Eating your own homemade fresh egg pasta is one of the most satisfying and enjoyable experiences of Italian cuisine. Making your own fresh pasta is surprisingly easy and the result will likely exceed that which most Italian restaurants prepare. Using the right ingredients and adhering to simple techniques will ensure perfect fresh pasta – at a fraction of the cost your supermarket charges.
Fresh Pasta vs. Factory-Made Pasta
Pasta dishes can be made using either pasta fresca [fresh pasta] or pasta secca [dried pasta or sometimes called factory-made pasta]. Italians don’t necessarily prefer one type over the other; each has its own purpose and is best suited for specific sauces.
Factory-made pasta transports sauce while fresh pasta absorbs it. Factory-made pasta is made with hard-wheat semolina flour, which stands up to and balances strong flavors and textures in the sauce, including olive oil. Delicate homemade egg pasta is made with soft-wheat, highly refined flour, which can be easily overpowered by some sauces – and olive oil will render it impermeable, unable to soak in flavor from the sauce. Factory-made pasta is typically served with olive-oil-based sauces, while fresh pasta is better suited to butter- and cream-based sauces.
The word “fresh” [fresca] is really a misnomer when used to describe pasta made at home. The word implies “just made” or “moist”. In America, we have unfortunately associated “fresh pasta” with a product that is kept artificially soft through additives or refrigeration. Homemade fresh egg pasta in Italy (yes, they call it pasta fresca) is dried thoroughly and stored at room temperature for months. When it is eventually boiled, the pasta retains its soft absorbent texture. Once you taste authentic egg pasta you’ll never buy “fresh pasta” at the supermarket again.
Fresh pasta is usually associated with the northern regions, in particular Emilia-Romagna and, to a lesser extent, Abruzzo, Lazio, Marche, Tuscany, and Umbria. In these regions, it is traditionally made with eggs and flour but without water or salt. The other northern regions – Liguria, Piedmont, and Veneto, fresh pasta is made with flour, water, and fewer eggs (one exception being Piedmont’s rich tajarin, which is made with a lot of egg yolks). In the South, fresh pasta is made from a dough of semola [semolina – ground durum wheat] and water, but no eggs.
There are two types of fresh pasta: pasta liscia [smooth pasta] and pasta ripiena (stuffed pasta), made by shaping the dough into pockets of various shapes and filling them with a variety of ingredients.
Typical types of pasta liscia include pappardelle, fettuccine, orecchiette, trenette, tagliatelle, and taglierini, the latter two derivatives of the Italian verb tagliare [to cut]. It is also cut into square shapes, like Liguria’s lasagne. The first time I made pasta was in Abruzzo, at Rustichella d’Aburuzzo, where we mixed the dough, rolled it out by hand, and cut it by laying a sheet of dough over a device called a chitarra [guitar], pressing it over the strings, much like a guitar, creating the region’s famous maccheroni alla chitarra.
Pasta ripiena allows for a cook’s special creativity and there are multitudes of fillings for every shape imaginable of pasta. Found throughout northern and central Italy, stuffed pasta is virtually unheard of in the South. Pasta made for stuffing needs eggs for strength and structure. Historically, there were never a lot of eggs in the poorer southern regions of Italy, so pasta ripiena never caught on until recent times.
Some well-known paste ripiene include agnolotti from Piedmont – squares with ruffled edges, stuffed with meat and cabbage, agnolini from Emilia-Romagna are halfmoons stuffed with meat and vegetables, and Liguria’s pansoti, filled with wild greens and fresh sour cheeses. Central Italy has tortelli – large squares filled with spinach and ricotta. And, of course, Bologna has its cappelletti, small rings of pasta filled with a rich meat mixture, parmigiano-reggiano, and nutmeg.
My favorite pasta fresca is from Emilia-Romagna: a yellow delicacy that consists of nothing more than fresh eggs and flour. But with “fresh pasta” now conveniently available in the refrigerator section of the local supermarket, why make your own?
- It’s easy. Really. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to make pasta in your sleep (instead of just dreaming about eating it).
- It’s cheaper. Nothing more than flour and eggs – staples most households typically have on hand – and there’s no packaging, marketing, or superfluous ingredients to pay for.
- It’s fun. Who doesn’t like to get their hands in dough? A great family activity or something to enjoy alone or with your significant other, there is great satisfaction in eating your own homemade pasta. And with countless combinations of shapes and fillings, making your own provides a creative outlet.
- It lasts longer. I’m not sure where the notion of the need to boil pasta immediately after making it comes from, but here’s what Italians know: egg pasta, properly dried and stored, will last for several months (more on that later).
- It tastes better. Much, much better. I can’t say it any better than Marcella Hazan does in her book, Marcella Says . . .:
“Factory-made dried pasta and homemade egg pasta are two distinct products, gloriously equal in their goodness, but conspicuously different in how they express it. What one responds to in homemade pasta is its lightness, its buttery texture, its suave entry into the mouth, a deeply satisfying cohesion of pasta and sauce, and a buoyant, palate-caressing richness of taste. The only egg pasta that delivers such sensations is one that you make at home, using low-gluten white flour for your dough and thinning it with gradually applied low pressure. Take into account, moreover, that when you make your own pasta you can produce noodle shapes that are usually unavailable commercially, such as tonnarelli, pappardelle, and maltagliati. You can fill your homemade tortelli and ravioli with stuffings whose quality and freshness no store-bought version can equal.”
Machine vs. Rolling-Pin
It’s true that pasta made using a rolling-pin is of higher quality than that which has been run through a pasta machine. The former is made using quick motions of a three-foot long wooden rolling-pin, which stretches the dough (rather than compressing it between two rollers) and leaves small ridges in the dough, rendering it the softest, most delicate palate sensation one can imagine. However, rolling out dough by hand is a hard-learned skill – a craft really – that can take a frustratingly long time to master. If the dough is rolled out unevenly, it can create disappointment through uneven cooking.
My advice is to invest in a pasta machine. They’re not terribly expensive and are fun to use! My favorites are probably from Imperia, which, if you’re unable to find at your local kitchen store, you can order here.
There are only two ingredients in this egg pasta: flour and eggs. There is no salt – salt will be added when the pasta is boiled. There is no water – water will make the pasta gummy. There is no oil – oil spoils the texture, rendering it slick and impermeable.
Flour The type of the flour you choose will have a significant impact on your pasta:
- Protein content. Egg pasta in the style of Emilia-Romagna requires low-gluten (and thus low protein) flour in order to achieve its soft, tender, and absorbent quality. High protein flours are better used for breads, which give them a strong gluten web structure that withstands the powerful yeast gases that produce a good rise. These would include bread flour, durham flour (semolina [semola di grano duro]), and whole wheat flour.
- Consistency. The protein content of wheat varies from harvest to harvest. Only the national brands have successfully achieved consistent protein content year after year, with King Arthur having the best reputation among commercial bakers. Regional brands can also work well and many times have lower protein contents.
- Texture. For egg pasta, the finer the grind the better. Grainy flour, such as semolina, is difficult to work with and nearly impossible to roll out with a rolling pin. Semolina is used in factory-made pasta, where powerful machinery works the dough into beautifully-shaped varieties.
- Ash content. Ash content (sometimes called “mineral content” on the package) refers the outer layers of the wheat berry, where the minerals are concentrated. Flours that are processed closest to the bran will have higher ash content and are darker in color due to particles of bran. A high mineral content will develop more intense fermentation and flavor, which is wonderful for bread, but not for egg pasta. Flour from France typically has higher ash content than Italian or American flour, which gives French breads their distinctive flavor.
- Extraction rate. This refers to the flour obtained from the milling process and is related to ash content. A 100% extraction (or straight-run) is wholemeal flour that contains the entire wheat berry grain. Lower extraction rates render whiter flours from which progressively more of the bran and germ (and thus B vitamins and iron) are excluded, down to a 72% extraction, which is typical American white flour.
These are the three flours I recommend for use in egg pasta:
- General Mills’ Gold Medal unbleached all-purpose flour. My two favorite national brands are Gold Medal and King Arthur, with a slight nod towards King Arthur. However, in the case of all-purpose flour, Gold Medal’s is lower in protein (10.5% vs. King Arthur’s 11.7%), which makes it more appropriate for egg pasta.
- King Arthur’s Italian-style flour. If you want pasta that has a lower carbon footprint, use this flour rather than an Italian import – it’s made from American soft wheat. With a protein content of 8.5%, it’s ideal for fresh pasta. Here’s what the company says about this flour:
WHY WE LOVE IT: American flour has a type A personality. It’s full of gluten, ready for action, go go GO! Italian 00 flour, on the other hand, mirrors the warm, laid-back climate of its native land. Its protein is not only lower, but much more mellow. Make pizza or flatbread with this flour; you’ve never worked with such friendly dough! It’s incredibly extensible, practically flowing under your hands as you pat it into shape. And the resulting bread or crust? Light as air, tender, snapping crisp or soft as a cloud… this flour is definitely personality type B.”
- Tipo 00 flour from Italy. This, by far, is my favorite flour for making fresh egg pasta. In Italy, flours are graded by type [tipo], conforming to a 1967 law (4.7. 1967. n. 580.) The types are based largely on the flour’s ash content (as is the case in France and Germany).
There are four grades of flour in Italy:
|Type||Protein||Ash content||Extraction rate|
|Type 00||7% to 9%||less than 0.5%||50%|
|Type 0||9% to 10%||0.51% to 0.65%||72%|
|Type 1||10%||0.66% to 0.80%||80%|
|Type 2||10%||0.81% to 0.95%||85%|
Italian flours from hard wheat are called semola or grano duro [hard grain]. Flours made from soft wheat are called grano tenero [tender grain]. In Italy, as in much of Europe, soft wheat is the norm.
Tipo 00 flours are the softest, finest Italian flours; they are very finely ground like talcum powder and are bright white. They are the most refined and have the least fiber remaining, making these flours the best for fresh egg pasta.
Eggs The best-tasting eggs are those that are the most nutritious! Whenever possible, use organic, free-range eggs. “Cage-free” can mean a lot of things, but don’t necessarily mean the chickens are ever let out of the barn. Also beware of vegetarian-fed eggs; chickens are natural omnivores, meaning they need protein in their diet, like bugs and worms, which they can only get as they happily run around during the day, in the sunlight (which gives them a natural rhythm that is necessary for egg-laying). These types of eggs are the most nutritious and will produce excellent pasta!
As in baking, one never knows the exact ratio of dry to wet ingredients until the dough comes together. So – as in baking – it’s important to develop a sense of the dough’s optimal consistency to ensure successful pasta. The final proportion depends upon the size of the eggs, how much moisture the flour will absorb, which in turn is dependent upon the kitchen environment, such as temperature and humidity level.
In Bologna, the amount of pasta one makes is expressed in the number of eggs used; e.g., a “two-egg pasta” or a “five-egg pasta”. This recipe is for a two-egg pasta, which should yield about ¾ pound of final product or enough for four meal-sized portions. We begin, of course, with two eggs, and 1 ¼ cup of flour. You may need to add more flour as you make the dough, as explained below:
Making the Dough
Pour the flour onto your workspace, creating a small mound. Scoop out a well within the mound creating a thick circular wall of flour. Break the two eggs within the well and inspect for any broken egg shell. If you’re worried about broken egg shells, break the eggs into a bowl first, and then transfer into the well.
Pierce the egg yolks with a fork, and then begin to beat the eggs as if you were scrambling them. When the yolks have thoroughly combined with the whites, begin to draw some of the flour wall into the egg mixture a little at a time until the egg liquid becomes thickened. Continue drawing flour until the dough is no longer workable with a fork, which is when you begin using your hands! Work the dough with your hands and continue to add just enough flour until it is no longer sticky (you may not use all of the flour).
Set the dough aside for a moment under a damp towel while you thoroughly clean your workspace of all remnants of dough, crumbs, and flour. Wash your hands as well.
Kneading the Dough
This important step of the pasta making process is often overlooked – especially in restaurants – but it will ensure the perfect cloud-like consistency for which this pasta is famous. Pressing, folding, turning: this is kneading. With the heel of your hand, firmly press into the center of the dough ball. Grab the far end with your fingers and fold it toward you, as if folding the dough in half. Then give it a quarter turn. Repeat – over and over – and always in the same direction. Use one hand, both hands, or alternate hands. Knead for seven to eight minutes if using all purpose flour, ten minutes if using Tipo 00 or King Arthur’s Italian style flour. Wrap the dough ball in foil or plastic film and let it rest at room temperature for 15 minutes or up to two hours. This resting period will allow the gluten to relax and ensure thorough and even absorption of the egg’s moisture into the flour.
Rolling out the Dough
You will need a large surface area to dry the pasta. If you have a large counter space, that works, as does your kitchen or dining room table, or as my grandma did, use your bed! Spread several thin towels or even an old sheet over the area.
Attach the pasta machine to the counter per the instructions and set the machine’s rollers to the largest opening. Roll the dough on the counter with your hands to create a long sausage. Using a knife, cut the dough into two parts for each egg used; e.g., for a two-egg pasta, cut into four equal parts. Don’t stretch apart the dough into parts or use any other method that will break the gluten that you’ve worked so hard to produce.
Flatten one of the parts and run it through the machine. After it emerges from the machine, fold the piece of dough into thirds, business letter style, and run it through the machine again at the same setting, feeding it short end first. Repeat this procedure two or three times (which will continue to develop the gluten and prepare the dough for further thinning). Then lay this thinned-out dough onto your work surface uncovered. Process the remaining dough parts the same way, laying them beside each other (but not touching – they will stick!) onto the towel-covered work surface. This method allows for each flattened dough part to rest, which relaxes the gluten, allowing for continued thinning of the dough and will help prevent it from sticking to the machine’s rollers.
When all the dough parts have been passed through the machine, adjust the machine’s rollers to the next narrowest notch. Take the first dough part and run it through the machine, then lay it on the workspace to rest. Repeat with the other dough parts.
Continue this procedure, narrowing the rollers by only one notch each time, until you achieve the desired thinness of the pasta. Should the dough begin to stick to the rollers, don’t panic, but merely reverse the rollers, pulling the dough back out, and lightly dust with flour. You may want to dust the flour every other run through the machine to prevent sticking.
Resting the Pasta
Before cutting the pasta into noodles, let the thinned-out sheets dry on towels for about 10 to 15 minutes (depending upon the kitchen’s heat, humidity, and ventilation), turning them from time to time, ensuring even drying. Don’t let them become too dry or they will crack when you cut them into noodles. If they aren’t dry enough, the noodles will stick to each other.
Cutting the Pasta
Machine cuts Your pasta machine will probably have at least two sets of cutters: the broader for fettuccine and the narrower for tonnarelli (Lazio) / maccheroni alla chitarra (Abruzzo). Simply take the thinned-out pasta and run it through the cutters. If the pasta ribbons are too long, use your kitchen shears to cut them.
- Fettuccine [Little ribbons] – Use the broader set of cutters for fettuccine; the pasta can initially be rolled as thick or think as you’d like; we use the second to thinnest notch.
- Tonnarelli – This versatile style is square; i.e., the depth and width are equal. Therefore, when running the dough through the rollers, continue doing so until the width matches that of the cutter’s depth, so the end result will be square. You may need to experiment with your machine to determine which setting is ideal.
Hand cuts Use a very sharp knife to cut the pasta; I prefer an 8” Chef’s knife, or you can use a smaller paring knife. These cuts are typically rolled to the thinnest possible sheet of pasta before cutting.
- Pappardelle – This noodle originated in Bologna and is typically ¾” to 1” wide. Lay a sheet of pasta on your work space and cut with a fluted pastry wheel.
- Tagliatelle – Also originated in Bologna, this noodle is typically wider and perhaps thinner than fettuccine, say ½” wide (fettuccine is ¼”). The easiest way to cut this pasta is to loosely roll a pasta sheet lengthwise, then cut crosswise every quarter inch.
- Maltagliati [Badly cut] – This small, random-shaped pasta is great for soups, especially pasta e fogioli [pasta and beans]. It is usually a mixture of various triangles, squares, and trapezoids. The only important thing here is that the shapes are roughly the same size so they will cook to the same consistency. Roll a pasta sheet lengthwise like tagliatelle. Using your sharp knife, make a point on one of the ends by cutting each corner. Then cut crosswise to make a small triangle. Continue doing so until the whole roll is cut.
Drying the Pasta
Spread the noodles loosely on cloth towels and let them dry. If you won’t be using them immediately and wish to store them, grab several ribbons of pasta and form into a small nest. Dry them overnight (in dry climates) or for a full 24 hours (in more humid climates). Any less drying time will result in mold forming on the pasta. Once completely dried, the nests can be placed in shoe boxes (with a few ventilation holes cut in them) layered with a paper towel in between. Maltagliati can be stored in a sealed plastic bag after it has been completely dried.
There is no need to refrigerate completely dried pasta – keep in a dry cupboard or pantry. The pasta, when boiled, will produce the same luscious result as if cooked immediately after it was made!
Boiling the Pasta
- Always heat the water to a very lively boil – use the highest heat setting on your stove. The fast-moving bubbles will move the pasta around, ensuring even cooking and helping to prevent it from sticking together. It will also maintain a consistent temperature in the pot.
- Use plenty of water. Boiling with insufficient water will prevent loose starch from fully dissolving, resulting in a gummy texture. Calculate a gallon on water per pound of pasta. Even when boiling a small amount of pasta, use a minimum of three quarts water.
- Salt the water! No amount of salt in the sauce will compensate for insipid unsalted pasta. Use two tablespoons of salt per gallon of water. It may seem like a lot, but not all of the salt, of course, will be absorbed into the pasta while it’s boiling.
- Never put olive or any other type of oil in the water.
- Drain the pasta thoroughly, remembering that it will continue to cook – and continue softening – until it is served.
- Don’t be tempted to add any of the pasta water into the sauce to “thicken it”. This technique seems to have developed in the American restaurant scene – albeit with good intentions – but will render the sauce dull, starchy, and even alkaline. Don’t spoil the balance of your beautiful pasta and sauce with this sophomoric technique.
- If your sauce is butter or cream-based, add a pat of butter to the pasta while tossing.
- Serve immediately.