FoodFacts: PASTA

RER 9.10.12
Who doesn’t love pasta? It’s filling, it’s fun, it’s beautiful, it’s a blank canvas. It’s easy!

Pasta, made of some of the most simple ingredients, comes in a large foray of different shapes and sizes, each having its own benefits, whether cooking or aesthetic. Pasta is another one of those things that has a huge history, all around the world. Though we are very familiar with pasta in the Italian repertoire, pasta has a history in Asia, starting in China, spreading to Korea, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Unlike the Italian variety (more later) the East Asian noodles are made from wheat, rice, buckwheat or mung bean starch.[1] If you love the flexibility of pasta, but don’t enjoy the calories, you can even try tofu noodles; lower carbohydrates and calorie count, like shirataki noodles. [2]

Making pasta, of the Italian variety, is not rocket science either. All it requires is eggs, flour, salt, olive oil and water, depending on whose recipe you use. There are so many recipes for fresh pasta, making it even more flexible. Each one of these ingredients is readily available almost anywhere. There are two general methods of making pasta. One would be the preference of Alton Brown; creating a small bowl with the measured amount of flour, and adding the wet ingredients to the flour via the created bowl. This involves mixing with your two fingers as Alton Brown mentioned in “Good Eats: Think With Your Noodle II.”[3] Mixing allows for the dough to take on as much of the flour as it needs. You know when to stop adding flour when the dough comes together to a paste, kind of like a sticky and heavy ball.

The other method is the way demonstrated by Giada De Laurentiis, via a food processor, where the flour (a mixture of all purpose and cake flour) is combined with your egg yolks (in her recipe’s case) and much more olive oil… pulse pulse pulse, and then slowly add water as you are mixing. Even here the dough needs to be kneaded some and collected to create a ball.[4]

Both methods, after refrigeration, waiting, messing around with the dough and a fancy pasta machine or rolling pin, and cooking, culminate in fresh, homemade pasta.

The science of pasta. When preparing fresh pasta, most people use unbleached all-purpose flour as Mary from the blog Food Science Secrets, mentions. She divulges that unbleached flour is a “nice blend of high and low gluten wheat.” Gluten is the element that gives the pasta dough its elasticity. This elasticity makes the dough pliable and is necessary to roll the dough and create the thin sheets essential to making great pasta. [5] Even kneading the dough creates further elasticity through gluten development. Mary also reveals that more water or moisture induces gluten development. The more gluten the more elastic, the more the dough can be elongated, and the easier it is to shape and mold. It also keeps the cooked pasta tender and delicious.[6]

Even though the ingredients are pretty simple, and the process is either archaic as the case with the flour bowl, or the tech savvy food processors, sometimes the tools look a little more complicated. Giada De Laurentiis has a fancy attachment to her mixer, but Alton Brown and his friend W in “Good Eats: Think With Your Noodle II,” educate us on the wide range of countertop contraptions that help to create pasta. The one that seems to be the most commonly used involves a rotating handle, that helps guide the pasta through the machine to knead it. What happens is the dough is brought through the machine, starting with a wide width. The width is decreased at every pass, until it is thin. Between each pass fold the dough to create three layers, and press lightly to kind of seal it. Each pass the dough should be getting thinner and longer. If the dough gets too long, cut it in half so the noodles in the end are not too long. Next, unless making filled pasta, use the pasta cutter attachment on the machine, to create desired noodle widths. [7] Mary from Food Science Secrets mentions to let the freshly cut pasta dry for about thirty minutes. [8]

Homemade pasta has a completely different feeling than bought pasta, even than the pasta that is in a refrigerated section called “Fresh” pasta. It lies in the mouth differently. As Giada De Laurentiis says, it is something special, and it will make the person eating the pasta feel special.[9] It takes work, and moderate skill, and time… most of all time. All of these things give it an edge. Not only that, but the taste is so much better. It feels real, not only through the process and the ingredients, but the weight in the mouth. Making pasta eliminates the mystery of dried pasta from the grocery store (at least for me anyway).

As it turns out, that dried pasta in the boxes in the supermarket are made of a different kind of flour than that used in our fresh pastas. It begins as a paste, which is made from durum wheat, which is a high protein wheat, and water. This paste gets much tougher than the fresh pasta, because it lacks the fat of the eggs.[10] This hard paste is then made into thin sheets or extruded (pushed through a mold) into various fun and decorative shapes.[11]

The number of shapes that pasta comes in is overwhelming. Being that they are all made of the same ingredients (for the most part, unless you are dealing with whole wheat or gluten free), you would think they are all created equal. Aren’t they all the same. Different shapes do different things. Tubular pastas are great for casseroles, because the stuffings (cheeses or sauces) can go right through, creating pockets of deliciousness. Wide flat pastas, like pappardelle or even fettuccine, lap up the juices in the sauces differently than thinner pastas, like spaghetti or angel hair, which absorb while being completely coated. There are also more decorative pasta shapes like cavatelli or farfalle, which add a certain kind of aesthetic.

With so many possibilities, and endless combinations, homemade pasta is a great recipe and technique to have in your arsenal. Pasta can be dressed up (fresh/homemade) or dressed down (dried), but somehow it always brings a smile. How about trying either Giada De Laurentiis or AltonBrown’s recipe to impress your company and your belly!

Don't forget to check out my source page for more reading about pasta!
JAR 9.10.12

[1] Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pasta
[2] http://www.house-foods.com/tofu/tofu_shirataki.aspx
[3] Alton Brown, “Good Eats: Think With Your Noodle II” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9r4ZUdIomsc
[4] Giada De Laurentiis, Food Network http://www.foodnetwork.com/videos/homemade-pasta/63844.html
[5] Mary Frances, “Food Science Secrets: Oodles of Noodles” http://foodsciencesecrets.com/?p=875
[6] Mary Frances, “Food Science Secrets: Homemade Tortellini and Gluten Development” http://foodsciencesecrets.com/?p=1346
[7] Jessica Harlan “ How to Use a Pasta Machine to Make Homemade Pasta” http://cookingequipment.about.com/od/eqipmenttutorials/ss/pasta.htm
[8] Mary Frances, “Food Science Secrets: Oodles of Noodles” http://foodsciencesecrets.com/?p=875
[9] Giada De Laurentiis, Homemade Pasta for Food Network http://www.foodnetwork.com/videos/homemade-pasta/63844.html
[10] Alton Brown, “Good Eats: Think With Your Noodle II” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9r4ZUdIomsc
[11] Mary Frances, “Food Secret Science: Shapin’ Up” http://foodsciencesecrets.com/?p=952


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