Pasta Perfection

Pasta Making
March 14th 2019

by Vicki Reich

It never ceases to amaze me that the most delicious and eye-appealing food can be made from the simplest ingredients. Fresh tomato slices with mozzarella cheese and bits of fresh basil makes my mouth water (and wish it was summer already; enough with this everlasting cold). Egg whites whipped to peaks with a bit of sugar then baked to golden brown goodness make melt-in your-mouth meringues come to mind.   But the simplest and most versatile combination of ingredients I can think of is flour and water.

Mix flour and water together and let it sit around for a day or two and you can bake it into bread. Roll the dough out into a disc and you can fry it into flat breads.   Roll it out even thinner, cut it into any shape that suits your fancy, throw it in some boiling water for a few minutes, and you’ve got pasta.

Pasta, noodles, mein, itriya, or whatever you want to call it, is a simple food with endless possibilities.

Before I go into the history and chemistry of pasta, I’ve got to clear up some terminology. Noodle, which derives from the German word nudel, is used to describe strips or shapes of unleavened dough made from any ingredient. Pasta, on the other hand, is very specific about its ingredients. Pasta is a noodle that must be made from wheat. And in Italy, from whence the name derives, pasta must be made from durum wheat

Now that that’s all cleared up, let’s move on.

Noodles were invented at least 2000 years ago. There is still heated debate about which region developed them first: China, Italy or the Middle East. China seems to be ahead in the race and the fairly recent discovery of intact 4000 year old millet noodles clinched the deal for me. The Chinese were also the first to invent filled noodles and have perfected the technique of making glass-like noodles out of pure starch.

Although it is possible to make noodles out of any starch or grain, as evidenced by those very old millet noodles, wheat is the preferred base ingredient. Any type of wheat will make pasta but durum wheat has some distinct chemical advantages.

Egg and whear flourDurum wheat is high in gluten content and that gluten is less elastic than wheat used to make bread. The gluten protein is necessary to create the cohesiveness needed to bond the flour together and yet let it retain some flexibility to be rolled and stretched into all those wonderful shapes. Because durum wheat is less elastic, the dough doesn’t fight back as much (and those of you who have ever rolled out bread dough only to have it spring back to its original shape once you stop rolling know what I’m talking about). This allows the dough to be rolled into long thin sheets with a bit more ease.

The process of making pasta is relatively easy. The flour and water are combined, kneaded for a bit to form a stiff dough and then allowed to rest. During this rest period, water is absorbed into the flour and the gluten network begins to form. The dough is then repeatedly rolled out, expelling air bubbles and aligning and elongating the protein fibers. The dough is then cut or extruded into the desired shape.

When the pasta hits the boiling water, the well-organized protein network begins to break down and water is absorbed into the structure. The starch molecules within the protein matrix begin to swell, and some of the starch is released into the water. The outer layer absorbs water and becomes soft while the inner layer stays a bit firmer. These days pasta is considered done or al dente just before the inner layer begins to absorb water (our crazy ancestors cooked it for up to an hour).

Although cooking the pasta seems like the most straightforward part of the process, there is heated debate about the right way to do it. Most cookbooks advise you to use a large pot with boiling water equal to ten times the weight of the pasta you are cooking. This allows plenty of water for the pasta to absorb, with some left over to dilute the starch it releases. Adding salt can reduce the amount of starch lost to the water and prevent stickiness as can adding some type of acid. Oil is added to prevent the individual strands from sticking together but this can be done by making sure to stir the noodles for the first few minute of cooking.

Recently I’ve throw all that advise out the window and I’ve been cooking my pasta in just enough salted water to cover the noodles. I start out with cold water and bring water and noodles to a boil together. The results taste just like pasta albeit a bit more starchy (which you don’t notice once it’s tossed with sauce) and I cut the cooking time in half and save all that water and energy (I must give credit to my food chemistry idol, Harold McGee, for questioning the age old tradition of all that water).

Although I love the simplicity of pasta, it’s the endless variations it offers that fascinate me. Sure you can mix flour and water together, roll it out and cut it into strips and call it pasta. But you can also add eggs or herbs or squid ink to change its consistency, flavor and color. You can wrap it around a meat or cheese filling and form it into a triangle, a half moon, a tube, or a purse. You can extrude it through a die into simple spaghetti or complex little noodles shaped like radiators or wagon wheels. You can make it and dry it to store for a year or you can toss it directly in the pot and have dinner ready in minutes. And then there are the endless varieties of sauce you can top it all with… I guess it’s not really all that simple.

Fresh Egg Pasta
enough for two generous portions

6 oz. all purpose flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten

3 T butter
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 T. chopped fresh herbs (oregano, basil, thyme, and sage all work well)

Place the flour in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and add the egg. Gradually stir the flour into the egg. Once the flour is all incorporated, turn the dough out onto the counter and kneed until the dough is smooth. Let it rest covered for 10 minutes.

Divide the dough into small balls, about 3 inches in diameter. Working one at a time and keeping the other balls covered, roll out the dough on a floured work surface with a rolling pin or pasta rolling machine. Keep the dough well floured to prevent sticking. When the dough is as thin as you can get it or on the last setting of the rolling machine, cut it into the desired shape and set on a rack while you roll and cut the remaining dough.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the pasta and cook for about 5 minutes or until done.

Meanwhile, heat the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. When the foam subsides, add the garlic and cook until softened and fragrant.

Drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Add the melted garlic butter and chopped herbs. Toss and serve.