In this introduction to pasta making I will explain how anyone can make delicious homemade pasta dough first time and without using any special pasta making equipment. It is easy to think of pasta as the boring stuff that’s there simply to hold on to your pasta sauce, or ragù as they call it in Italy. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Freshly made pasta dough is nothing like the dried pasta you are probably more familiar with. This goes for both the taste and the texture. They are both made from different ingredients and use different methods. Having said that, dried pasta does have its uses as I will explain later, but for now we will be focussing on what I call the real stuff; delicious homemade fresh pasta.
Pasta comes in many different forms, shapes and sizes. It’s not simply a matter of creating the pasta dough. It’s also what you intend to do with it once you have made it. For example, the easiest thing to do with pasta dough is to roll it and then cut into long Linguine type strips. This is pasta making at its most basic and is often the first choice for pasta newbies. However, there is a lot more that can be achieved and so it is worth perhaps just spending a little time looking at what else you could do with your freshly made pasta dough.
For example, you may decide that you want to shape and stuff your pasta with a filling of your choice. Classic examples are tortellini and ravioli. Both can be shaped either by hand or with the help of some inexpensive tools to help with shaping and crimping the pasta. These are a league apart from the simple linguine but obviously more advanced and will take longer to prepare (but worth it!).
Another option worth trying is colouring and flavouring your pasta. This involves making a small adjustment to the ingredients by introducing an additional ingredient to add colour, texture and taste. Typical examples are spinach, squid ink and beetroot. There are so many options that I can’t list them all here but it is worth investigating and we have a special post all about this. I have even seen pasta made with nettles, resulting in a rich green pasta absolutely bursting with goodness. Adding ingredients to create colour, taste and texture is not particularly difficult but does make your dish stand out from the rest. The resulting pasta can then be cut into strips, shapes or stuffed in the normal way.
The ingredients that are used to make fresh pasta are flour and eggs and optionally salt. This is leads to one of the most puzzling aspects of making homemade pasta. With just two main ingredients you would be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. How can it be difficult? Well, of course it doesn’t have to be difficult. There are simple recipes that if followed carefully with the right amount of liquid and the right type of flour will produce excellent results every time. It’s just that there are so many ways in which to vary the recipes to produce desirable results that it is worth just considering the variables at play.
Firstly, there is the flour. Now the classic Italian flour used for every day pasta is known in Italy and in some other countries as ‘00’ flour. The Italians use a scale of 00 to 04 to indicate the colour of the flours. The colour depends on how much bran and germ have been ‘extracted’ from the flour. The bran and germ are what gives flour its colour. The ‘00’ therefore has had all the bran and germ removed and so is a very white and smooth flour which of course produces silky-smooth pasta that is ideal for many uses. Of course, if you are concerned about the nutritional value of the flour, you may wish to go for a higher grade of flour which will be more course and less white but better for you.
Another quality of this flour its high gluten content. If you are gluten intolerant or suffer from celiac disease then of course this is not suitable for you, but don’t worry, there are many gluten free options for making pasta and we have them covered in a special post. Other than in these special cases, gluten is a key component of the pasta making process. When mixed with the fluid and allowed to stand for a while, Gluten forms bonds at the chemical level. This makes the dough stretchy and springy. It holds the dough together and prevents it from crumbling or falling apart. Gluten is the same ingredient that gives bread dough its properties.
Although ‘00’ flour is very popular for making pasta, there are other options to consider, especially if you can’t get hold of ‘00’ or you want to use a healthier option. Any flour that is described as ‘strong’ contains the required amount of gluten. It may not be as fine and white as the ‘00’ but most flours sold for bread making are perfectly suitable. They contain the right amount of gluten and are milled to a fine degree.
There is also a special type of flour associated with pasta making and this is Durum Wheat flour which is also known as Semolina flour. This flour is very yellow, very course and high in gluten. The ‘00’ to ‘04’ scale does not apply in the case of semolina. If it did it would probably be around ‘08’ given its extreme colour and coarseness. If you have ever bought a fresh pizza and noticed a covering of very yellow course flour in the bottom of the box, this is Semolina flour. Semolina flour is often added to give the pasta (and pizza) a firmer and chewier texture but would not normally be used on its own. Of course, there are no absolute rules and some people have developed recipes that do use 100% semolina flour. In fact, dried pasta is nearly always made with 100% semolina or Durum Wheat flour mixed with just water – no eggs. However, I would argue that this is a special case as the process involved in making the dried pasta is very different and would be difficult to impossible to replicate in the kitchen.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that there are other flours that can be added to the pasta mix such as rice flour, gram flour (chick peas), whole meal flour and many others. Each has unique properties and requires an adjustment in the quantities used and the way these are mixed, due mainly to the reduced gluten available. That said, there are many people who swear that the differences in texture, taste and colour are well worth the extra care in preparation.
As noted previously, dried pasta uses no eggs at all, just water but this is a special case. Most fresh pasta recipes call for an egg mixture. Just as it is possible to use different flour combinations in the making of pasta, it is also possible and in fact normal to use different egg mixes. Once again, don’t panic as the basic pasta dough recipe will be simple to use. However, it is useful to understand that there are many variations in the egg mixture. For example, some recipes use more egg yolks than egg whites which produces a very rich taste and yellow appearance. Other recipes call for less yolks which has a corresponding effect on the taste and colour. The choice depends ultimately on what type of sauce it will be combined with and the type of flour. A light and delicate tasking sauce calls for a simple pasta whereas a red meat sauce requires more body and character to compete with the flavours of the sauce. Once again, there are no absolute rules when it comes to making fresh pasta but it is useful to know that these options do exists and will make a significant improvement when used in the right sauce or filling combination.
The basic pasta dough method
Mixing pasta dough is relatively straight forward once you have decided which ingredients (type of flour, eggs mixture) and amounts you are to use.
Combining the Ingredients
Either using a mixing bowl or a flat board, make a well with the flour and add the egg mixture to the middle. You can either whisk the eggs prior to adding to the flour or alternatively mix in situ with the flour as some prefer to do. It makes no difference and is entirely your choice. If you are a newbie I would suggest pre-whisking the eggs and using a bowl – just to be safe. Using a folk or your fingers, mix the eggs and the flour slowly until everything is combined. Start to knead the dough until you have a single large lump of pasta dough. If you have a food mixer you can bend the ingredients until the mixture looks like fine bread crumbs. Then, simply empty on a board and bring together into single large lump of pasta dough. If you feel that the mixture is too dry and crumbly add a drop of water a little at a time until you are happy with the results. Alternatively, if the mixture is too wet, add a little flour a bit at a time until you are happy with the results.
Kneading the Dough
If you have been using a bowl to mix the ingredients so far, place the single lump of pasta dough on to a floured flat surface and start to knead. This stage is extremely important as is allows the gluten to start doing its work. The more kneading that takes place the more springy and chewy will be the final product. It is hard work and should take about 10 minutes to do properly. Eventually, the pasta dough will come together into a smooth ball of dough. Not too sticky and not too dry.
Proving the Dough
When you have finished kneading the dough, wrap in cling film making sure to completely cover the pasta dough (otherwise it will dry out and go hard and crusty) and place in the fridge to rest for at least 30 minutes. Whilst in the fridge the gluten will continue to work and improve the dough.
Determine the thickness required
This next stage is all about rolling your pasta dough and it is perhaps the most challenging. In Italy, the (usually) ladies who regularly make pasta work on large tables with very long rolling pins and are experts in rolling the pasta to just the right thickness without it breaking apart in the process. The thickness you are aiming for depends on what you intend to do with it. If you are making pasta for tagliatelle, lasagne, linguini etc. then you need to aim for a thickness between a beer matt and a playing card (a useful gauge suggested by Jaimie Oliver). If you intend to stuff your pasta then you will need to make it even thinner and almost translucent.
Rolling the Pasta Dough by Hand
Whether you are rolling by hand or with the help of a pasta maker (sheeter) you will need to divide the single lump of pasta dough into several pieces no larger than a desert apple in size. This will make it much easier to work with and will also require a smaller working area. Place the dough on a floured work surface and press into a flat shape with your hand. If you are rolling by hand now is the time to start rolling. You will be aiming for a circular shape. Make sure the dough doesn’t stick to the surface. Keep turning over and rolling until you reach the desired thickness.
Conditioning the Pasta when using a pasta Maker
If you are using a pasta maker (sheeter) you first need to condition the pasta. If you were rolling by hand this would be achieved by the roller but with a pasta maker you still need to condition the pasta. What this means is that you will roll the pasta through the machine at the widest setting and then again at the next setting down (thinner). Fold the pasta dough and then repeat the above six or seven times. This process helps to improve or condition the pasta and you will see the pasta become smooth and shiny.
Rolling the Pasta Dough with a Pasta maker
Having conditioned your pasta in the pasta maker, it is time to begin the actual rolling process. The idea is to start at the widest setting and work downwards until you reach the desired thickness. As the pasta becomes thinner it will also become wider and so every so often you will need to fold the pasta into the desired shape and increase the roller width before working down through the various settings. Don’t forget to sinkly flour between rolling to prevent it sticking.
Shaping and Cutting
When your pasta sheets are finally ready, you need to be ready to shape or cut straight away. Otherwise, the pasta sheets will dry out quickly. To give yourself a bit more time you can lay your pasta sheets over a damp clean tea towel. Work in batches so that you roll your pasta followed by cutting, shaping and if necessary stuffing your pasta before starting again rolling your next piece.
Drying, Freezing and Storing Pasta
Once you have created your finished product, whether shaped or stuffed, you can leave to dry for use later in the day or longer. The trick with drying pasta is to make sure it doesn’t stick to each other and so a pasta hanger is ideal. This is an inexpensive device consisting of a stand with horizontal arms protruding outwards, over which you can hang your pasta. For stuffed pasta, you can simply lay out on a flat surface such as a baking tray. Sprinkle with flour and turn occasionally to avoid sticking and to allow for even drying. After 12-24 hours the pasta should be dry enough to store.
You can also freeze freshly made pasta. Place the baking tray containing the fresh pasta into the freezer for 15 minutes. Take out of the freezer and make sure that the pasta is not sticking to each other. Transfer to freezer bags and place back into the freezer for up to three months until you need it.
Making Homemade fresh pasta dough is both satisfying and easy. I hope that in reading this article you now have a better understanding of the process and the options available to you. Start simple and then after you have gained confidence, why not experiment with different flours and combinations. In this site, you will find lots of articles to help you on your journey. Please let us know what you think and how you got on by adding a comment.