Pasta Basics: A Beginner's Guide

What is Pasta?

Pasta is made using many different types of flours and flavorings, and comes in a variety of shapes and forms. The most common pasta comes from Italy and Europe and is made from semolina flour, made from a hard wheat called durum. Some other types of flour used to make pasta in other countries are: spelt, whole wheat, quinoa, rice, potato, soybean, buckwheat, chickpea, yam and sweet potato.

Pasta is popular in many cultures, although the origin of pasta is a heavily disputed topic. Many believe that the Etruscans invented pasta in 400 BC. Others believe that pasta was invented by the Chinese long before the Etruscans and brought to Europe by Marco Polo. Despite its origins, pasta is practically ubiquitous today and while it is most commonly associated with Italy, it is eaten worldwide.

Types of Pasta

  • Fettuccini: This is a classic flat ribbon shaped pasta with a long noodle length. This pasta is great with any sauce but is most classically known creamy dishes like Fettuccini Alfredo.
  • Ziti: This is a medium sized tube shape pasta with a hallow center. This pasta is great with most sauces, but the heartier the sauce the better as it will get scooped up inside the tubes and will often provide a very flavorful mouthful.
  • Farfalle: This pasta is great for finicky kids because of its distinct bowtie shape. This pasta is fun to eat and look at on your plate! It can be made with any type of sauce and is perfect in different pasta salad recipes.
  • Penne: This shape of noodle has a quill shape to it and is one of the more classic pasta shapes. This pasta can be paired with any sauce and can be used in most dishes, but is most well known when topped with thicker sauces with chunky ingredients like meat or vegetables.
  • Fusilli: The shape of this noodle is twisted spirals and is considered one of the more unique shapes of pasta. This pasta is great with any sauce, used in casserole dishes, used to make salad dishes and even some soups and stews.
  • Rigatoni: The shape of this pasta is a large tube with ridges on the outer surface. Because this pasta has a hearty shape, it can be made served with thick sauces that are cream based or chunky with meat, vegetables or other ingredients.
  • Elbow macaroni: This type of pasta is small and has a rounded curved tube shape to it. Elbow macaroni can be used in a variety of dishes like soups, salads, used in baked pasta dishes and of course is always used in the classic dish macaroni and cheese.
  • Spaghetti: This pasta has a string or strand-like shape and is made from sheets of pasta that have been rolled out very thin and cut into a specific width, and pushed through the small holes of a special machine to make pastas like spaghetti. This type of pasta is best used with light, smooth sauces that don't have large chunks in them. The best choice is a sauce that coats all of the pasta strands evenly and clings to them.

How to Cook Pasta

Cooking pasta is very easy, but certain procedures ensure perfectly cooked pasta each time. Here are some tips to keep in mind when cooking pasta:

  • Pasta needs to be cooked in the proper amount of boiling water, in a vessel large enough to allow it room to expand as it cooks.
  • Oil should never be added to pasta water because sauces will slide off the pasta.
  • Pasta water should always be generously salted because pasta dough is typically made with very little salt.
  • It is crucial to stir the pasta immediately upon being placed in the water and then occasionally while it cooks, to prevent it from clumping together and to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pot.
  • Pasta that is going to be eaten right away should be cooked to al dente, meaning it's still a bit firm.
  • When the pasta is done, you can shock cooked pasta in ice water or run it under cold water to stop it from cooking immediately. (However, you never want to do this to pasta that is being served immediately because you can rinse away the starch that assists in sauce adhering to the pasta.)

Pasta is extremely versatile and lends itself to many different preparations and accompaniments. It is sold both dried and fresh, with advantages to both.

Dried Pasta

  • Can be stored indefinitely and when it is cooked
  • Has a solid bite and dense texture
  • Lends itself to well to hearty sauces
  • Typically takes 10-20 minutes to cook

Fresh Pasta

  • Is very light and silky
  • Cooks very quickly, often in 3-5 minutes
  • Is best with lighter sauces that do not overpower its delicate flavor and texture
  • Can only be stored for about a week in the refrigerator
  • Freezes quite well and in most cases does not need to be thawed before it is added to the boiling water

Pasta dough can be flavored with anything from black pepper to squid ink or it can be made plain and then stuffed with different ingredients. Shaped pasta is designed to grab and hold onto sauce and often has ridges or grooves on the outside, which aids in holding the sauce better. Fresh pasta is more tender than dried pasta and cooks much more quickly. Dried pasta tends to be a little chewier and holds up better to heartier preparations such as ragu sauces and cream sauces whereas fresh pasta holds up better with simple sauces and additions.

About the Author

Daniella Malfitano is a chef, entrepreneur, author of six digital cookbooks (available on and Amazon and iTunes), TV host and creator of the PBS television series "Delicious Discoveries with Daniella Malfitano" and educator for her traveling cooking and wellness company Delicious Discoveries. Daniella is always available for cooking demos, culinary workshops, public speaking engagements as well as culinary consulting, culinary business development, and brand ambassador partnerships with brands that are in alignment with her passion for local, healthy food. Daniella's passion and enthusiasm for food is contagious and it is evident in everything that she does! For more information visit www.daniellamalfitano.com or email info@daniellamalfitano.com.

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