The science of pasta dough has been a fascination of mine since I attended culinary school ten years ago. The year it all started I grew a pants size, stained every one of my nice sweaters, and repainted my kitchen walls due to an unfortunate incident with a blender and a tomato. There were long nights of kneading and rolling followed by days of dirty laundry; the clothes racks had been dubbed the “Angel Hair Lair” and constantly held pounds of drying pasta. Between the cries of “I can’t eat one more bite” from my hubby and shoving spoonfuls of sauce at unwitting guests, I finally learned something so valuable that I feel everyone should know. The secret to the best pasta is that it will never turn out the same way twice with the same recipe, no matter how accurately you weigh your ingredients. There are too many variables at stake: the temperature of your kitchen, the amount of moisture in the air, the protein content of the specific bag of flour you are using, the size of your eggs, etc. They all have an impact on the final result of your pasta and if you understand that when you start, you will learn to create the dough by feel, not by exact measurements, leading to a perfect pasta every time. Below are my helpful tips that I wish I had known when I started!
Pasta recipes vary greatly, ranging from recipes including whole wheat flour all the way to non-gluten recipes using rice flour. Because of this, it can be confusing knowing where to start. Every pasta recipe, however, will always include two main ingredients: a type of flour and some sort of liquid. These two ingredients combine to create gluten, which is the protein that gives pasta its elasticity and texture. The hard part is deciding which flour and liquid to use. Choosing the right flour was the trickiest part for me. There are three main types of flour that you will see in the majority of pasta recipes:
- Semonlina - This is a protein heavy flour made from durum wheat. Because of the high amount of protein, the dough has to be worked harder (kneaded longer) to form the silky texture synonymous with good pasta. The high protein content also leads to a more robust flavor.
- “00” flour - This a fine milled flour that lends a soft, smooth silkiness to the finished pasta and, in my opinion, is the easiest to work with.
- All-purpose - an everyday flour that most people have in their kitchen. While not generating the five-star product we are looking for, all-purpose will work just fine if that is all you have.
The best results I achieved always used a combination of two flours, Semolina and “00”. I use 2 parts “00” to one part Semolina. I like the smooth texture of the “00” but the flavor of the Semolina is unparalleled. Also, when I roll my pasta I always use Semolina as the dusting flour. When the pasta is cooked and the sauce is added, the Semolina coating helps the sauce adhere to the pasta.
Next you have to decide on the liquid. There are recipes that use only flour and water, half eggs and half water, or all eggs. I like a combination of both. A standard large egg tends to have a higher water content than fat. Because of this my dough is not rich enough if I only use whole eggs. For every 4 whole eggs I add an extra yolk and two tablespoons of water to create a richer dough. I also will add a tablespoon of olive oil to the dough for added richness.
The last thing to consider is whether to salt or not to salt. I like to add salt directly to my dough for added flavor. If you don’t, your dough will still turn out fine, but it won’t have that extra richness from the added salt. I also salt my cooking water! Pasta always taste better salted.
Now that we have all the ingredients defined, we can walk through the technique. The first step to pasta making is the oldest and most sacred of all the pasta traditions: the well. After measuring out your flour, place it on the counter in a large cone shaped pile.
Create a center hole or “well” and place your eggs in the middle. It should look like a volcano of flour erupting egg lava onto your counter...or like the picture below.
Add the salt and oil on top of the eggs.
This is the way that all pasta connoisseurs have made their dough for centuries. The “well” technique involves pulling the flour with a fork into the center of the liquid allowing you to gauge how much flour is being added. Start by whisking the eggs with a fork and then gradually whisk in flour until the dough is the right consistency.
When your dough is no longer sticky and balancing on the verge of too dry, you can simply stop adding the flour in. At this point the dough is ready to knead.
Kneading is important. The purpose of kneading is to create the glutens that will hold the pasta together and create that al-dente bite that every good fettucini is known for. The kneading time varies, however; typically you should work the dough at least 10 minutes. Cover your surface with flour if needed to prevent sticking. You want your dough to be silky, smooth, and elastic when you are finished kneading. I like to push my finger into the dough and if it springs back into place then I know it is time to rest.
Once kneaded, cover dough lightly in olive oil and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Let sit at room temperature for 45 minutes before rolling out. This allows the glutens to have time to completely form.
Rolling out your pasta is the last step. I divide my dough into 3 sections. Leave the remainder wrapped and start on the first section. Roll slightly by hand on a floured surface into a rectangle that is small enough to fit through your pasta roller. In school I rolled all of my pasta by hand; however, since then I have given my wrist a much needed break and upgraded to a kitchen aid pasta roller attachment. It’s life-changing for someone who makes pasta frequently and it is such a fun gadget to have in the kitchen. Turn your flat roller to setting 1 and set your mixer on speed 2. Thread your floured dough rectangle through the roller and repeat. Fold the dough like a book and re-roll on setting 1 to even out your edges. Next, switch your roller setting to 3 and roll again. Now move onto 5 and then six. Once your dough has evenly passed through setting 6 it is time to cut. If at this point your rectangle is super long you can lay out on the counter and cut in half. Make sure you set the half you aren't using under a damp towel to keep from drying out.
Turf off mixer and change out your attachment head to the one your prefer, in my case fettuccini. Turn mixer back to speed 2 and thread dough through.
Once your pasta is cut you can swirl on a floured cutting board covered with a damp cloth if you are planning on using immediately. It will also freeze up to 3 months!