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What you should know about Pasta

Pasta Today

It is estimated that Italians eat over 27kg of pasta per person, per year, easily. This love of pasta in Italy far outstrips the large durum wheat production of the country; therefore Italy must import most of the wheat it uses for pasta. Today pasta is everywhere and can be found in dried (pasta secca) and fresh (pasta fresca) varieties depending on what the recipes call for.

The main problem with pasta today is the use of mass production to fill a huge worldwide demand. And while pasta is made everywhere, the product from Italy keeps to time-tested production methods that create a superior pasta.

Dried Pasta

There are roughly 300 different shapes and varieties of dried pasta in Italy, even more counting regional differences. Shapes range from simple tubes like Penne to bow ties (Farfalle, which actually means “butterfly”), to unique shapes like Cuori Pasta (heart-shaped). Many, but not all of these types, are usually available wherever pasta is made. By Italian law dried pasta must be made with 100% durum semolina flour and water, a practice that all but the worst quality pasta makers worldwide have since adhered to. However there are two factors in dried pasta from Italy that make it typically better than most other products: extrusion and drying methods.

Dried pasta, especially the more complex shapes are designed for grabbing and holding onto sauces. Dried tube pasta (like Penne) often has ridges or slight abrasions on the surface to hold onto the pasta sauce as well. These ridges and bumps are created during the extrusion process, when the pasta is forced from a copper mold and cut to desired length before drying. These molds, while expensive and prone to wear, are favoured for making the best dried pasta. However most producers worldwide use steel molds that produce pasta that is too smooth to hold onto sauce.

After the pasta is cut it must be dried using a process of specific temperatures and times. This is another area where mass produced pasta falls short of good Italian pasta made the correct way. The mass produced pastas are dried at very high temperatures for a shorter time than quality pasta. Traditional pasta is allowed to dry slower, up to 50 hours at a much lower temperature. It is after the pasta is fully dried that it is packaged. The result is a product with a much better mouth-feel, quicker cooking time, and superior sauce holding pasta.

Fresh Pasta

Essentially all pasta starts out as fresh pasta but some is made to be eaten “soft”. Fresh pasta can be made with slightly different ingredients than the dried variety. Many northern regions of Italy use all-purpose flour and eggs while southern Italy usually makes theirs from semolina and water but it depends upon the recipe.

Serving pasta that is made fresh that day shows a great deal of care in preparation and a high level of pride in the household’s culinary skills. (Learn how to make your own with Clothildes Ladolcevita cooking classes) However, fresh pasta is not inherently better than dried pasta, it is just different and is used in different situations. Some types of pasta are served only fresh, others only dried and some others can have fresh and dried versions. It is in this case that it can be argued that fresh is better than dried pasta. Fresh pasta has been made in households throughout Italy for generations but the region of Emilia-Romagna has the reputation of making the best. Here fresh pasta is often served with cream sauces or a simple sauce of butter and sage while light tomato sauces are reserved for the summer months. Following the simple but important rule of using fresh local ingredients, the Piedmontese people serve their fresh pasta with a butter sauce covered with slices of decadent local black truffles. (Get yours from Sabatino Tartufi) Wherever you are in Italy, being served fresh homemade pasta is a real treat as you can be assured that the pasta was made that day and will have a taste that will make you rethink notions of what good pasta is.

Buying and Cooking Pasta

When buying either fresh or dried pasta, look for a well-made brand that uses the best ingredients such as only semolina flour for dried pasta. (Shop yours here) The pasta should have a rough surface and not too smooth, as smooth pasta will not hold onto sauce. The pasta should be compact and heavy for their size in order to stay together when cooking. Remember to stay away from mass-produced cheap pasta, you will just be disappointed come dinner time. And, remember not to overcook your pasta, the world’s greatest sauce cannot save mushy pasta.

When it comes to sauces it is really up to personal preference unless you are trying to follow a traditional recipe. A good rule is to remember simple pasta works best with simple sauces while complex shaped pastas are ideal for thicker sauces. There is no shortage of great pasta and sauce combinations and each is worth trying.

However, it is important that you use high quality pasta cooked properly to ensure authentic flavours.

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