying phase is a crucial part of the process: drying too quickly will create cracks in the pasta but drying too slowly makes it susceptible to spoilage.
Making fresh and egg pasta
Fresh pasta is also usually made from durum wheat with egg added and sometimes oil. The egg increases the protein content, adds colour and richness, and the fat in the egg makes a more delicate dough. Small amounts of spinach (for green) and tomato paste or beetroot juice (for red) may be added to colour fresh pasta. Processing into sheets and cutting into ribbons or shapes is similar to the processing for dried pasta. While most egg pasta is used fresh, some may also be dried.
Filled or stuffed pasta such as ravioli or tortellini are made by sandwiching a filling between
two sheets — or sometimes the same pasta sheet folded over — then stamping out the shape, which also seals the edges.
Tips for cooking pasta
Cook pasta in plenty of rapidly boiling water: a 1 litre water: 100g pasta ratio is often recommended. Plenty of water will dilute any starch that leaks from the pasta as it cooks, as well as providing room for each piece to cook evenly and prevent them sticking together. Dried pasta also absorbs some water: each 100g pasta can absorb from around 140 millilitres and up to 300 millilitres water.
When cooking dried pasta, a little lemon juice or citric acid in hard (alkaline) water reduces the pH (alkalinity) of the water, which helps reduce the stickiness of the pasta. A little salt in the water reduces the gelation of the starch which also reduces stickiness. After cooking, starch on the surface of the pasta cools and dries to become glue-like. So once the pasta is drained it’s a good idea to moisten it with the pasta sauce or a little oil.
Fresh pasta cooks more quickly than dried pasta, with plain long pasta such as spaghetti usually needing only three or four minutes to cook, and filled pasta around seven or eight minutes. If you don’t want to use fresh pasta straight away, it freezes well and can be cooked from frozen, making it super-convenient.
Catering to the growing demand for gluten-free products, dried pasta is now produced from a number of different grains. Maize or corn is often used as a base, as it has a yellow colour similar to durum wheat and a good flavour. Flours or starches from potato, soy, tapioca, rice and other grains are also used. Some blends are more successful than others at acting like durum wheat pasta, holding their shape, and delivering a similar taste to regular pasta.
Did you know?
- Couscous and Israeli couscous are actually very small balls of durum wheat pasta which have been pre-steamed and dried.
- Black pasta is coloured with the ink sacs of squid or cuttlefish. Best matched with seafood, it tends to have a fishy flavour.
- There’s no need to add oil to pasta cooking water. It doesn’t do anything!