Do you make your own pasta? Or, do you purchase it? Making homemade pasta can be incredibly satisfying but, you won’t be able to re-create all types of pasta in your own kitchen. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.
Making pasta dough is not difficult and the ingredient list is short: flour, water, salt and eggs. As you will read below, the only one of these ingredients that is always used is flour. The others may or may not be used depending on the type of pasta you are making. Before we delve into the specifics of the ingredients, let me talk about what you want in the finished pasta dough.
There are two components to a good pasta dough – elasticity and plasticity. The former means the dough can be stretched and it will bounce back, making it easier to knead. Plasticity means the dough can be molded into a shape and it stays put. Many feel that the key to a good pasta dough is the right combination of elasticity and plasticity. This is achieved by having the right amount of protein and hydration in your flour. The proteins in flour are glutenin and gliadin, which when kneaded develop into a gluten network. Certain flours take more kneading than others to achieve the same level of gluten development.
You also want pasta that is firm enough to stand up to cooking without falling apart or sticking together into a ball. When done, it should be al dente, firm to the bite. This firmness is more easily achieved with a high protein flour.
Finally, you want a dough that doesn’t crack or get brittle when kneaded.
Most will agree that there is no single perfect flour for pasta making. It depends on what type of pasta you want to end up with. (See this Tip for an explanation of the different types of flour.) Most importantly, you want flour with a protein content of between 10 & 15%. This is to ensure there is enough gluten for the dough to be able to stretch without breaking while giving the eater the “bite” we like in a good pasta.
In any discussion of flour for pasta making, you will undoubtedly see the following flours.
This flour is nice because we all have it in our pantries and it is less expensive than the specialty flours. Another plus it has a neutral flavor. Depending on the brand, it has a decent protein content but it does take more kneading to get the correct gluten network.
Because it has a fine texture, AP flour is good for making a soft pasta. The dough will be strong and elastic, which makes it good for making different shapes.
There are some downsides to using AP flour. It is easy to overcook and get mushy pasta. Pasta made from this is not great for drying but rather should be cooked fresh.
This is a very finely ground flour with a mild flavor. It is the most common flour found in Italian households for making egg pasta by hand.
Some 00 flours may be lower in protein but not always. It depends on what kind of wheat it is ground from. If you do have a lower protein one, it may not be suitable for making pasta without eggs. It needs the egg to hold it together and give the pasta its toothy bite.
It makes a soft, tender pasta that holds up better if overcooked a bit. It is great for softer pasta shapes such as tagliatelle and ravioli.
Semolina is made from durum wheat but is not the same as durum flour. Semolina is more coarsely ground than durum flour and is good for thicker, coarser kinds of pasta, especially pasta that you want to hold onto a lot of sauce. It needs no egg to make the dough.
It has a very high gluten content, which leads to a firm texture. It has less elasticity than AP but much more plasticity. So, it is good for extruded pastas such as penne and macaroni – they don’t lose their shape when cooked.
Some people like to combine some of the above flours to achieve the result they want. One typical make-at-home mix would be the following.
- ½# (225 gm) unbleached AP flour
- ¼# (115 gm) durum flour
- ¼# (115 gm) semolina
King Arthur Baking Company sells a bag of “Pasta Flour Blend” and it is a blend of the above three flours. As of this writing, a 3# bag sells for $12.95.
Recipes for most fresh pasta will call for eggs. The eggs not only add moisture but also help with binding the dough together. As mentioned above, if you are using semolina as your flour, you probably do not need eggs. Dried pasta that you buy in the store will not be made with eggs.
Recipes will vary on how many eggs are called for. Some will call for whole eggs, some for yolks and some a combination. Here is a link to an interesting article on Serious Eats where the author tests all sorts of different versions. I recommend trying a few recipes and seeing what you like.
Now that you have your ingredients, how do you put them all together? The classic way to make pasta dough is by hand on a countertop. You mound up your flour and make a well in the middle. In the well place your eggs and salt. With a fork, you carefully start working the flour into the egg. As the mixture gets thicker, most pasta makers will switch from the fork to a bench scraper and use that to continue to fold the dough incorporating more flour as you go. When you have incorporated enough flour, you will start kneading the dough. As explained above, this is where the gluten network develops and certain flours (such as AP) will require more kneading to get that right balance of elasticity and plasticity.
Some people like to use a food processor. Put your flour and salt in the bowl and process to combine. Add the eggs and process for 30-60 seconds, until it comes together into a ball. If it doesn’t come together, you may want to add a teaspoon of water. Put dough on the counter and finish with hand-kneading. Alternatively, some experts recommend taking it out of the processor before it pulls together into a ball. When it forms into small clumps, take it out and finish by hand. Since the processor does quite a bit of kneading, you will not to do your hand kneading for as long.
No matter what method you use to make the dough, it should be wrapped in plastic and rested before proceeding with rolling it out. This allows the dough ball to fully hydrate as well as giving the gluten strands time to relax, which will make it much easier to roll.
After resting, the dough is ready to form into your desired pasta shape. Using a pasta machine to roll out your dough will give you superior results. You can try rolling it out with a rolling pin although you probably won’t get it as smooth and thin as you would with a machine. Some sources recommend recipes that they created specifically for hand rolling. If hand rolling, you would then cut it using a knife or a hand pasta cutter or stamp. If using a pasta machine, it usually comes with attachments for cutting strips such as fettuccini.
There are many shapes that you can make by hand. See this fun video from Bon Appetit that shows a pasta expert making 29 different shapes by hand although some did require some additional simple tools.
I mentioned in the beginning that you won’t be able to re-create all pasta types in your kitchen. Although you can certainly try using some of the techniques shown in the above video, it will be very time consuming with a large learning curve. Pasta companies use machines that push the dough through metal dies to create all the different shapes as well as a very carefully controlled drying process. That is why there will always be a place for dried pasta on our shelves.
I do not make homemade pasta as often as I should. When I do, it is primarily to make ravioli or lasagna sheets such as the spinach pasta sheets used in this traditional lasagna recipe. It is a fair amount of work but oh so worth it!