Besides blogging, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to moderate some of our popular virtual cooking classes. If you haven’t taken one yet, they are a fun opportunity to cook together with one of our chefs via Zoom. The best part is that since these are done live, you also have the freedom to ask questions as you cook along.
The one recurring question I hear during our classes is concerning pasta shapes and deciphering how to make substitutions that will be successful in a recipe.
There are people who say “pasta is pasta” and it doesn’t matter. To those people I say, not exactly. Actually, I usually go on a pasta shape soapbox and give a speech on the importance of pasta shape and sauce pairings. (Personally, I feel this should be taught in grade school but alas it is often overlooked for things like reading and math.)
Unless you are a linguist, fluent in Italian or a master of etymology, trying to make substitutions by name can be a challenge. So, let’s take this by the first basic concept most of us learn in life…. shapes.
Understanding simple pasta shapes is the key to making the easiest pasta substitutions.
Pastas that have some length to them are really fun to play with. Think of when you twirl the pasta on your fork.... you want the sauce to adhere to the pasta naturally and not wading in a pool on your plate. Tomato sauces, carbonara or Cacio e Pepe are probably my favorite go to sauces for anything long. But there is also a difference in long pastas.
Long (Skinny Pasta) = Lighter Sauces
Long and skinny pastas are things like spaghetti, angel hair and linguine. These delicate strands of gold should be paired with lighter sauces that will cling and coat each strand without hiding the actual taste and texture of the pasta.
Long (Wider Pasta) = Heavier Sauces
Long ribbons are thick and hearty so they are your go to for a deep rich meaty sauce or a heavy cream sauce. Think of shapes like fettuccine or pappardelle partnered with a creamy Alfredo.
Twists or Ruffles
Twists and ruffles are extremely versatile. If you have a light smooth sauce filled with herbs (like pesto), a spiral will hug every nuance of the sauce. You want sauce embedded into every curve.
There is also the mindset that there is a neat textural duality of twists and ruffles. You have thin and thicker parts all in one shape. This allows a stronger base to hold things like a hearty, meaty ragu.
Fusilli (corkscrews), farfalle (butterflies, bowties), cavatappi (helical tube) and rotini (a tighter corkscrew) are few examples.
I also like a twist/ruffle in a pasta salad. It grabs onto dressings better so you avoid the cold, dry abyss of flavor that flatter shapes tend to produce in a cold pasta salad.
Mini Shapes = Soups
Mini shapes are my guilty pleasure. The other week one of our bloggers wrote about grown up Spaghetti O’s and that kind of recipe screams for a mini shape. Ditalini, orzo and even alphabet noodles are other great choices for soups and even a whimsical pasta salad.
I feel mini shapes work best if you cut any accompanying ingredients to match the size of the noodles. A smaller noodle in something like an Italian soup is a beautiful thing when you scoop up a bite and get lost in all of the flavors melding together. See the size difference between a “little thimble” in the ditale family (top) and some orzo (bottom.). Both are great options but require a little thought as to how they will be received on your spoon.
Shells and Tubes = Baked Dishes
Shells and tubes are your heavy hitters. Penne, elbow macaroni, ziti, and orecchiette (ears) are some of the best options when you have a heavy meaty or chunky vegetable type of sauce. They are also my choice for a baked pasta dish.
This is “stick a fork” in it pasta. You expect each bite to have sauce inside and out. The pasta should hold its shape no matter what sauce you tie together with it.
Filled Pastas = Complimentary Sauce to Filling
Tortellini and ravioli saucing are probably the most personally controversial sauced pasta. I feel in a filled pasta, you want the filling to be the star. If you douse it with so much sauce that the diner can’t tell what was in the filling versus what was in the sauce defeats the purpose. This is the one pasta shape where you want to compliment the fillings and not necessary combine all the flavors together.
I like a light brown butter sauce with fresh herbs or a smooth delicate tomato sauce on my filled pastas. That’s what is great about cooking at home, you make what you like.
If you do just happen to want a heavier sauce, put a dollop on the plate and nestle your pasta on top. Maybe toss it lightly in a bowl to coat but try to resist hiding the entire thing by putting a gigantic ladle of sauce on top. (Okay, I lied… I do put giant ladles on top sometimes at home but I really do not like to eat it that way when I’m out. I’m a hypocrite.)
There are no rules.
I say that in a cheeky way because obviously if you are trying to cook something that is truly authentic to a recipe or region, it would be nice if we honored it the way it was intended, but we don’t always have the exact ingredient at our fingertips. And that is okay.
Here is the best home cook rule about pasta shapes.... there are no rules. I can’t remember any time in my life where my meal was ruined because the recipe called for penne and I only had shells in the house.
Example: I had to forgo eating angel hair every week during the pandemic because our store didn’t always have it on the shelf. But guess what? The bucatini I used made me just as happy. It was a different mouthfeel but it was still a delicious experience.
There is also the train of thought that a lot of shapes fit multiple categories of sauces. Very true. A lasagna noodle is very long and thick. Most of us only use it in a baked lasagna but it also is a fabulous noodle topped with a rich creamy sauce and seafood.
Pasta Problem Solver
You really can’t go wrong with a recipe as long as you cook your pasta correctly! Pasta is very forgiving.
The top tricks to pasta success are
- Heat your sauce up separately. Generally thinking, pasta should be tossed with sauce that is hot and ready to go. Pasta shouldn’t wait for sauce. Sauce should wait for pasta. (There are some exceptions like carbonara.)
- Cook with enough boiling salted water to keep the pasta moving. (Do you need to taste the sea in your water? Have you ever swallowed ocean water to use that as your reference? I go with 1 Tablespoon of salt to every 2 quarts of water. That is a preference. Find what works for you.)
- Give it a stir. Prevent clumping.
- Follow your package guidelines for timing. Undercooked pasta is always better than overcooked because you have room for correction.
- You can finish cooking in the sauce.
- And please don’t rinse your pasta.
- Save some pasta water! See how murky this water is? That is the starch removed from your pasta during cooking.
- Add your pasta to your sauce and add a little of the pasta water at a time. This easy step helps adhere the sauce to your noodles AND is a nice way to finish cooking your pasta in the sauce.
- Taste again.
Have fun, try new shapes and impulse-buy a quirky shape. We are fortunate to have a place like Eataly in Chicago where you can find any size and structure of pasta you can imagine.
But don’t underestimate the stock at a small independent market like St. Clair's Butcher Shop in South Bend. Places like this tend to source products from Italy or higher quality pastas made with “bronze cut dies” which are the gold standard in pasta extrusion.
The big takeaway from this post is to remind everyone that cooking should be a pleasurable adventure. Don’t stress about always having the right ingredient because you might just miss discovering a new favorite combination.
Do you want to learn more about pastas and sauces? Come join us in Hands-On Pasta Boot Camp on Saturday, April 8 at 10am at Lincoln Square. These classes always sell out fast so I suggest booking early!