One of the questions that I get asked time after time is what is the difference between fresh pasta and dried pasta, and how do you choose between the two. There is a misconception that fresh pasta is always better than dried pasta because it costs more, uses ‘fresh’ ingredients and is not mass produced in a factory. This is not necessary the case and both types have their uses. There is also a lot of nonsense spoken about fresh pasta being unsuitable for certain dishes, especially where the sauce has a heavy meat content. The truth is that you can make fresh pasta to suite any type of sauce, even the heavy meat types. This can be achieved by varying the ingredients by adding Semolina flour to give the pasta a more robust texture, and selecting the right pasta shape so it holds on to these sauces.  First though, let’s see what is the difference between fresh and dried pasta.

Dried Pasta

Dried pasta is made in factories using just Semolina flour (made from Durum Wheat), water and sometimes salt. Semolina (Semi Milled in Italia) flour has a very yellow colour and is usually quite rough in texture. This is the same flour that is added to pizza bases to provide added texture. It can often be seen at the bottom of your take away pizza box. Dried pasta should not contain any other than these ingredients.

Dried pasta is made first by grinding the semolina flour into a fine flour and then mixing the ingredients into a dough. Once the dough has had time to prove i.e. allow the gluten to work its magic, it is then forced through through dies (extruded) under great pressure. The process is not dissimilar in concept to squeezing a toothpaste tube. The dies can be changed to give the pasta different shapes. Some of these shapes such as Penne and Macaroni cannot be made any other way but by extrusion. This obviously applies to both dried and fresh pasta.

The following photo shows an industrial pasta extruder machine. Notice the bronze die. Bronze or brass dies are considered superior to other materials because they produce pasta with a rough texture (see photo above). The rough texture helps the sauce cling to the pasta. When you next go shopping for dried pasta, make sure to purchase pasta made with brass or bronze dies. You will notice that the pasta has a rough texture and the label will clearly state if a bronze or brass die has been used.

pasta extruder with bronze die

Industrial pasta extruder machine called trafila used for trafilatura al bronzo (bronze drawing)

The following photo shows a range of brass dies that are used in the pasta extrusion process.

brass dies

Brass dies used in a pasta extrusion machine

As the pasta is squeezed through the dies it is cut to length ready for drying. The best quality dried pasta is dried slowly at low temperatures which can take several days. Cheaper pasta is force dried in a shorter time but this does affect the final product and reduces the quality. Long pasta such as Spaghetti is made over twice as long as it needs to be so that it can be hung over drying racks. Once dried, the curved part where the spaghetti was in contact with the rack is chopped off and discarded leaving two strands of spaghetti ready for packaging.

Fresh Pasta

Unlike dried pasta which is made from semolina flour, water and salt. Fresh pasta is made with white flour and eggs (instead of water). Salt is optional. The eggs give the fresh pasta its yellow colour which would otherwise be lacking. The flour most often used in Italy is known as ’00’ flour, which refers to it’s very white colour due to all of the bran and germ having been extracted. The flour also has a high level of gluten which is necessary for pasta making (gluten free options are also available). It is not essential to use ’00’ flour and any ‘strong’ white flour can be used and in many cases will be more nutritious. Once made, fresh pasta can be extruded just like dried pasta to give the many and varied pasta shapes. Alternatively, it can be rolled ready for stuffing.

Difference between Dried and Fresh Pasta

Here we come to the nub of the question. In what circumstances would you choose fresh pasta over dried pasta and vice versa? Is it really worth the expense and time to make your own? My answer would invariable be yes to both questions. Fresh pasta is in my view superior to dried pasta in virtually all aspects except cost and convenience. Sure it is convenient to have a ready supply of dried pasta in the cupboard ready to use at a moment’s notice, and I  am no different to anyone else when it comes to convenience. It is also cheaper to buy. So what is the benefit of fresh pasta and why bother?

Firstly let me say that fresh pasta has a taste all of its own. When combined with a light or dairy based sauce such as carbonara, the sauce adds its own flavour. The overall flavour comes from the pasta and sauce in combination. Dried pasta tends to just be there to add bulk but doesn’t have much of a specific flavour of its own. In dishes that involve stuffed pasta such as ravioli, it is important that the final taste is from a combination of the pasta, filling and sauce, with no one individual component being too overpowering.

It is often said that strong meat flavoured sauces require dried pasta due to its robustness i.e it doesnt fall apart as easy. It is certainly true that dried pasta holds its shape better than fresh pasta and is more forgiving if overcooked. In situations where long periods of cooking are involved such as macaroni cheese, pasta stews etc. dried pasta is the best choice since fresh pasta would lose its shape.

That said, I will concede that for a heavy meat based sauce it may be necessary when making your own pasta to alter the pasta dough slightly to give it is bit more texture and bite. I would recommend replacing 10% of the flour with semolina flour. This will give the dough a rougher, chewier texture and help it compete with the strong flavours of the meat sauce. The one exception to this is spaghetti and linguini which in my view should always be made with the finest milled flour and not semolina.

Conclusion on Using Dried and Fresh Pasta

Dried pasta is made from different ingredients and using a different process to fresh pasta. It is convenient and cheap and the best choice for dishes that involve cooking the pasta for long periods e.g. macaroni cheese. In all other situations, I would argue that fresh pasta is better. If you must use dried pasta, always select good quality pasta that has been extruded using a brass or bronze die.