Musings on Making Pasta No. 1


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My pasta booksLong-time readers here may recall that I used to post about making my own pasta and bread quite frequently some years back. Last spring when I was diagnosed with cancer and then went through surgery and then radiation, I stopped doing both. This week, I finally got back to my pasta-making— not quite as adroitly as I had in the past, mind you; the old skills were a mite rusty — and expect to get back to bread shortly. Both activities provide me a sense of tactile creativity and pleasure, and give me some opportunity to learn. All cooking is a chemistry experiment.

And, not surprisingly, I like to read about pasta. I have a lifelong love of learning. I started by digging out my pasta books (pictured above), plus my recipe notebook, and made tables of ingredients and quantities to compare recipes and techniques. I read the technical stuff, too, about flours, hydration, temperatures, and so on. What I don’t have in my library, however, is a good, technical book on wheat and flour. I’ll have to look for one. However, there is good information in several of my pasta books.

I thought I might take a moment and discuss here my thoughts on pasta, making it at home, and what I’ve learned from my books and personal experience.

Most books and magazines offer recipes for making what I consider a lot of pasta: suitable for four, six, or even more diners. We’re two people with modest appetites, so I’ve had to learn how to reduce the quantities for our needs. That involved some experimentation to find the right balance between quantity and quality. Simply halving or reducing quantities by some mathematical percentage doesn’t always work best.

I’ve built a spreadsheet with numerous recipes for basic pasta from my books, magazines, and from online, which I’ll share in the next post. It shows the variation in usage for the core ingredients: flour, eggs, water, oil, and salt.

Yes, you can freeze your homemade pasta should you make more than you need for a meal, but I don’t bother. I make thin pasta and once dried, it is brittle, which freezing will only exacerbate. I would have to experiment with thicker noodles to find the optimum width for freezing. Since I use raw eggs and oil in my recipes, I can’t simply dry and store my pasta on the shelf, although I could refrigerate it for a day or two at most.

We eat pasta usually two or three times a week. Mostly it’s the store-bought dried pasta; rarely do we buy ready-to-eat fresh pasta (mostly because I can make it). Slightly less than a cup of dried penne, fusilli, or rigatoni is sufficient for the two of us because we use plenty of mushrooms, onions, and peppers in our sauce (we don’t eat mammals, but on occasion, I might slice and grill a single breast of chicken for the two of us, and reduce the amount of pasta).

Dried pasta is most convenient for complex pasta shapes or the thicker styles, as well as for robust sauces. For thinner noodles, and delicate sauces, fresh is better, and takes much less time to cook. Plus dried pasta stores well and for a long time. Some stores sell oven-ready lasagne noodles, which don’t require boiling first. I’ve used them and they are convenient: large lasagne noodles can be a bit tricky to work with straight from the boiling water.

I use an Atlas 150 pasta maker for my flat kinds of pasta. It has a right-hand-operated roller with ten thickness settings numbered 0-9, with each higher number rolling the dough thinner than the previous setting. The base accepts attachments for cutting/slicing the rolled dough into ribbons.

You can buy an electric motor attachment for the Atlas, and there are many motorized pasta machines and attachments for stand mixers available. If I was making pasta for a large household, I might consider buying one (my Atlas cost under $100; an electric machine costs three to five times that; even the motorized attachment for the Atlas costs more than the machine itself). But an electric device would take away from the tactile experience I enjoy with a manual device. I have tried making pasta without even a hand-operated machine, using only a rolling pin and knives, but my ability to produce consistent thickness and width seems to be less-than-optimal.

I’ll discuss making, kneading,and resting the dough in part two of this series, along with my musings on flour.

The basic process involves rolling out a small piece of the rested dough by hand, then putting this piece through the widest roller setting (“0”) a few times. Each time through, the flattened dough is folded and turned so the dough is laminated several times (three to four passes at each setting). The setting is changed (I switch next to “2”) and the process of laminating repeated. I do this again for setting “4” and finally “6”. Each setting makes for a longer, thinner sheet of dough. The final sheet is lightly translucent, and about .75-1 meter long, but sometimes longer.

Ideally, the dough retains its shape and consistency through laminating and rolling. If it is too dry, or not rested enough, it can crumble and break apart during rolling.

This long, final sheet gets laid on the counter and sliced into lengths of about 20-25 cm before being fed through the cutter (typical spaghetti length is about 25 cm or 10″). The ideal length for a noodle is what can be comfortably wound on your fork when eating. For fettuccine, I find anything longer than 25 cm is too cumbersome to eat. Wider and thicker noodles require smaller lengths, too, because they bulk up more quickly on the fork.

I’ve also cut noodles much shorter; as small as 10-12 cm. Shorter noodles require more space on the drying rack, so I made sure to have a second rack to accommodate the extra noodles. The big concern on the rack is to avoid noodles overlapping one another so they dry evenly.

The ragged ends of the dough sheet removed before the cutting stage can be combined and re-rolled through the machine. But too much rolling and laminating can make the dough tough and unresponsive. Flour used to dust it gets rolled back into the dough, un-hydrated, so it doesn’t form gluten. It may end up being thrown out.

When making pasta, my final roller setting for fettucine (explained above) is 6, which is about as thin as I can make it and still be able to handle the dough comfortably when rolling, cutting, and drying. I have made pasta thinner (setting 7-8), but it takes more time and care.

Thin noodles are quite brittle when dried but cook quickly. Thicker noodles require more time to dry and cook. Thin noodles can be ready to cook in 3-4 hours (depending on the heat and humidity in the house), but thicker can require 5-6 hours. I like to prepare my pasta before noon, so even the thinner noodles have ample time to dry (we usually eat dinner between 7 and 8 p.m.)

The Atlas’ roller can make lasagna (and flat dough sheets used for ravioli, gnocchi, and other dishes) without any attachments The dual-function cutter attachment that comes with the machine can slice the dough into fettuccine (6.5 mm-wide noodles) on one side, or tagliolini (aka taglierini; 1.5 mm wide) on the other. The Atlas’ width for the latter is somewhat narrower than what I’ve read in my books for that type of noodle (usually around 2-2.3 mm).

Fettucine is a also narrow noodle compared to many,  but easier to work with than the tagliolini at the same thickness. I also have an attachment for lasagne ricce, which produces a wider (12mm) noodle with a serrated edge, but I find it a tad too wide for handling on the plate unless cut shorter than fettucine. (I just received the Atlas mafaldine cutter, which makes 8mm-wide noodles with serrated edges, but haven’t used it yet). Marcato makes several other attachments, even a ravioli maker. Both cutters are pictured below (the mafaldine at the top).

Mafaldine and lasagne ricce cutters

The serrated (wavy) edges of some noodles help hold the sauce to the noodle. The same thing happens with the grooves on penne rigate (rigate means ridged) and some of the curved and hollow pasta. Flat, smooth noodles don’t hold onto much sauce, but I cut onions and other ingredients into large enough pieces they are able to help carry the sauce with the noodle.

I do have a separate extrusion pasta maker* for producing spaghetti, macaroni, penne, and similar strands or tubes. I’ve used it successfully to make penne and other pasta. I also have some manual instruments like a ravioli press, cutters for gnocchi (but no dumpling press, yet), and a tortilla press (surprisingly good for making some pasta). But let’s stick to the basic, flat, pasta noodle for now.

Confusingly for consumers, different models of pasta maker (even variations of the same model from the same company) and brands have different, non-standard settings for their numbered thicknesses of the roller, as explained here and updated later here. For example, some Atlas 150s have seven settings, others nine (or ten if you count the widest “0” setting). But there are differences in roller width between the same numbered setting on various seven-setting machines, and between nine-setting machines. Here’s a chart that shows them (note that it shows the thickness of eight noodles, not one):

Atlas Pasta maker thickness settings

What constitutes thick, medium, and thin settings is also a matter of debate online and in my books, since there is no industry standard. Here’s another chart showing single noodle thickness:
Pasta machine thickness chart
And, annoyingly, some online charts are only in archaic imperial measurements, which require conversion to compare properly (or simple consistency). Thickness is important because it affects cooking time, sauce retention, and malleability.

Marcato pasta machine settings and thicknessesHow thick should a noodle be? That depends on what you’re making, and your own taste. Lasagne noodles are thicker (about 2mm) because of how they are prepared, cooked, and handled. Some noodles or sheets are paper-thin (ravioli is thinner so the stuffing can cook as well, without overcooking the pasta, often rolled at 0.8mm). My fettuccine noodles are, I estimate, somewhat less than 1.5 mm thick, but without a micrometer, I cannot be sure. That puts them in the medium-thin category, but I am considering making them a trifle thicker, moving down one notch to medium (maybe 1.6-1.7mm or even 2 mm).

Although I haven’t done it yet, the Atlas can also be used to make other kinds of noodles such as soba and rice noodles. Many books on pasta also include recipes for other kinds of noodle.

My next post in this series will be about flours, other ingredients, dough, and a recipe for basic pasta for two.

* It is a Regina Wellness manual pasta extruder, with interchangeable heads to make rigatoni, bucatini, macaroni, fusili, and macceroncini. It is made by Marcato, the same company that makes the Atlas pasta machine. Unlike the all-metal Atlas 150, the extruder has many hard plastic components. It seems sturdy enough to stand up to usage, however.

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