I’ve been making pasta by hand for five years, but I’ve been a diehard fan my entire life. When I was kid, I was so well known at summer camp for my love of pasta, the camp cook called me Noodles year after year. I’ll eat ‘em covered in sauce, plain; I’ll eat all shapes and types and ask for seconds. In college, my friend came home with some handmade pasta she got from a farmer’s market and the thought struck me: I could do this.
I started off making pasta with no tools besides a rolling pin, and these days I have a whole setup with different types of gadgets that serve different purposes at different times. Making pasta is really not that hard—it’s basically Play-Doh that you get to eat and share with people. Want to learn? Skip the trial and error and try these tips:
1. Mixing in a Flour Volcano is for People with Serious Patience
From No Recipe Required
Just about every recipe and video you’ll watch features pasta dough being created by pouring eggs into a “flour volcano,” which is basically a mound of flour with a well in it. The chef then gently incorporates flour into the egg mixture a little bit at a time, until the dough is fully formed and sitting there on your counter.
Photo by Dana Balch of Athens Street Style
According to Alton Brown from Good Eats, the reason for this is that the egg only allows as much flour in as it needs—the rest becomes dusting on the table that you can knead with. I started off mixing this way, and it was such a mess. I’m impatient, I go too fast, I almost always broke the volcano and sent eggs spewing all across my counter. If you’re going to do it this way, mix the dough at least on a plate, so if it breaks it still stays in relatively the same spot. I’ve since given up on this method and mix in a bowl. Some pasta aficionados may disagree with this, but I don’t taste a difference in the final product.
2. You Do Not Need Fancy Gadgetry to Make Pasta
Photo by Flickr user atbaker
Pasta existed in Italy long before the pasta machine did. It’s tougher to do without a machine, but more satisfying when you get it right. For one, you have to use the rolling pin as evenly as possible, and keep the outside of the dough relatively well dusted so it doesn’t stick to the table. I would roll the dough out, flip it over and roll it the other way, and repeat until it was very very thin. At that point, you can dust the dough one more time and fold it on itself until it’s pretty skinny. Cut the pasta with a knife and pull the strands apart.
Alternately, if you have it, a pizza cutter works wonders. I started by using a plastic ruler to keep my hand straight.
3. Fancy Gadgetry Might Even Hinder the Quality
Photo by Dana Balch of Athens Street Style
After I felt like a pro at long pastas, I took a stab at making ravioli. I bought this device that’s basically an ice cube tray, where you lay one sheet of pasta over the holes and squeeze filling down into them. You then seal another sheet of pasta dough across the top, seal the edges, and pop out 12 individual raviolis. It never worked for me—sure, it made 12 raviolis at once but they were tough to get out and pretty crappy looking. Since then, I bought a stamper that only makes one ravioli at a time, but I can finesse each one and make them absolutely perfect.
4. Dough Combinations Vary; Choose One You Like and Stick With It
Photo by Dana Balch of Athens Street Style
If you read pasta recipes enough, you’ll notice that they are some varying combination of flour, eggs, water, and olive oil. Really, the only thing that’s required in pasta dough is flour and a liquid—you can make pasta dough with all four, or you can just use water, or egg. I like to use egg because I rarely cook for vegans, and I like the idea of the extra binding agent being there.
I learned how to make pasta using just three eggs, two cups of flour, and I’ve stuck to it. For one thing, it’s predictable—if you’re mixing in other additives, like chocolate or squid ink or spinach juice, you can have an idea of how the mixture will react, and if you do it this way each time it will react the same way each time. Plus, three eggs and two cups of flour is easy to remember and I always get the portions right.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Try New Things
Once again, handmade pasta is essentially edible play dough, so why not treat it that way? Make a batch of black pasta, and then a batch of green pasta. Have some leftovers? What if you mixed them together and made tie-dye pasta? The additives you use to color the pasta leave almost no flavor, so you’re basically playing with color. How would you make striped pasta? I don’t have pictures of this, but one time in college we made pappardelle colored like a coral snake—red, yellow, black.
You can also mix different spices into the dough. Pictured above is basil/carrot, cayenne/carrot, and chili powder pasta. Not pictured (because we ate it): nutmeg/cinnamon pasta.
6. Coloring Pasta is Tricky—Red Pasta in Particular
Colored pasta is seriously so much fun. Your friends will think you’re fancy as hell if you make it, and it’s as easy as bugging the Whole Foods juice bar guy to separate your juices (but really, if you’re nice to people, you don’t even need to buy your own juicer).
Here’s what I’ve tried:
Black Pasta—Squid ink. If you’re lucky enough to live a mile from an Italian deli like I do, buy it there. If you don’t, you can get it online. I’ve found that two little packets per batch is a good, solid color. The water smells like fish when you cook the pasta, and the taste is very faint. Obviously best paired with a seafood dish.
Yellow Pasta—Turmeric (for the record, the first R is silent.) This is more yellow than typical pasta, as turmeric will turn anything bright yellow. It doesn’t have too much of a taste either, and since turmeric is typically used in Middle Eastern dishes, that might be a good pairing.
Green Pasta—Spinach juice. I’ve done this two ways: using a juicer, and using a blender/food processor (since people are more likely to have the latter). If you use a blender, you’ll get chunks of green spinach in your dough, which is kind of pretty—it’s almost polka dotted. If you use a juicer, the color is strong and radiant.
Above: Green pasta made with blended (not juiced) spinach.
Red Pasta—Beet juice. Typical directions have this really complicated method of cooking the beets in the oven until the juices leach out, but once again, you can just go get one juiced at Whole Foods if you’re pressed for time and resources. Beet juice produces a really beautiful color when mixed into the dough, but nearly all of the color leaches out in the water when you cook it, which is a huge disappointment. I don’t know a better way to get a brilliant red without using food coloring.
Brown pasta—Chocolate! Yes, you can really mix cocoa powder into your dough and get chocolate pasta. They serve it in New York City with a fudgey mascarpone filling, here’s proof from 2012:
7. Stuffed Pasta Fillings Must Have No Extra Liquid, or You’re Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’
“A Delicious Disaster”
If you’re making stuffed pastas, the two sides need to be able to stick to each other. If your filling is watery and soupy and runs out, it won’t stick together as one unit, and the extra liquid will lubricate the dough so much that you can’t seal it. Even if you struggle to get it closed, you’ve made a damn mess and the pasta will most certainly fall apart in the boiling water.
If you’re using ricotta, you might want to squeeze out some of the liquid with cheesecloth. If you’re using an egg, try to only use the yolk, and so on. Goat cheese works very well here, because it holds together well and has no superfluous liquid to mess with. So far, my favorite ravioli filling has been a combination of ricotta, goat cheese, mint, and fresh basil. But, if you have leftovers from dinner the night before, like ground beef or eggplant, you can dice it finely and make that into ravioli filling. It just needs to stay together without running.
8. Tube Pastas Are Indeed Possible Without a KitchenAid
After ravioli, tube pastas (rigatoni, mezze penne, bucatini, etc) were my holy grail. You can’t shape a tube with a basic hand crank machine. The KitchenAid has all these amazing pasta attachments, but that’s after hopping the hurdle of the initial price. I used to turn it over and over in my head—what if you wrap the dough around a dowel and cut it? (This may work, I never tried). What if you used some kind of actual play dough extruder?
Only within the past few months did I discover the Weston Roma Tube Pasta Machine. I’ve never heard anyone mention it, never read about it on blogs or anything—it was buried in the pages of the Brookstone website, which is essentially Skymall for the internet. It seemed too good to be true.
Turns out, it was a real thing. You can make tube pasta! They don’t look just like the box rigatoni and penne, but it works. Fusilli is still a crap shoot, though. That might be for the big machines only.
9. Learn how Different Flours Affect Dough Quality and Shaping
All Purpose Flour: Yields pretty basic, pliable dough. It’s the easiest to get and keep on hand because well, you can use it in other things.
Whole Wheat Flour: Makes the dough incredibly tough to work with. To knead and crank this, you need to have some serious muscles. It’s also very crumbly, and is generally a pain to use. However, if you like whole wheat pasta, maybe it’s worth it.
Semolina: This is a recent addition to my flour arsenal. I’ve read that it produces stiffer dough, and it’s true. We tried making tube pasta with all purpose flour, and with semolina flour, and the semolina came out the winner. It’s similar to whole wheat in that it’s considerably tougher to work with, but I’d say it’s my new favorite.
10. When in Doubt, Store in the Freezer
A small selection of my freezer stash. Erm, anyone need pasta?
My modus operandi is to spend all day making more pasta than I’ll ever be able to eat, and then trying to eat as much of it as I can or pawn it off on my friends. I used to hang pasta to dry overnight, but it seemed as though I never dried it long enough—it would grow moldy in a cabinet before I could eat it. If you buy fresh pastas in a store, it’ll either be refrigerated or frozen (remember: there’s liquid, raw egg in the dough). You can freeze your dough at home, and it will stay good much longer than trying to mess with the chemistry of drying it. Plus, you don’t need to get fancy racks or drying equipment, and you can store ravioli at the same time as long pasta.
The last thing to remember is, don’t be afraid of making pasta! It’s cheap and easy, and pretty forgiving. Have fun!
Sarah Lawrence is Paste’s Graphic Designer and Design Editor. When she’s not at a computer (which is most of the time), she’s either talking to people about making pasta, thinking about weird new side projects or drawing shit every day. Follow her on Twitter @whiskeyfoxxtrot for the GIFs, or check out her Skillshare class on handmade pasta here