In some cases, making and using fresh homemade pasta is worth it. In lasagna for instance where the pasta will actually absorb some of those sauces and doesn’t need as long to cook in the oven if it’s fresh.
However, if you come home from work and want a meal within half an hour or so, you don’t want to make your own fresh pasta. Instead, most of us will revert to dried store bought pastas. What’s more, there are definitely dishes that don’t even work with fresh pasta, they need the dried version. Macaroni pie, or baked macaroni, is a great example of this.
But why does dried pasta work so well in those instances? And, more importantly, how do they manage to get the pasta so dry and firm? Can you really keep all of that pasta good forever?
How dried pasta is made
Dried pasta isn’t very different from the pasta you might make at home. The main ingredients are flour and some sort of liquid, eggs or water for instance. After making a dough in industrial mixers the pasta will be pressed through die to create the desired shapes. This is where the penne, spaghetti and tagliatella are formed!
The main difference with homemade pasta though is the drying step that follows. This isn’t done at room temperature, instead, to increase the drying rate the temperatures are increased to speed up drying of the pasta.
During drying of the pasta the pasta will lose its flexibility. It will become brittle and stronger.
The advantage of dried pasta
The main advantage of using dried pasta of course is the fact that it can be kept for a lot longer than fresh moist pasta. Fresh pasta has more mositure, making it an attractive place for micro organisms to grow on. Dried pasta on the other hand barely contains any moisture. It has a low so-called water activity. This low water activity prevents micro organisms from growing in the pasta.
Besides this main advantage, dried pasta has another main advantage in cooking. Since dried pasta barely contains any water, it can still take up a significant amount of water. The flour in the pasta will absorb the moisture. Since a large part of pasta is made of starch, the pasta will swell up during this process. Starch has a tendency to absorb water and swell up. This is also the reason you have to add plenty of water to pasta when boiling it. The pasta will grow during boiling.
Using the thickening power
When using pasta for a regular boiled pasta dish you want to cook the pasta until it’s soft enough to eat. However, when using the pasta for an oven dish, you often do not want to do that. Instead, you’d want to boil the pasta just long enough that it has cooked about halfway. So it has absorbed quite some water already (reducing cooking time in the oven), but it can still take up more.
What this remaining absorption power does is that it can thicken your oven dish! By mixing the pasta (often macaroni) with plenty moisture in an oven tray, the pasta will absorb at least part of this moisture. This will create a firmer, thicker dish. What’s more, since the pasta and sauce are so stacked together, it will create quite a firm structure, as is the case for macaroni pie for instance.
This gives a totally different, richer structure instead of the moist soft cooked pasta dishes. However, it wouldn’t have been possible with fresh pasta. The fresh pasta will stick to everything and form one large clump of material. This is all because of the fact that fresh pasta doesn’t have this lack of moisture. In other words, it will not absorb as much water!
Macaroni pie, straight from the oven, made with tricolore pasta to add some colour.
Baked macaroni (pie) recipe
It’s time to get this pasta using! The recipe below is inspired by a Mac and Cheese recipe from Pinch of Yum. I mostly reduced the cheese and the cream content, making it less creamy and rich, but still super tasty.
You will notice that the recipe below doesn’t only use the thickening power of the dried macaroni pasta. Instead it also uses eggs and roux to create a nice firm structure. No reason why you wouldn’t want to combine forces here!
- 500g dried macaroni
- boiling water (enough to cover the macaroni)
- 30g flour
- 30g butter
- 500ml milk
- 1 egg
- 200g cheese
- 2 slices of bread
- 20g butter
- Place the macaroni in a bowl or pan. Pour boiling water on top of the macaroni, make sure the macaroni is covered well. Stir through to prevent the macaroni from sticking to one another.
- Melt the butter in a sauce pan and mix in the flour to make a roux. Once it's come together in a paste, add 100ml of milk. Whisk it through the roux until all clumps have gone.
- Add the rest of the milk and heat until the mixture has thickened slightly (it will not thicken as much as a roux).
- Take the mix of the heat and mix in the cheese (leave some aside it you prefer a cheese top).
- Pour off the excess water from the macaroni. The macaroni at this point should be al dente, so it shoud still have quite some bite, but be just a little too firm to eat as such.
- Mix the macaroni with the roux/cheese mixture and spread in a large oven tray.
- If you want an extra crunch: take some slices of bread, crumble them in pieces and mix with melted butter. Spread these over the top.
- Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180C for 45 minutes. The mix should be set and nice and brown (but not burned).