Shaped Pasta Basics: Think Outside the Box
Pasta comes in an infinite number of shapes and sizes and whether the shapes are straight or curvy, hollow or solid, flat or raised, they all have one thing in common--they have been designed to hold onto sauce so that it does not drip off before the pasta reaches your mouth. Shaped pastas are generally extruded from a special machine that uses different dies to form and cut each individual shape. Die cut pasta is more often sold dried than fresh because the individual pieces are often somewhat thick and heavy and if sold fresh would get crushed by their own weight and stick together.
Shapes Add Texture, Variety to a Chef's Repertoire
Each shape has a different texture and mouth feel and the pasta actually used is often determined by this. The smallest shapes, such as orzo, a rice shaped pasta, are often used in soups. Long ribbons are often used with light sauces or simple olive oil preparations. Smaller, bite sized shapes are frequently used in baked dishes, such as casseroles, in pasta salads, or for children because they are easier to pick up than long noodles. Some shapes look the same, but vary in size. These different sized shapes are often used for completely different preparations. Pasta shells are a good example. At their smallest, sometimes no larger than a pea before they are cooked, they are used in broth or hearty soups. As they increase in size, they are used for dishes such as macaroni and cheese and when they are quite large, they are used for stuffed shells.
Shaped Pasta - What a Mouthful!
It is difficult to keep track of all of the pasta names because there are so many and they are often pronounced quite similarly. Some shapes are named after animals such as farfalle (butterflies), lumaconi (giant snails), and creste di galli (cockscombs). Some pasta shapes are named after industrial items such as fusilli (corkscrews) and radiatori, which resemble small radiators or grills. And still other shapes have somewhat odd names such as orecchiette which resemble and are named for little ears and perhaps the strangest, strozzapreti, which means "priest strangler." They are about 3 inches long and are rolled lengthwise into a shape that resembles a rolled towel. While certain pastas are often used for specific preparations, like lasagna or cannelloni, the pasta actually used is most often left up to the whim of the chef.