Using Your Noodle

Pasta has become on American staple over the years, but its origins are in Italy. Learn all about the history of pasta, how to make it in your own kitchen and even the difference between tagliatelle and spaghetti.

If you've ever eaten pasta in Italy, you know one thing for certain: Americans don't know how to make pasta. They over-boil, over-season and over-sauce. Italians have learned to keeps this staple simple and they've had a lot of time to practice! Dating back to the 8th Century pasta has become a global food product that few can resist - even those carb-counters. But there's more to pasta than just a noodle: each ridge of rigatoni and swirl of spaghetti have specific purposes few chefs know about.

The noodle can be traced back for centuries in a number of different cultures, but the pasta most Americans are familiar with comes from Italy. Although is it rumored that the great explorer Marco Polo brought pasta back from his travels in China, there is no real fact to this tale. More likely, pasta was introduced to the southern Italians by the Arabs who invaded in the 8th Century and brought with them what most believe to be the origins of dried pasta. Because Sicily is an ideal place to grow durum wheat due to its warm climate - durum wheat is used to make semolina flour found in most pastas - this southern city quickly adopted pasta as a gastronomic staple.

When Italians first started making pasta, they referred to it as macaroni, which derives from the Sicilian term for making dough forcefully. Early pasta-making was a strenuous and laborious process that was not made easier until later centuries when mechanical inventions were introduced. With these later inventions came the ability to make different shapes of pasta and a more expedient process. Tomatoes and other sauces and seasonings were added through the centuries, but the basic pasta recipe has remained virtually unchanged.

Dried vs. Fresh

If you've never had fresh pasta, then you are seriously missing out on one of the great forms of pasta. True, there are countless advantages to dry pasta - shape, shelf life, etc. - but there's something about fresh pasta that just tastes... fresher. Fresh pasta is often made with slightly different ingredients than dried - some regions of Italy use all-purpose flour and eggs while others use semolina flour and water. Fresh pasta must be eaten within a few days of making it and cooks for much less time than dried pasta.

There are more than 350 different shapes of dried pasta, with many available in any average American grocery store. By Italian law, dried pasta must be made with 100% durum semolina flour and water, which is a practice that all but the lowest quality pasta manufacturers adhere to worldwide. The complex shapes that dried pasta comes in are not all for aesthetic purposes. For example, tube pasta like ziti or penne have ridges on their surfaces created during the extruding process from the machines. These abrasions to the outside help sauce cling to the pasta and flavor the dish.

Make Your Own
pasta making Trying to create fresh pasta dough in your own kitchen is a great way to unite the family - regardless of your heritage. Making the dough is relatively simple, but when you crank it through the machine a countless number of times, you'll soon understand the true meaning of macaroni as the Sicilians did in the early centuries. It is certainly time-consuming, but the fresh pasta taste will be a fantastic reward. Here are some basic recipes to get you started:

Egg Noodles

2 1/2 C. all-purpose flour
1 pinch salt
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 C. milk
1 Tbs. butter


In a large bowl, stir together the flour and salt. Add the beaten egg, milk, and butter. Knead dough until smooth, about 5 minutes. Let rest in a covered bowl for 10 minutes. On a floured surface, roll out to 1/8 or 1/4 inch thickness. Cut into desired lengths and shapes. Allow to air dry before cooking. To cook fresh pasta, in a large pot with boiling salted water cook until al dente.

Fresh Black Pepper Pasta

2 C. all-purpose flour
2 eggs at room temperature
1/2 tsp. salt
1 Tbs. olive oil
4 Tbs. water
1 heaping Tbs. finely
Ground fresh pepper


Put the flour on a flat surface and shape it into a mound. Make a well in the center and add the eggs, salt, olive oil, 2 Tbs. water, and the ground pepper. (Be sure when you grind the pepper that it isn't too large or it will tear the pasta.) Mix with a wooden spoon by combining the eggs and the flour with a circular motion, taking some flour from the inside of the well.

Add the remaining water and mix until it comes together. Transfer the dough onto a floured board and knead it for 10 minutes. Work the dough into a ball, cover it with a bowl, and let it rest for 15 minutes. Roll the dough (using more flour, if needed) into a cylinder about 6 inches long and slice into 1-inch pieces. Flatten each piece of dough with a rolling pin or the palm of your hand. Roll dough out on a pasta machine.

Yield: 1 lb.

Fresh Whole Wheat Pasta
3 C. whole-wheat flour combined with 1 C. flour or unbleached all-purpose flour
5 extra large eggs
2 Tbs. olive oil
Combine the flours and salt, if using, directly on a large pastry board or smooth work surface. Make a well in the center of the flour. Lightly beat the eggs with olive oil and pour the mixture into the well. Using a fork, gradually draw in the flour from the inside wall of the well. Beat gently in a constant direction to prevent air pockets from forming.

Use your free hand to protect the outer wall until the wet mixture is well integrated. When the mixture becomes too stiff to work with a fork, scrape the dough from the fork into the well and continue forming the dough with your hands. Draw in the flour very gradually from the bottom of the wall, again being careful to keep air out of the dough and prevent air pockets from forming. Continue forming the dough into a very soft ball. It should be firm enough to handle, but soft and very pliable. If there is too much flour to be absorbed, do not use it all. Conversely, work in a little more flour if necessary. The perfect consistency is soft but not sticky, responsive to being touched and worked with.

Using the heels of your hands, flatten the dough ball and knead it from the middle outward, folding it in half after working it each time. Knead both sides, maintaining a round shape, for about 14 minutes, until the dough is even and elastic. Cover the dough with an inverted bowl or plastic wrap and let it rest for 15 minutes, or up to 3 hours.

Mixing Dough in a Food Processor

Pasta dough can be mixed in a food processor. Place the dry ingredients in the bowl. Combine the eggs, oil, salt, and any other flavoring such as tomato paste separately, then pour into the bowl. Turn the machine on and process until a ball is formed and the ingredients are well mixed. If the mixture is to dry to form a ball, add a little water and pulse once.

Note: Cut the dough using a spaghetti-cutting attachment or cut it into tagliatelle noodles.

Yields: 2 lb. (1kg) fresh pasta

Shapes and Sizes

While there are more than 300 shapes and varieties of dry pastas, these are 15 of the most popular types you're likely to see in a grocery store or on a menu.

Angel Hair
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About The Author, Hillary Marshak
Maxine Glass is a writer and editor for, an up and coming recipe sharing Website. For more articles like this, or for a large collection of recipes, visit the site at