Fresh pasta science – On making homemade pasta

Ever since we learned how to make pasta ourselves, it’s become a weekend staple. During the week it’s too much to ask of our rumbling stomachs, but in the weekend it’s great to do. Pasta making is also typically one of those skills you really improve on speed with when doing it more often. Whereas the first time making homemade pasta probably took us close to 4 hours (and a terrible mess), we now manage to make an entire fresh pasta lasagna with sauces and all, in about half an hour (taking a quick rest while the lasagna is in the oven)!

Since lasagna only requires simple sheets of pasta, it’s probably the easiest fresh pasta to make. That said, once you can make a good lasagna sheet, any homemade pasta will be possible. Therefore, this post takes a deep dive into fresh pasta science. Curious how to work with dried pasta from the supermarket? Have a look at the post focused on the science of dried pastas!

Simplicity of pasta

Pasta is eaten all over the world, thanks to the fact that it’s such a simple (but smart) way of using flour. Instead of mixing water with flour and yeast, leaving it to bubble and rise, kneading it and baking it (yes, bread is what I’m referring to), pasta only involves kneading flour and liquid (commonly egg) and boiling it in water. It’s amazing that flour can make such a wide variety of products.

When pasta is dried it can also be stored for a long period of time, without any negative effects on quality. Drying out the pasta will keep it good for just about forever. Even when you’re making your own pasta, drying it on a rack will keep it perfectly fine for several days.

Why make homemade pasta?

There’s a few reasons for making your own pasta actually. The first reason is the fun of it. Making your own pasta is fun to do and it will give you another skill to show off. Second of all though, fresh pasta tastes different. Fresh homemade pasta is softer and lighter than store bought. The third and probably main reason for making your own pasta is that the dough can be used a lot more versatile. Since the sheets of pasta are so flexible you can make your own ravioli, tortellini, caneloni that you wouldn’t be able to make otherwise. Also for lasagnas the sheets tend to be more flexible and easier to arrange in your pasta dish.

pasta drying on pasta rack
Rolled out pasta drying on our pasta rack. We find that drying the pasta before cooking improves the bite.

Pasta science – The ingredients

Since pasta only contains two (maybe 3, and more maybe 4) ingredients, the science of pasta is pretty straight forward. So let’s start with the ingredients:

  1. Flour
  2. Eggs
  3. (Water)
  4. (Salt)

With just flour and eggs you can make a perfectly fine pasta. Eggs contain fats & proteins, they contribute to the richness of the pasta. The rest of the eggs is mostly water, but making a pasta with only water will give a bland and soggy pasta.

The eggs are mixed with the flour and kneaded together well. It can take a while for a pasta dough to come together and this is because the dough contains quite little water. The water has to hydrate the flour particles (the starch and gluten) and the kneading has to develop the gluten. Both these processes require both time as well as kneading.

The main trick of making pasta really is kneading the dough until it becomes super smooth. It takes some time and effort to do this (just like baking bread). However, once you’ve got the hang of it, making pasta isn’t that hard anymore. A well kneaded pasta dough will be a lot firmer than a bread dough. It’s important that at the end of kneading the pasta is flexible enough to roll out into a thin sheet.

Which flour type to use for fresh pasta?

If you’re a home cook like I am, honestly, any decent flour will work. We’ve used regular flour, type 00 flour, special pasta flour or flour meant for pastry. There are small differences between the flours, but for me they’re so small I most likely won’t notice them in any sort of blind taste test. So, when making pasta, don’t let having the wrong flour hold you back. (Just don’t use whole wheat on your first attempt, that will defenitely be harder to make.)

Why salt & water?

Eggs are quite large, and we all know the dilemma of making 1,5 recipe of something with eggs. You tend to need 1,5 eggs as well. If you’re making just a bit more than 1 portion (hence 1 whole egg) you can add some additional water to still bring the dough together. Water is great to correct a single portion of dough as well if you added just a bit too much flour. Since you’ve already got the egg in there, it won’t be soggy and still have quite a bite to it.

The salt is there just for flavour. I personally leave it out, preferring to flavour the overall dish at the end instead of the individual pasta, but that’s personal as well and will depend on what you’re serving the pasta with.

Pasta science: Why all the kneading and rolling?

The essence of pasta making is that it’s kneaded and rolled out properly. In order to understand that, we’ll first zoom in on the flour. Flour is made up of mostly starch and gluten (proteins). While kneading your pasta (just like when kneading a bread dough) you’re developing the gluten. In other words, you’re building up a gluten network. This is done by orienting the gluten proteins and allowing them to organize themselves. This is what is done during the kneading process.

After kneading you will roll the pasta dough quite a few times. If you’re doing this by hand with a rolling pin you might want to rest the dough for an hour or so before heading on. During the resting period the gluten relax and orient themselves. This will prevent the dough from ‘pulling back’ after you’ve rolled it. However, if you’re using a pasta machine, there’s no need to wait, just head straight on to the rolling.

By rolling it through a pasta machine several times you’re actually helping the gluten to develop even further and structure into nice flat sheets. You can also do it by hand, but a pasta roller really is a lot easier for making those very thin smooth sheets. The gluten tends to pull the sheets together and with a pin roller it requires a little more skill to overcome this properly (and prevent it from sticking to the counter top!).

Is resting pasta dough necessary?

For those who scan through the text, no, you don’t have to if you’re using a pasta machine. If you’re rolling the dough by hand resting will make your life a little easier.

Can I do kneading with a machine?

Yes, no problem. We use a stand mixer (Kitchenaid, one of my favourite tools in the kitchen for sure), but I’ve also seen food processors being used, just to bring the dough together. It will save you time mixing the eggs with the flour, which otherwise is a slow process with making a puddle within the flour and slowly incorporating the egg. So yes, making pasta takes time, but please do take this shortcut if you feel like it!

A fresh pasta recipe

Fresh pasta lasagna
Cuisine: Italian
Author:
Prep time:
Cook time:
Total time:
Serves: 2 servings
Ingredients
  • 100g flour (I prefer using hard Durum flour, but to be honest, normal bread flour works well as well)
  • 1 egg
  • some water
Instructions
  1. Knead the egg and flour together to get a cohesive dough. You might need to add some extra water, but add the water slowly. The dough should have come together as one firm ball and really requires some kneading to become smooth.
  2. After some kneading (this will take anywhere between 10-20 minutes) you will feel the consistency getting softer.
  3. Take out your pasta machine and roll the dough in between the two rolls. It'll flatten slightly, fold it double and roll again, do so for several times. If the dough starts feeling wet add some extra flour.
  4. Once the dough starts feeling softer, start decreasing the width of the rollers every time you take it through until you've reached the desired thickness.
  5. Hang the pasta on a pasta rack or any smart set up that you can come up. I wouldn't advise kitchen chairs with large backs, tried that and we had pasta stuck all over the kitchen chair...
  6. We found that leaving the pasta to hang on the rack for just a couple of minutes will already start drying the pasta and makes it easier to cook al dente.
  7. Bring a pot of water to the boil, take at least a liter, and add the pasta. This pasta requires really short cooking times of only 2-3 minutes so take care not to overcook it!

Further fresh pasta science reading

Most of what I’ve written above is based on own experience. However, if you still haven’t had enough pasta science yet, check out this article by Serious Eats, they’ve done a very extensive analysis with great photos.

Looking for ways to use your homemade pasta? Try out our lasagna recipe! Don’t feel like making fresh pasta now, but are feeling like pasta? Don’t worry, we’re normal people too and also use regular dried pasta.

Last but not least, scientists have also looked into the science of pasta, the ACS (American Chemical Society) has made a nice YouTube video on how to best boil that pasta you’ve just made:

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