[Updated May 2019 with new images]
I’ve been making pasta by hand for a long time. For the first few years this was only infrequently in order to learn, ‘have a play’ or to impress. However, it eventually became such a routine thing for me that I didn’t even realise how unusual it was to make so much fresh pasta, especially the artisan shapes, outside of Italy. It took other people’s comments on my skill at pasta making and saying that I should do more with it to realise where I had got to.
I have an issue with how making pasta by hand can be promoted as complex, requires many expensive gadgets or even is simply billed as an elitist or chef-only thing to do. Some fresh pasta making can be tricky, sure, but most is very simple indeed and that’s what I hope to impress on you with these articles. I have stayed away from recipes here, these are about the tools and equipment to get you started and then get you obsessed! (If you want a recipe to try why not look at my roasted orange butternut squash ravioli).
Pasta was made by people centuries ago who had little kitchen paraphernalia (even in the kitchens of wealthy households kitchen equipment was incredibly basic by our standards). If they could do it with almost nothing then we can too in our modern houses. You need only the bare minimum of things to start, plus the ingredients and something to cook and drain it. It’s likely you’ll have this most basic equipment already.
So, what is really needed for fresh pasta making, what you might buy next as you progress and, finally, what isn’t necessary but might be fun if you can afford it? I ended up writing so much that I have split my ramblings into two posts. This is ‘the basics’. My second post focuses on going further and what gadgets might be used.
A note on dried pasta and when to use dried or make fresh
I want to add that this love of making fresh pasta by hand doesn’t mean I am a snob about using dried. Absolutely not! Dried is so versatile and often more appropriate or the best texture for the majority of pasta dishes. There’s more chance that you’ll make a pasta meal using dried, saving the fresh pasta making for specific dishes that need it or for special occasions. Dried pasta is such a utilitarian kitchen cupboard staple that you’d be rather missing out if you didn’t have a packet or two of dried pasta lying about – and it has an incredibly long shelf life, so it’s very useful indeed.
I make fresh pasta when I am making pasta ripiena (filled pasta) like ravioli, faggotini, tortellini, agnolotti and the like. I also make it fresh when I am handmaking artisan shapes, such as trofie or orecchietti. You can buy fresh pasta sheets in from the refrigerated section of most supermarkets, but I’ve tried these pre-made ‘fresh’ packets and I think they’re inferior to both fresh and high quality pre-dried: a strange, inferior middle ground. (I believe some delis make and sell fresh pasta, but I’ve never come across one in order to try, so I can’t comment on these). Some specialist delis and larger supermarkets do sell the artisan shapes pre-dried (dried orecchietti seems to be more easily available in past years), but I make my own because I enjoy it, again I’ve never tried the dried versions to comment.
I also make fresh pasta when I want to do something different, like colouring or flavouring pasta or I just have a special meal to make. I use dried most frequently in mid-week family meals, baked pasta and when making pasta salads or soups.
I would say buy the best you can: if a pack says that it is bronze die cut this is said to be best because it creates a very slightly jagged finish to the pasta which helps trap sauce. Also cheap made pasta (probably not made in Italy as they have stringent rules for pasta quality and wheat used) is more likely to have a mushy texture (though overcooking any pasta will do this anyway).
In characteristic kitchen overkill for me, I’d actually suggest a minimum of five types of dried pasta in your ideal kitchen cupboard arsenal:
- a thing strand type of pasta, such as spaghetti, linguine or similar for oil-rich meaty or tomato sauces or for seafood
- sheets or large tubes like lasagne and cannelloni for robust bakes (unless you’re determined to always make your own – even I’ve got an ’emergency’ box of lasagne)
- pack of tiny shapes such as stellini, ditalini or even alfabetini for soups, broths and fleshing out casseroles
- a ridged, twisted shape or smaller cup shape which is both easy to stab with a fork and which traps smaller dice veg and meat, such as farfalle, conchiglioni or fusilli – great for rich and chunky or creamy sauces, but can also be good in bakes or salads
- a medium tubular or cupped shape for cheesy or smooth sauces, and for baking: maccheroni, cellentani or penne (all tubes) or conchiglie or lumache (cupped/shells)
Basics – and making pasta cheaply
Some recipes just cry out for freshly made pasta and, well, I just enjoy making it anyway. I hope you will too.
It has only been in the past 18 months or so that I have started to buy and use gadgets. For the best part of 30 years I made pasta by hand with a rolling pin and a sharp knife – mostly due to the fact that a) it worked and b) I couldn’t afford/justify the expense on fancy extras. Hands, rolling pin and knife is all you really need and, of course, a saucepan and colander/sieve to cook and drain it afterwards.
Although many gadgets do make life easier and faster you can get away using so little, and there’s no necessity to spend money. Of course, I’m not trying to stop you going out and splashing the cash if you have it – I’m just here to reinforce the notion that homemade pasta can be as cheap as just buying the ingredients.
I have bought myself some gadgets now. Equipment has become cheaper and more widely available and of course my salary has improved over the years (albeit in small amounts!). I decided that it was time I treated myself to a few things. Some things have made such a difference I wish I’d felt able to afford them a lot longer ago, like the pasta machine and a tall airer. I’ve actually taken the same approach with bread making too. I’ve made my own bread for about the same length of time with the bare minimum of equipment, but in the last few years I’ve bought a few nice things to help. I guess pasta and bread can be classified as my hobbies, and people like buying nice “stuff” for their hobbies, don’t they?
The premise for these two grouped articles is that you can make pasta by only spending on ingredients and a few basics (most of which you will probably already have) to start with. So the first post (this one) covers the basics, and part two takes a look at pretty much everything leading up to all the bells and whistles should you want to buy ‘toys’ to expand your pasta making.
I’ve added a 🍝 pasta emoji next to all those I’ve used or own. Also I’ve given a rough idea on expense, from £ meaning very cheap (at just a few quid) to ££££ prohibitively (ie getting to professional equipment) expensive.
The basics – what do I need as a minimum?
Your hands 🍝 £ free!
Your greatest tools in the kitchen. Don’t underestimate your own capabilities. You are a pasta making genius (already, or in the making!).
In an extreme example of how useful your hands are in this process, you could make something like orecchietti, pici or plain trofie (there is a twisted version of trofie too) without using anything else bar the ingredients and your hands until you came to cook it. You can knead the dough on the table and rip off the right-sized pieces of dough before shaping all by hand.
A sharp knife 🍝 £-£££
A long cooks knife is best as the larger blade will help you cut straighter pasta, like linguini.
Rolling pin 🍝 £
Any rolling pin will do. Totally essential!
If you want to make big sheets, then you need a bigger pin. I’ve actually got an old broom handle I cleaned, sanded and now use for the biggest sheets, a large dowel rod I bought from a DIY shop and a cheap long-but-thin pin bought from a Turkish mini-market – all ranging from free to just plain cheap.
Something to hang the pasta on, or space for shapes 🍝 £ (even free if you’re creative with what you own) – and a note about storing/’drying’
It helps to drape long pasta like tagliatelli or linguini over something so it hangs like washing on a line, while you continue to work. This keeps your carefully made ribbons from sticking together and airs the pasta. (See further down for notes on small shapes)
Please note that this is all ‘airing’ and not ‘drying’. Unless you live in a country with a comparable climate to Napoli (copious sun, hot winds) or you’ve bought a proper drying machine you’re best off forgetting about drying pasta yourself.
Here in the UK it’s pretty rubbish pasta drying weather, with the exception of high summer. If you tried to store inadequately dried pasta it would go rancid very quickly. I think it’s best to go buy a packet of pre-dried pasta in this case.
Yes, you can air the pasta and leave it for cooking the next day (or from morning till evening), but I don’t think it’d be advisable to go much further than that (I may be wrong – if you have experience of this please comment!). I normally cook and serve my pasta within a few hours, but sometimes if I have a big meal to prepare for a lot of people I will make it the day before to afford me time.
The glory that is freshly made and cooked pasta is it’s freshness – it’s undoubtedly best when eaten just a few hours after being made. That said, a little delay won’t be that noticeable!
If you really want to make far in advance, it’s better to freeze. On the few times I’ve needed to prepare a lot for a party in advance I sometimes freeze the dough rather than the shapes – but a caveat here: I chop it into cubes rather than freeze one lump. Let it thaw, work it little back together and it’ll be fine (though I confess not quite as good as fresh, but good enough).
Otherwise, shapes and pasta ripiena like ravioli and tortellini (depending on the filling) can also be frozen. Arrange them so they’re not touching on a tray (so they don’t stick) and then sweep them into a food bag when fully frozen and keep them in the freezer until needed (obviously letting them thaw first). I’m not 100% of the maximum length of time to store pasta in the freezer, but I’ve frozen it for around a week in advance myself.
Anyway, ignoring the argument for NOT drying/storing fresh pasta, it is essential to ‘air’ fresh pasta while you are working it, to prevent a congealed mass and negating all your hard work.
My freebie make-do solutions for airing ribbon pasta while I work in the past have included:
- a wide-gapped wire cooling rack suspended by string from the ceiling or balanced between two towers of books
- the backs of chairs (washed thoroughly first) – see the above pic from my Instagram feed: I still sometimes use this rather than getting the airer out
- a couple of cheap dowel rods bought from a DIY store that I balanced between chair backs and later nailed into a block of wood
- a length of new washing line tied between cupboard door handles (warn anyone coming in!!)
Smaller pasta shapes, like farfalle, can be tossed in semola (semolina) flour or fine polenta and just left on your table, on a clean tea towel, a baking tray or shallow wicker basket. Actually, strip pasta can also be handled in this way, curled into nests (in nidi – see the image below) or skeins (in matasse) to air. Just be careful to keep the strips fairly separate and not squeezed together accidentally betwixt thumb and fingers.
A space for working 🍝 £ free (presumably you’ve already got some space…)
This is crucial. You need space to roll out the dough and cut it. You need the space for drying shapes. You need the space to not get in a faff when you’re colvered in flour and juggling dough.
It doesn’t have to be huge, but it needs to be flat, very clean and clear of clutter. Make your life easier and clear yourself a working space before you start.
Saucepan and colander or sieve 🍝 £ – ££
OK, so it’s not anything to do with making pasta but if you’ve made it you’re going to cook it so I’m classing it as a basic need. I suspect that anyone considering making pasta or getting more in to it will be already well equipped with good saucepans, sieves and colanders, but here’s my take on these essentials:
A large saucepan is the right choice for pasta, but really you can cook pasta in anything heat proof. So, even a cheap small saucepan will do – well, for one or two portions any way and there’s no need to bother with non-stick. The reason I’ve nominated a large saucepan is that undoubtedly at some point in pasta making you’ll cook for a number of people. It’s all about the sharing. More people = more pasta = bigger pot.
You’ll often see people list a ‘heavy bottomed saucepan’ in equipment for recipes: while these generally are a better buy all round as they distribute heat evenly and are more robust they are not needed for pasta. Pasta floats and dances around in the simmering water so heat spots are not an issue. If you’re only buying one large saucepan to cover all your cooking needs (like me: I haven’t the space to store more) then do go for a well made one with a thick bottom core to it, as other foods and cooking methods will benefit.
Buy one with a lid if you can too, as it will a) stop your kitchen steaming up too much (even with an extractor fan) and b) save your gas or electric as it keeps in heat better and you can turn your temperature down.
A colander or sieve is essential as a match for the saucepan. You can’t keep draining pasta from your saucepan with the lid. Yes, it’s possible to do this, but eventually you’ll scald yourself with the water or at some point slip and drop all the pasta in the sink. It’s maddening when that happens! You can get sieves and colanders from cheap shops and markets for very, very little indeed.
Scales 🍝 £-£££
Although no doubt there are some Nonnas that can probably work out the ratio of semola or flour to water by feel, it’s best to have a set of scales. Mechanical or digital doesn’t matter, but you’ll need these.
You may need a bowl to go with your scales but I’ve not listed bowls in basics as you possibly might weigh with the integrated bowl or anything else to hand. Therefore I can’t justify this as an essential piece of kit for pasta making, despite it being a fundamental piece of kitchen equipment for just about everything else.
[Last update: July 2018]
My next post will go on to look at what gadgets you can begin to invest in once you’ve tried to make pasta and decide that you want to continue. Or, if you’re wading straight in and intending to spend money on pasta equipment from the get-go.