Homemade pasta – Science of pasta making

Ever since we learned how to make pasta ourselves, we make it at least once a month. It’s more of a weekend activity, but by now we’ve become good enough 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)!

What’s best about this homemade lasagna, is the day after! It will make more than enough for a second serving for lunch or a small dinner and seems to taste even better that second day. Whether it’s real or imaginery, I’m not sure, but it just tastes delicious.

Our favorite lasagne is one with these homemade pasta sheets, a tomato sauce (which is different every time we make it, using whatever we feel like or have at home) and, of course, a bechamel sauce. None of these are actually hard to make, but by doing it you’re doing science. In my opinion, making a lasagne is a perfect idea for a science fair! That’s why today is pasta science day!

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 (either water or egg) and boiling it in water.

What’s also a graet attribute of pasta is that it can also be stored for long periods of time without any negative effects on quality. Drying out the pasta will keep it good for just about forever. Just think of that, this is a lot harder to do with bread.

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

Making pasta

Pasta that’s made at home cannot be stored as long as the dry pasta you can buy in the supermarket (unless you’ve got a really good dehydrator). But it is just as easy to make and since you’ll be making it ‘to order’ there’s probably no need to store it for long.

As mentioned above, pasta only consists of flour and a liquid. In this case, we’re using egg. Egg contains fats and proteins and gives the pasta a slightly richer, softer feel to it compared to using water (Serious Eats actually did a great extensive comparison of the 2). Even though there exist special flours for making pasta, my experience is that both a regular flour as well as a dedicated pasta flour can make a good pasta. I should properly compare the two one day, but I find that simply variations in moisture content and kneading will give such a big difference that the flour doesn’t matter that much. (Do you find so as well?)

The main trick of making pasta 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. Also, not kneading simply isn’t an option, you won’t be able to roll it out into a nice pasta sheet. We’ll discuss that in more detail after sharing the recipe, which in itself is dead simple:

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!

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.

Also, the flour hydrates, it takes up the water. Over time this will result in a smooth dough.

Is resting pasta dough necessary?

Once the dough has been kneaded into a smooth dough recipes often call for a resting period. We always skip this step…

It does help to rest the dough (again, Serious Eats also explored this in great detail), but it doesn’t mean that you can’t make a nice pasta without it. And, since most of us, probably don’t have the time to leave the pasta to rest (e.g. because you forgot you still had to make the pasta!), no worries, just leave it.

Resting should help the dough hydrate further (just like a pancake batter would) and give the gluten a rest. This rest helps the gluten network to become more flexible and less prone to breaking. But again, no worries if you forget it or just don’t want to do it.

Rolling, rolling, rolling

Then the fun bit starts, rolling the pasta dough through a pasta roller. By rolling it through 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!).

 

So, give it a try and be sure to check out my lasagna recipe in a few days made with fresh made pasta!

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