I’ve been making pasta by hand for a long time. At first this was only infrequently in order to learn, ‘have a play’ or to impress (this may have worked as we’re still together).
Now I make it very regularly indeed but I have an issue with how making pasta by hand can be promoted as complex, requires many expensive gadgets or even an elitist or cheffy-only thing to do. Some pasta can be tricky, but most is very simple indeed and that’s what I hope to impress on you with this article, albeit that I have stayed away from recipes (if you want a recipe to try why not look at my roasted orange butternut squash ravioli).
This is food made originally by those living centuries ago who had little kitchen paraphernalia (even in the kitchens for a wealthy household). If they could do it with almost nothing then we can too. You need only the bare minimum of things to start, plus the ingredients and something to cook and drain it. It’s likely you’ll have this most basic equipment already.
So, what is really needed for pasta making, what you might buy next as you progress and, finally, what isn’t necessary but might be fun if you can afford it? I ended up writing so much that I have split it my ramblings into two posts. This is ‘the basics’. My second post focuses on going further and what gadgets might be used.
I want to add that this love of making pasta by hand doesn’t mean I am a fresh pasta snob. Absolutely not. Dried is so versatile and often more appropriate or the best texture for the majority of pasta dishes. It’s such a utilitarian kitchen cupboard staple that you’d be rather dim if you didn’t have a packet or two of dried pasta lying about. In characteristic kitchen overkill, I’d actually suggest a minimum of five types of dried pasta in your ideal arsenal:
- spaghetti/linguine/similar for oil-rich meaty or tomato sauces or for seafood
- lasagne/cannelloni for robust bakes (unless you’re determined to always make your own – even I’ve got an ’emergency’ box of lasagne)
- a tiny shape such as stellini, ditalini or even alfabeti for soups, broths and fleshing out casseroles
- a ridged or twisted shape or smaller cup shape which is both easy to stab with a fork and which traps smaller dice veg and meat. For rich-but-smooth or creamy sauces, such as farfalle, conchiglioni or fusilli
- a medium tubular or cupped shape for cheesy or smooth sauces: maccheroni, cellentani or penne (all tubes) or conchiglie or lumache (cupped/shells)
However, some recipes just cry out for freshly made pasta and, well, I just enjoy making it anyway.
It has only been in the past 18 months or so that I have started to buy and use gadgets. For around 20+ years I made pasta by hand with a rolling pin and a sharp knife – mostly due to the fact that a) it worked and b) I couldn’t afford/justify the expense on fancy extras. Hands, rolling pin and knife is all you really need and, of course, a saucepan and colander/sieve to cook and drain it afterwards.
Although many gadgets do make life easier and faster you can get away using so little, and there’s no necessity to spend money. Of course, I’m not trying to stop you going out and splashing the cash if you have it – I’m just here to reinforce the notion that homemade pasta can be as cheap as buying the ingredients.
I have bought myself some gadgets now. Equipment has become cheaper and more widely available and of course my salary has improved over the years (albeit in small amounts!). I decided that it was time I treated myself to a few things. Somethings have made such a difference I wish I’d felt able to afford them a lot longer ago, like the pasta machine and a tall airer. I’ve actually taken the same approach with bread making too. I’ve made my own bread for about the same length of time (20+ years) with the bare minimum of equipment, but in the last few years I’ve bought a few nice things to help. I guess pasta and bread can be classified as my hobbies, and people like buying nice “stuff” for their hobbies, don’t they?
The premise for these two grouped articles is that you can make pasta by only spending on ingredients to start with – but takes a look at pretty much everything leading up to all the bells and whistles should you want to buy ‘toys’ to expand your pasta making.
I’ve added a 🍝 pasta emoji next to all those I’ve used or own. Also I’ve given a rough idea on expense, from £ meaning very cheap (at just a few quid) to ££££ prohibitively (ie getting to professional equipment) expensive.
The basics – what do I need as a minimum?
Your hands 🍝 £ free!
Your greatest tools in the kitchen. Don’t underestimate your own capabilities. You are a pasta making genius (already, or in the making!).
In an extreme example of how useful your hands are in this process, you could make something like orecchietti, risi or plain trofie (there is a twisted version of trofie too) without using anything else bar the ingredients and your hands until you came to cook it. You can knead the dough on the table and rip off the right-sized pieces of dough before shaping all by hand.
A sharp knife 🍝 £-£££
A long cooks knife is best as the larger blade will help you cut straighter pasta, like linguini.
Rolling pin 🍝 £
Any rolling pin will do. Totally essential!
Something to hang the pasta on – or space for shapes 🍝 £ (even free if you’re creative with what you own)
It helps to drape long pasta like tagliatelli or linguini over something so it hangs like washing on a line. This keeps it from sticking together and airs it. You can leave it to dry fully and store it for later use, but it’s more usual to cook handmade pasta straightaway after making – in this case airing helps to precent the pasta shapes sticking together and negating all your hard work.
My make-do solutions for drying pasta in the past have included:
- a wide-gapped wire cooling rack suspended by string from something or balanced between two towers of books
- the backs of chairs (washed thoroughly first)
- a couple of cheap dowel rods bought from a DIY store that I balanced between chair backs and later nailed into a block of wood
- a length of new washing line tied between cupboard door handles (warn anyone coming in!!)
Smaller pasta shapes, like farfalle, can be tossed in semola (semolina), flour or fine polenta and just left on your table or in a baking tray (as below). Actually, strip pasta can also be handled in this way, curled into nests to air and dry. Just be careful to keep the strips fairly separate and not squeezed together accidentally betwixt thumb and fingers.
A space for working 🍝 £ free (presumably you’ve already got some space…)
This is crucial. You need space to roll out the dough and cut it. You need the space for drying shapes. You need the space to not get in a faff when you’re colvered in flour and juggling dough.
It doesn’t have to be huge, but it needs to be flat, very clean and clear of clutter. Make your life easier and clear yourself your working space before you start.
Saucepan and colander or sieve 🍝 £ – ££
OK, so it’s not anything to do with making pasta but if you’ve made it you’re going to cook it so I’m classing it as a basic need. I suspect that anyone considering making pasta or getting more in to it will be already well equipped with good saucepans, sieves and colanders, but here’s my take on these essentials:
A large saucepan is the right choice for pasta, but really you can cook pasta in anything heat proof. So, even a cheap small saucepan will do – well, for one or two portions any way and there’s no need to bother with non-stick. The reason I’ve nominated a large saucepan is that undoubtedly at some point in pasta making you’ll cook for a number of people. It’s all about the sharing. More people = more pasta = bigger pot.
You’ll often see people list a ‘heavy bottomed saucepan’ in equipment for recipes: while these generally are a better buy all round as they distribute heat evenly and are more robust they are not needed for pasta. Pasta floats and dances around in the simmering water so heat spots are not an issue. If you’re only buying one large saucepan to cover all your cooking needs (like me: I haven’t the space to store more) then do go for a well made one with a thick bottom core to it, as other foods and cooking methods will benefit.
Buy one with a lid if you can too, as it will a) stop your kitchen steaming up too much (even with an extractor fan) and b) save your gas or electric as it keeps in heat better and you can turn your temperature down.
A colander or sieve is essential as a match for the saucepan. You can’t keep draining pasta from your saucepan with the lid. Yes, it’s possible to do this, but eventually you’ll scald yourself with the water or at some point slip and drop all the pasta in the sink. It’s maddening when that happens! You can get sieves and colanders from cheap shops and markets for very, very little indeed.
Scales 🍝 £-£££
Although no doubt there are some Nonnas and pasta experts that can probably work out the ratio of semola or flour to water by feel, you and I as normal people need a set of scales. Mechanical or digital doesn’t matter, but you’ll need these.
You may need a bowl to go with tyour scales but I’ve not listed bowls in basics as you possibly might weigh with the integrated bowl or anything else to hand. Therefore I can’t justify this as an essential piece of kit for pasta making, despite it being a fundamental piece of kitchen equipment for just about everything else.
My next post will go on to look at what gadgets you can begin to invest in once you’ve tried to make pasta and decide that you want to continue. Or, if you’re wading straight in and intending to spend money on pasta equipment from the get-go.