Update on dried pasta
On my radio slot with Jesse Mulligan on Radio NZ last week I took in three samples of pasta to try and explain why it is worth buying Italian pasta rather than the cheapest brand on offer, which will most definitely not be Italian. I took in a locally made brand, an inexpensive Italian brand and a top of the line Italian brand. The cheapest pasta was translucent and very smooth. I can tell you that sauce slides off it. The every-day affordable Italian brand feels like soft suede, with some texture to it. Sauce sticks to it. But top-of-the-line Italian pasta is another step up. The pasta feels like suede, and you can see the texture. Sauce adheres beautifully. You also get more volume from a good brand of pasta when it is cooked. So ditch the cheapie stuff and go Italian.
Plenty of bang for your buck
Fresh and dried pasta are different beasts and it needs to be said that neither one is superior to the other. What’s the difference?
Good dried pasta – by that I mean Italian dried pasta made with hard durum wheat (semolina) – is an amazing product that will do duty for many meals. It has a long shelf-life so makes a useful pantry staple, it’s versatile and cheap, can be stretched to feed a few extra mouths when necessary, and it can make a few quality ingredients go a long way. It is made with durum wheat and water, nothing else. You will also find dried ‘egg’ pasta, that is pasta made with durum wheat and eggs, sometimes with water added, which makes a creamier cooked pasta.
Quality dried pasta is extruded through bronze dies and dried slowly in drying chambers. The texture is like worn suede, if you can imagine that, not smooth, not furry but somewhere in between. That texture attracts sauce ensuring each mouthful of pasta is coated with it. Nude noodles and leftover slush in a pasta bowl is not the intention: the two, pasta and sauce, must embrace each other, though not stick to each other or become tacky; and they should belong together – choosing the right shape for the sauce is key. (This requires a deeper explanation I’ll cover another time, but for now, think chunky sauces with bulky pasta, creamy or thinnish sauces with noodles … but even as I write this I know there are too many variations to make a rule because it is often more to do with weight and richness!).
However, quick and slick is often the name of the game. Noodles run through Teflon-coated machines – a faster and cheaper method – are smoother and don’t pick up as much sauce. And artisan pasta producers would have us believe that such pastas don’t have as much ‘bouff’ as their products, and I agree with them: you get more bulk out of a traditionally made dried pasta than you do out of those at the cheaper end of the scale. Well-made pasta (durum wheat, dried slowly), not only doubles or trebles in bulk after cooking, but it will also hold its shape. Many of us will have looked despairingly into a pot of fraying pasta shapes thinking we’ve stuffed it up, when it is attributable to poorly-made pasta. Of course, pasta should be cooked no more than ‘firm to the bite’ (al dente), providing a framework for the sauce to adhere to, not a soft unpalatable mush and the cooking water should boil gently not furiously.
Fresh pasta made with flour and egg is usually cooked soon after making, while it is still soft.
It is more tender and delicate than dried pasta, and can have a wonderfully silky texture, depending on the flour used. Cook fresh pasta more gently than dried, because fast boiling will cause it to break apart, and cook for 1-2 minutes only, or just until al dente.
In some cases, the pasta is dried, or partially dried before cooking. This is easy enough to do with noodles or rough-cut shapes (‘rag’ pasta) on a wooden board or large tray but the pasta needs constant turning over to ensure it is drying evenly. It’s essential to keep it lightly dusted with a 50-50 ratio of flour (Tipo 00 or High Grade) and semolina to stop sticking until it is dry. Noodles and long sheets for lasagne can be draped over a drying rack so air circulates freely as they dry. As the pasta dries it will start to feel leathery. If you are drying noodles you need to remove them from drying racks before they become brittle, otherwise, with one little knock they will snap and fall off the drying rack. Once they are leathery finish the drying by leaving them on a wooden board or tray and turning them a couple of times a day until they are completely dry. They can then be stored air-tight (use within 1-2 months). Why dry fresh pasta? It means you can make it in advance and it is easier to cook than when soft and fresh, especially if making in bulk. If the pasta is partially dried, it will take a few minutes’ more, and if it is completely dry, it may take 7-10 minutes to cook to al dente.
Stuffed pasta shapes like tortelli or tortellini must be cooked soon after making, especially if they contain meat, or they can be frozen on trays, popped into a bag, sealed and frozen for several months. Don’t thaw before cooking or they will become sticky – cook from frozen.
‘Fresh’ pastas with a shelf-life of more than 2 days are a modern wonder. Why does the flour not ferment? (Read the ingredients!). Typically, these ‘fresh’ pastas have slick shiny surfaces and sauces don’t adhere to them as well as they do to traditionally made fresh pasta (pasta without additives, stabilisers, without CHEMICALS), and they often feel slimy in the mouth. Seriously, pasta is such a simple food, made with so few ingredients, and it is best left unadulterated. Good Italian dried pasta is a better food than one made with additives masquerading as fresh.
I don’t like to make rules, but this is something that I have observed and I use it as a guide: dried pasta generally suits sauces based on olive oil and fresh pasta those based on cream and butter. Oh, but yes, there are many exceptions! I think I can say that fresh pasta absorbs more sauce than dried. Generally. Ha! But the variations and possibilities are as long as a piece of string.