Staples Spotlight

Let’s Talk About Pasta

Pasta is one of the most basic staples in cooking. There are almost unlimited flavor possibilities and combinations.  If you can boil a pot of water, you can make pasta, and that’s the best part about pasta dishes.

So, in case you didn’t get your unlimited Pasta Pass from Olive Garden last week,

you can learn how to make your own amazing pasta dishes.

Types of Pasta:

You may know some of the most common types of pasta already, but there’s plenty of different types out there, each with its own function.

  • Spaghetti – Long, round and thin, this pasta is what the famous dish is named for. Goes well with just about any sauce you could put on it.
  • Fettuccine – Flat, long strands; most typically known from Fettuccine Alfredo. Goes well with thick, creamy sauces.
  • Penne – Medium length diagonal cut tubes. A good go-to pasta for chunky meat or vegetable sauces. A great option for baked dishes.
  • Farfalle – You may know this pasta as “bowties” because it’s pinched in the center and shaped like a bowtie. Good with cream, oil or butter based sauces.
  • Macaroni – Elbow shaped pasta usually found in macaroni and cheese. Also good for pasta salads and baked dishes.
  • Angel Hair – Its basically a thinner version of the traditional spaghetti. Because it’s so thin, angel hair is good for an oil or butter based sauce — nothing too creamy or chunky or it won’t be able to hold it up.
  • Rotini – Spiral shaped pasta; good for hearty sauces because all the elements of the sauce stay put in the grooves.  Also common for making pasta salads. Another go-to favorite of mine.
  • Shells – Shaped like shells, obviously, and good for creamier sauces since the sauce will cling to the pasta.
  • Orzo – A little-known pasta, but one of my favorites. It shaped almost like a grain of rice, but slightly larger. Cooks in about 5 minutes so it’s great for a quick meal. Goes well in soups or in light sauces or oil.
  • Rigatoni – Hearty tube-shaped pasta that goes well with chunky meat or vegetable sauces.
  • Here is a much more complete guide to every pasta shape.

Cooking Pasta:

I know what you’re thinking: cooking pasta is as simple as boiling water. While that’s essentially correct, there are some technical tricks that will make your pasta that much better.

  • Number one, do not fill your pot more than halfway full. As soon as you turn around, your water will get to a rolling boil and boil over, and no one wants to deal with that.
  • Speaking of filling your pot, do you really need the directions on the box that tell you how many cups of water to use? No. Just fill the pot halfway full, ensuring that all the pasta is well-covered, and you’ll be fine.
  • Generously salt your pasta water. It should taste as salty as the ocean. This gives the pasta some actual flavor so it doesn’t just taste like nothing. (Side note: be sure to compensate for the extra salt with your sauce or the rest of the dish so it’s not too salty when it’s all put together.)
  • Making the correct amount of pasta is a fine art that even the most well-practiced chefs struggle with. Here is a helpful chart from Mueller’s Pasta that includes just about every variety you can think of and how much of it constitutes a serving. Eventually you learn to eyeball it and hopefully get the right amount, but if all else fails, the leftovers will make great lunch for the rest of the week.
  • As tempting as it is to dump the pasta into the water immediately, wait those few minutes for it to boil. It will only take longer to reach a boil this way. It will also lead to mushy, unevenly cooked pasta, so wait for the rolling boil.
  • You don’t need to stir constantly, but every minute or so is necessary so the pasta doesn’t stick together in one big lump.
  • Speaking of mushy pasta, that means its overcooked. Yes, it should be slightly soft, but still firm. This is called al dente, which means “to the tooth” in Italian.  This is essential for your pasta to hold up your sauce. Nobody likes mushy pasta.

Recipe Ideas

Now that you know everything there is to know about pasta, it’s time to try out your skills and make a fabulous pasta dish of your own. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Southwestern Black Bean Pasta Salad with rotini here.
  • Shrimp and Vegetable Orzo with Pesto here.
  • Lemon and Ricotta Pasta with Spinach and Red Peppers here.
  • Creamy Sausage and Mushroom Rigatoni here.
  • How to make some basic sauces here.

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