Cooking pasta is one of the most convenient ways to get a healthy and tasty dinner on the table in a hurry. But with hundreds of pasta shapes to choose from, how do you pick the right one?
You could definitely let tradition guide you. There are many traditional pasta and sauce pairings in Italian cooking. Spaghetti with clams. Pesto with trofie. Cacio e pepe with tonnarelli. The list is long.
But traditional combinations are not the only way. Pasta is a very forgiving medium and often traditional combinations are based on nothing more than habit and location. If a specific region has a particular type of pasta then it’s likely to wind up with sauces from the same region. Which means that while a local Italian may expect a particular combination, you can experiment at your own supper table. There are endless possibilities and Italian cooking is as much about creativity as it is about tradition.
Fortunately, centuries of pasta making and sauce pairing in Italy have also produced some valuable guidelines and tips to help. Here are 6 quick questions to ask when trying to choose the perfect pasta shape for dinner.
- Is losing weight or managing your weight a top priority? If yes, choose a dry pasta made from 100% durum wheat semolina that comes in a fun shape (like rigatoni, fusilli, or even spaghetti) and make sure to cook your pasta al dente, which means it is still firm to the bite. If you want to know why, check out the long explanation in my recent blog post on whether pasta is healthy. Whole grain pasta or pasta made from legumes like chickpeas and lentils are also good options.
- Are you making a big, meaty sauce? Is that a hearty meat ragu bubbling away on your stovetop? If grandma’s bolognese is your go to, a long, smooth, flat ribbon-like pappardelle, fettuccine, or tagliatelle would make a great match. The chunky pasta sauce will stick to the smooth, flat plane of pasta. Fresh pasta made with eggs is often used with more delicate or creamy sauces, but fresh egg tagliatelle is a major win with bolognese sauce, and is actually the way it is traditionally served. Bolognese is also traditionally served with lasagna, and lasagna sheets are basically as wide and flat as it gets. And while we’re on the topic of bolognese, it’s worth noting that in Italy, traditional bolognese is not a tomato sauce, nor is it made with garlic. Wild, right?
- What about a sauce with bits of crunchy meat like carbonara? Hollow tube shapes like rigatoni are great with small crunchy bits of guanciale, a cured pork product vaguely similar to bacon. Tubes are good as the meat gets caught on the inside. When I moved to Rome, I was surprised at how often I was served rigatoni with traditional dishes like carbonara. Rigatoni, ziti, and penne are also all good shapes with meat and ragu-style sauces as they can help scoop up the meat.
- Will you bake your pasta or top it with a thick sauce? Sturdy, dry pasta types made from 100% durum wheat semolina like penne, rigatoni and macaroni stand up well with heavy sauces and long cooking times. Durum means hard in Latin and durum wheat is the hardest wheat of all. Pasta made with durum wheat semolina is therefore tough and can handle the oven or a heavy sauce. Shell shapes like conchiglie are good for baking and potato gnocchi is a sturdy workhorse that is wonderful with a thick cheese or heavy meat sauce.
- Do you plan on using a lighter sauce, made with cream, oil, or butter? Fresh pasta made with eggs and soft wheat flour is more tender and delicious with delicate, creamy and buttery sauces. Light and oily sauces, like those often used with seafood, are also good with long pasta shapes like spaghetti and linguine, as the oil will coat the pasta. Twisted shapes like fusilli or rotini can also be used with oil-based sauces like pesto as the spirals will help the sauce to stick.
- Just tossing tomato sauce on some pasta for a quick dinner?
Rigatoni and fusilli are my personal go-to types when making easy tomato sauces on busy weeknights, but pretty much any pasta shape will do. Experiment. While some shapes work better with certain sauces, it’s hard to go entirely wrong. Pasta is very forgiving and flexible — which makes it all the more loveable.