Home Cook’s Guide to Pasta
It’s no wonder that pasta, gluten or no, is everyone’s pantry staple. Is there any other starch that can hold a candle to it? Oh yes, we love all the grains, ancient and otherwise, but a grain of rice or quinoa will only ever have that one shape. Corn has an issue with neutrality: it always takes the sweet, buttery side. Potatoes are too gloriously soft to compete on texture, and bread’s no better — its very charm is how soggy it gets under saucy stuff.
Pasta gets an A+ in versatility, ease, and of course, comfort. It can be neutral, it can be flavored. (Check it out: fresh spinach pasta.) It can be healthy, cheesy, layered, jumbled, humble, or sumptuous. And most fun of all, it comes in a million shapes. Okay, that’s a tiny bit of hyperbole, but it does come in a bunch of shapes and sizes, each with its own culinary utility.
Here we take a look at some of the pastas we carry and their superpowers, from fork-twirling to sauce-gripping and everything in between.
Spaghetti is like the cheddar cheese of pasta — it’s nearly every child’s first noodle. It’s probably most beloved for the way it twirls around the tines of a fork, so you can bundle it into your mouth. But our chefs like it for its sturdiness: it’s terrific for something like a carbonara sauce, where you need to toss the noodles vigorously to coat, and a lesser pasta might tear.
That said, it’s terrific with a Bolognese sauce, too, or our kid’s favorite, no sauce at all, just a pat of butter, plenty of Parmesan, and a little pepper (if they’re feeling adventurous).
Orzo is shaped like rice, and it has a wonderfully chewy, al dente texture — but the little pastina cooks in 7 to 10 minutes, so it’s got a leg up on most grains for quick weeknight meals. Its size makes it perfect for soups and salads. We recently tossed it together with some very light, very lemony turkey meatballs.
It’s also the pasta we want to tuck under rich braised meats, where there’s sauce to spare. And it’s very comforting and oddly luxurious coated in butter. For an upgrade on the kids’ pasta, try a simple sauce of brown butter, white wine, chives, and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Pappardelle is a wide, flat rustic pasta with a light, delicate texture. It’s one of our favorite pastas to make fresh because you can cut it by hand — there’s no need for a fancy pasta machine.
You want to serve pappardelle with a light, loose sauce that doesn’t require a lot of tossing to coat the noodles, like our Alfredo with squash and peas. It’s also terrific under a ladleful of chunky meat sauce — think wild boar ragu and pork sugo. We love how the meat gets trapped under the pappardelle’s tender layers. So delicious!
Conchigliette, Conchiglie, Conchiglioni
This conch, or shell-shaped, pasta comes in a few sizes and varieties. The wee conchigliette is a classic in soups, like minestrone. The medium-size conchiglie is terrific tossed with greens, Parm, and chunks of meat — especially sausage, which tends to get trapped in the shell, creating a perfect bite.
And what about the monstrous big conchiglioni? That’s the one you stuff. Think ricotta and pesto or ground pork and spinach — buried in a zesty red sauce and mozzarella. Yes!
The coils of this little corkscrew are like Venus flytraps for saucy stuff. We use fusilli in cold salads, like our grilled sausage and pepper salad, because we like how the vinaigrette gets trapped in its curls. It’s also the pasta we’re going to toss with pesto or a coarse meat sauce, like bolognese — sauce goes in, and it doesn’t come out again.
Cavatappi is a ringlet to fusilli’s corkscrew — it’s a little longer, and it has a nice, big spiral and sauce-grabbing ridges. It’s one of our top choices (also see orecchiette) for macaroni and cheese: the way the sauce hugs every curl and curve of the pasta is downright magic.
Cavatappi’s squiggly s-curve makes it a great companion for light but chunky stuff, like veggies and seafood. It’s delightful tossed with a savory ratatouille or with tender, whole shrimp in a light, lemony sauce.
Farfalle translates to butterfly in Italian, but this pretty pasta is sometimes referred to as a bow tie, too. Its size and shape make it sturdy, and it can hold its own in a rough-chopped salad or sauce, like our summer pasta skillet. Our chefs also like farfalle for the folds at the center of its wings — generous sauce pockets that will accommodate everything from a creamy Alfredo to a thick marinara.
In Italian, orecchiette translates to something along the line of “little ears,” which might be the cutest pasta name of all time. In a dish, the orecchiette will scoop up all the sauce. Recently, we stirred them through broccoli, squash, white wine, broth, and Parmesan, and they were like teeny-tiny cups of creamy sauce. As you can imagine, they’re also perfect in a cheesy and saucy pasta bake, like our Hatch chile mac and cheese.
Speaking of sublime pasta-to-sauce ratios, we love rigatoni for its tubular shape and ridges — sauce clings to it, inside and out. It’s also a nice, hardy pasta shape, so it has a bold presence in dishes. In the test kitchen, we like to toss rigatoni with Italian sausage for a quick, easy meal: try crispy chickpeas, escarole, and Parm or, if you’re feeling like something light and zesty, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, and burrata.