In its most basic form, pasta can be made from only two ingredients: flour and water. But while true, it’s deceptively simple, and far from the tastiest or most expressive pasta you can make. (see part 1 of this essay if you missed it)
Flour is delightfully complicated; there is some interesting chemistry at work within flour and it’s fun to experiment. Wheat is classified into several categories: spring and winter (by the planting season), colour (red or white), hard or soft (high or low protein content), and durum (an amber, hard wheat). Canadian wheat has five classes for eastern wheat and nine for western, plus three milling classes for flour.
Generally, you don’t need to worry about these classifications when shopping. Commercial flours are blends of hard and soft wheat for consistency. What you should know, however, is whether the flour is high protein (hard, i.e. all-purpose and bread flours) or low protein (soft, i.e. pastry and cake flours) because this makes a difference when making bread or pasta. You should also know if the flour is unbleached (always preferred), has bran (i.e whole wheat), or additives (i.e self-rising: not used for pasta).
Commercial pasta is generally categorized into two groups: those types made with durum wheat (usually dried, made from Triticum durum) and sometimes semolina, and those made with wheat (from Triticum aestivum: used in your basic AP, bread, and tipo 00 flours). Recipes with the latter wheat often include eggs. Italian dried pastas are all made from 100% durum wheat. Of course, in your own kitchen, you can mix any flours in any recipe.
And mix I recommend. In my experience, pasta made with a blend of semolina and wheat flour provides both texture and taste. I’ll explain below. BTW, semolina from soft wheat is sold as Cream of Wheat cereal, and is not the same as semolina from durum wheat used in pasta or couscous.
There are many kinds of flour to choose from, and I’ve encountered recipes that use one or several of the popular types (aside from cake or self-rising types). “Hard” flour has 10-14% protein and is commonly used for bread, pasta, pizza; “soft” flour has 5-10% and is used for cakes and pastry, but at the higher end may also be used in pasta (see tipo 00, below). The higher the protein percentage, the more the gluten that is produced. Durum wheat, used for dry pasta, is a high-protein (14-15%), or “hard” flour, while semolina is a little lower at 12-13%.
Just to confuse things, there are differences in protein content between brands, types, and between flours from different countries. Canadian all-purpose (AP) and bread flours generally have higher protein (12% for AP, 13% for bread) than many of their American equivalents (some of which are only 9-10%, although King Arthur and some of Bob’s Red Mill flours are similar in protein to Canadian flours,). Bags labelled bread flour have higher protein than all-purpose.
Pastry or cake flour has a much lower protein content (around 9% for pastry, 6-8% for cake). While you can use pastry flour in pasta, cake flour should never be used because it won’t make a good dough. There are higher-protein (specialty) flours available, but I’ve never used them in pasta. Some non-wheat flours (like rye) have gluten proteins, but much lower levels, and may also form different types of gluten. Some flours, like chestnut, rice, and buckwheat have no proteins for gluten at all. You can use these other flours for taste and colour, but you still need wheat for gluten.
Aside: I don’t make or eat anything that is gluten-free. Aside from not following a pointless, cult-like dietary fad that lacks a solid scientific basis, the few gluten-free products I’ve tried all taste like sawdust. Besides, gluten-free anything depends on using other additives like xanthan gum to mimic gluten’s natural effects.
Wheat protein is important because it 1) makes gluten, and 2) absorbs water (about 200% of its weight). Gluten is crucial in giving your pasta dough elasticity and plasticity. Gluten is formed when the two insoluble wheat proteins, glutenin and gliadin, are mixed with water. That’s why hydration is important: without water the gluten doesn’t form (although other liquids like milk and egg white can be used). As noted on a baking forum:
Wheat flour is unique because it in the only cereal grain that possesses gluten-forming proteins. Gluten and protein are closely related, but not synonymous. When combined with water under mixing stress, the proteins in the flour will form what is called gluten. This gluten structure is responsible for providing extensibility, elasticity and gas-retaining properties to yeast-leavened baked goods. The quantity of the gluten is proportionate to the amount of protein in the flour. The amount of gluten will increase as the protein content increases.
Glutenin and gliadin comprise about 80% of the proteins in the wheat seed, and are present in smaller quantities in other grasses such as rye and barley. If you use other flours, you may need to adjust for their lower gluten by adding a higher-protein flour to the mix (this is true for baking bread, too).
Mixing and kneading are also important to help the gluten bonds develop and strengthen. I usually knead my pasta dough for about 15 minutes before allowing it to rest for an hour (see below). As noted on the Breadopedia site:
During the initial mixing of bread dough, these two proteins are knotted and mangled together in no particular order. While kneading the bread dough, the proteins then line up and gluten strands form a matrix in the bread dough.
Kneading aligns the gluten strands, and helps distribute the egg, oil, different flours, water, salt, and any other ingredients. It takes at least 10 minutes of kneading by hand to make a suitable dough. I usually do it for 15, but try to avoid over-kneading. A mixer with a dough hook can do it in less time, maybe seven or eight minutes. There is a “windowpane” test (look it up and see the videos if you’re not sure) for determining if your bread dough is ready, which should work with pasta dough. However, after doing this for a while, I work on feel and can usually tell when the dough should rest.
Be careful not to use too much flour for dusting when kneading because that can alter the composition of the mix and affect the gluten production. Too much added flour makes the dough dry and stiff, and likely to bread during rolling and laminating.
Resting helps the gluten form and tighten, and stabilize. The dough should be rested for at least 30 minutes (I wrap mine in plastic wrap to retain its moisture), but I prefer to leave it for an hour. Some recipes suggest as long as two hours.
Your basic go-to flour for daily use is the unbleached, all-purpose type (12% protein in Canada). By itself, it can make a decent, but uninspired pasta. Bread flour (13% protein) can be substituted (again, look for it as unbleached bread flour) for a chewier pasta. Whole wheat (WW) can also be used, but WW works best if paired with another flour, like AP or bread (the same is true with baking bread). The bran in whole wheat flour can cut the gluten strands, so you want the extra gluten the other flour provides.
I’ve read that wheat grown in northern climates like Canada has a higher protein content than that grown in warmer climates. Based on what I’ve seen on American sites about protein in some of their flours, this looks true. I’m not merely being a nationalist, but I think Canadian flour is better (Canada permits fewer additives to flour, too).
Semolina has 12-13% protein, while durum flour is 14-15%. Semolina is made by milling the inner endosperm of the wheat berry, and is hard, grainy, and lightly yellow in colour. Italian semolina available here (“rimacinata”) is generally milled more finely than North American, and close to the feel of regular flour. Durum flour itself is even finer, and higher in protein. It is a by-product of semolina production.
Because of its different protein structure, semolina gives pasta its chewy texture. Semolina also absorbs more liquid and makes a firmer dough. If you don’t have semolina in your pantry, you can substitute a high-protein flour like bread or AP, although the pasta won’t have the texture semolina gives.
Gluten from different flours is also different in structure:
The gluten from durum wheat flour tends to be strong but not very elastic, while the gluten in red wheat flour is both strong and elastic. This means that with durum wheat, we’ll get a nice bite on our breads and pasta, but not as much chew. That’s why when combined with bread flour in pizza dough, 00 flour results in a chewy, crispy crust — the perfect duo!
Many recipes call for “tipo 00” (aka doppio zero) a finely-milled, low-protein, white flour from Italy. The “00” is a milling definition**, not wheat or protein content, and can be used on both hard and soft wheat, so make sure you pick tipo 00 labelled for pasta. This used to be hard to get, but now several local grocery stores stock it, along with a finely-milled Italian semolina flour. Some bags of tipo 00 are labelled for pasta and others for pizza. Tipo 00 for pasta has around the same low-gluten content as pastry flour: 8-10%, while tipo 00 for pizza is more like AP flour: 12-13% There is also tipo 00 for bread (labelled panifiabile).
Basically, the wheat flour makes the pasta smooth, even silky when the finer tipo 00 or pastry grade is used. That also means it doesn’t hold the sauce as well as the rougher semolina.
Durum wheat flour produces somewhat higher amounts of gluten than red wheat flour for the same volume (27% compared to 24%). Durum wheat flour is hard to find anywhere (even Bulk Barn doesn’t sell it), and as far as I’ve been able to discover can only be ordered online from the USA. Golden Temple brand atta flour, which is available locally in larger bags, is a blend of durum wheat flour and durum bran, but I have not experimented with it in pasta. It is used in such Indian breads as rotis and parathas. I’ve read that you can sift out the bran though, and might try it if I can find a small bag.
Semolina, however, is commonly available. I’ve used both the regular (Canadian-milled) and finer-milled Italian semolina. There is a small difference in texture, so I tend to go with the finer version. My ratio of flour to semolina is around two-to-one or even three-to-one, so the smoother tipo 00 dominates.
Confusingly, semolina is often labeled as durum semolina, durum wheat semolina, or even durum flour. Italian semolina (Semola Di Grano Duro Rimacinata) is more finely-milled than North American semolina. The term “semolina” is also a milling term and is used for rice semolina, corn semolina, and farina (which is made from the softer bread wheat, Triticum aestivum).
Semolina, being coarser than flour, adds texture and colour to pasta:
Its coarse grind gives pasta made from semolina a rougher texture, which is great for hearty sauces to grab onto. Another feature of semolina flour is that it has a natural golden hue to it, which comes from the color of the durum wheat itself. That means you can make pasta from semolina flour and water and it will have a natural yellow color to it.
This is important, since pasta made from all-purpose flour and water, or even bread flour and water, will be plain white, looking more like rice noodles than pasta. Even though you might not think of pasta as being yellow, you’ll likely miss that color if it’s not there.
Eggs add flavour, binding material, and colour (from the yolks), but also change the chemistry and characteristics of the dough:
Now, many pasta recipes use either whole eggs or egg yolks as their liquid and the egg yolks themselves impart the expected yellow hue to the pasta. And in almost all cases, this is all you need.
But sometimes, for example, if you’re making stuffed pasta like ravioli, or any number of other pouchlike pasta bites, you might not want to use eggs. The fat in the egg yolks will interfere with the gluten development, causing the dough to become slightly crumbly, akin to pie dough. This can then lead to the ravioli breaking apart when you cook them.
The protein in the egg white firms up the dough, while the yolk adds fat. The usual proportion is one egg per 100 grams of flour, but some recipes add extra yolks, some use yolks only, and others call for more whites. For 150 grams of flour I’d use 1 whole egg, and one yolk. I’ve also read (in Mastering Pasta by Vetri) that for every three eggs, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of water. Oil and fat weaken gluten, but make the pasta more tender, and easier to roll out.
Salt helps bring out the flavour, but it also tightens and strengthens the gluten. I tend to under-measure salt and use only a very small amount. Remember that the pasta will absorb salt from the water as it cooks, so use less in the dough to compensate.
The basic recipe for pasta that I used this week for fettuccine will feed three or four (depending on appetites; it gives the two of us enough pasta for two nights). One note: always work your recipes in weight for the main ingredients, not volume. A cup of flour can weigh anywhere from 100 to 160 grams depending on type, grind, and packing. Use a scale to measure proper weights.
- 100 g tipo 00 Italian pasta flour
- 50g semolina flour (also called durum semolina, or simply durum flour; I recommend the Italian fine-grind semolina)
- 1 whole egg, 1 egg yolk
- Salt to taste (I use but a pinch)
- Enough water to hydrate the dough without making it sticky (I spoon in small amounts as I knead the dough and stop when it has the right consistency).
I also vary this by increasing the ratio of semolina up to 50-50, but never more semolina than other flours. Semolina also absorbs more water than the flour.
Don’t assume a recipe is carved in stone: it’s a guide, and you can always leave its path.
Click here for a PDF compilation of pasta recipe ingredients based on a simple spreadsheet I built.
** Italian and some other European flour is classified by the level of grinding, from very coarse (2) to very fine (00). Type 0 is your usual commercial flour used in breads and baking. Double zero is the finest grind and is close to our pastry flour grind. More on labelling and numbering is found here. Italian flour may also be labelled T45 for 00, ( or T55 for 0, T80 for 1, T110 for 2, and T150 for farina integral). Farina di grano tenero is soft grain flour from common wheat (triticum aestivum), while farina di grano duro is hard grain flour from durum wheat (triticum durum). Durum flour is labelled semola, semolato, semo from la integrale, and semolina depending on the milling grade (finest to coarse). Rimacinata” means “twice milled.” Integrale means whole wheat.
Tipo 00” farina di frano tenero is what I for use for my homemade pasta, along with a mix of semola rimacinata di grano duro (semolina).