The Science of the Best Fresh Pasta

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Easy to make, fresh pasta is worth the effort. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik, unless otherwise noted]

Guess what? If you have flour in your kitchen, you can make pasta. Right now. Got eggs, too? You have everything you need to whip up a batch of silky-smooth fettuccine. Have some cheese or vegetables lying around? You could be sitting down to fresh ravioli, tortellini, or a hearty lasagna in under two hours.

And yet, if you do a quick search for pasta recipes, chances are you'll walk away more confused than confident. Some call for flour and whole eggs, others for additions of water or oil. Weight versus volume measurements, kneading times, resting conditions—it's all over the map.

It's not just a layman's issue, either. When I was in culinary school, I had a series of instructors who only left me more disoriented. Some insisted on oil, others on salt, still others on additional yolks or a splash of water. Prescribed kneading and resting times often contradicted each other. One instructor told us to hang the pasta to dry for at least 10 minutes before cooking it; others had us keep it tightly wrapped until the moment it was dropped in the pot.

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

So how's a girl to choose the very best way? If you're this girl, you obsess. You make batch after batch—dozens and dozens of batches, in fact—to find out. You walk around dusted and streaked with flour, crumbly bits of dough crusted to the end of your sleeves. You make spreadsheets and charts, and sometimes you maybe even cry. You make all-egg pastas, pastas made with just whites, just yolks, and nothing more than water. You try different flours and check resting times at fifteen minute intervals for almost an entire day. You taste more ratios of egg yolk to egg white to flour than you care to admit. You add oil, you add salt, you add oil and salt. You wave forkfuls of fettuccine at your friends and family and colleagues, wrangling them into taste test after taste test. You read every book you can get your hands on. Your forearms get totally ripped.

Eventually, you realize there's no such thing as THE perfect pasta.

In part, that's because pasta is very forgiving. It also comes in many shapes and sizes, textures and colors and flavors. Which means that there are as many kinds of perfect pasta as you want there to be.

This isn't to say that making fresh pasta is unusually easy or unusually difficult. Yes, it's an intimidating process, especially if you're not used to working with flour and water. But it's also an imminently achievable skill, and once you're comfortable with the basic technique, there's really no reason why you can't reap the rewards on a regular basis.

First things first, I'm going to give you a simple, versatile recipe for pasta dough. I'm going to take you through it step-by-step and show you how your dough should look along the way. And I'm also going to tell you how you can tinker with my recipe on your own time, to get exactly the flavor, texture, and color you desire. I'll even share a couple of sneaky cheats that'll save you time when you're in a rush (and send Italian grandmothers a-rollin' in their graves).

Why Bother?

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If you've reached this point and you're wondering why on earth anyone would bother to make pasta from scratch when it's just a boiling pot of water and a cardboard box away, then it's time to get acquainted with the fresh stuff. It's crucial here to understand that fresh pasta and dry pasta are two totally different beasts; they're best suited to different tasks and the qualities we look for when making them are accordingly distinct.

Your typical fresh, Italian-style pasta is made from a combination of eggs and flour. As I've mentioned, many iterations of this basic formula exist, but this definition should do just fine for now. The eggs and flour are mixed into a stiff-but-pliable dough that's kneaded, rested, and then rolled—usually through a machine—and either cut into strips for noodles or left in sheets that are used to make lasagna or stuffed pastas like ravioli.

Pros will adjust their basic dough recipe depending on which kind of pasta they're making; my basic dough will work well for a wide variety of styles.* Fresh pasta is coveted for its tender, silky texture, rich, eggy flavor, and soft yellow hue.

*For the purposes of this post, we won't be getting into extruded pastas—your penne, rigatoni, macaroni, and so forth—which require different equipment and a substantially different dough formula.

Dry pasta, on the other hand, typically contains no eggs. It's made by mixing semolina flour—a coarse wheat flour—and water. The two are industrially mixed, shaped, and dried at low temperatures for optimal storage. Not only is it more convenient than fresh pasta, but the denser, firmer texture requires—and stands up to—longer cooking times and holds up beautifully under heavy, hearty sauces.

The recipe we'll be breaking down here is for a light, springy, and delicate fresh pasta that's as well-suited to slicing into noodles as it is to making stuffed pastas, which require super-thin, pliable sheets of dough.

Pasta-Making 101

We can break pasta-making down into five steps. Here's a quick overview to orient you. I tested a range of variables within each of these steps, honing the recipe based on my findings, until I had my ideal technique down to a science.

  • Choose your ingredients
  • Mix and knead the dough
  • Rest the dough
  • Roll your pasta
  • Cook it!

What You'll Need

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There are a lot of pasta-making tools on the market, from Kitchenaid attachments to fluted pastry wheels and special drying racks.

All of these things do perform useful tasks, but pasta predates them by a long shot and they're far from necessary. If you have pasta-making experience and you're looking for a good workout, all you'll really need is flour, eggs, and a rolling pin. Actually, you don't even need a rolling pin if you're going for pastas like pici, orecchiette, capunti, and myriad other hand-shaped or hand-rolled doughs. But since I don't really like to exercise, I use a pasta-maker. At work, I use a stand mixer attachment; at home, I just use one of the simple, hand-cranked rollers. I also like to keep a bench knife around to make tasks a little easier and a little neater. If you don't have one, though, I won't tell.

It's also helpful to have a parchment-lined sheet tray ready for your rolled-out dough, a kitchen towel and/or plastic wrap to cover it and keep it from drying out, and some extra flour for dusting the pasta to keep it from getting too sticky. The only other thing you'll need is a few of square feet of surface space. A wooden table, a marble countertop, a big cutting board—just find yourself a spot where you can make a big floury mess.

Choosing Your Ingredients

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Pasta recipes call for all kinds of ingredients. But there are two things any pasta recipe absolutely needs: flour and water. That's because flour and water are how you create gluten—the network of proteins that gives pasta its stretchy texture and bite. The more you work that dough, the more elasticity it will develop. Striking the right level of gluten development is key to fresh pastas, pizza crusts, and most baked goods—though of course there are gluten-free adaptations that substitute that protein network with standard gluten alternatives like xanthan or guar gums, and even eggs.

There are a couple of ways to manipulate dough, and I wanted to try them all. Would the type of flour make a difference? What kind of ratio of flour to egg yolk to egg white would yield the best pasta? Does adding salt or olive oil matter? Yeah, it's a lot to test. Aren't you glad I did it all for you?

Flour

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Before we go any further, let's take a minute to talk flour. Specifically, the three kinds of wheat flour you'll find mentioned in pasta recipes: semolina, all-purpose, and the high-protein, finely milled "00" flour. At the end of the day, I settled on using all-purpose flour for my recipe. It's the flour most people already have in their pantries, and it makes great pasta. Anytime I refer to flour from here on out, I'm talking about your handy bag of AP.

That said, if you want to get more serious, "00" flour, with its powdery texture, can yield even silkier noodles. Semolina adds a heartiness and a rougher texture that'll help sauces cling better to your noodles. Some folks like to add a combination of semolina and "00"—I haven't tested all the permutations, but stay tuned. I just may take the insanity to a whole new level.

Regardless of what flours you choose to experiment with, I'd recommend familiarizing yourself with basic dough-making techniques using just one type so that you'll know what cues to look for.

Eggs vs. Water: The Showdown

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Now that I had my flour selected, it was time to test different sources of moisture. My first step was to make three doughs, keeping the hydration level as consistent as possible across the board. I used three, equal measurements of all-purpose flour as my baseline; one batch got water, one batch got egg whites, and the third got egg yolks.* I added just as much as I needed to make the dough come together. This is what I wound up with; you can probably tell which is which.

*I stuck with large eggs for all my tests, and even weighed them to make sure that I was adding consistent amounts of water, protein, and fat to each dough.

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The water-only pasta (right) was a total bust—the noodles were bland, mushy, and...well...watery. And the egg white pasta (center) wasn't much better. Whites are almost 90% water, so while the noodles weren't quite as bad as the water-based version, which literally fell apart and stuck to each other in a big, gluey mass, they definitely weren't winners. The yolks (left), on the other hand, made a beautiful, golden dough. Yolks contain about 48% water, 17% protein, and around 33% fat. More yolks will deliver more color, more egg flavor, and silkier noodles.

Unfortunately, that high fat content complicates things a little bit. Though not exactly scientifically accurate, you can think of that fat as making the gluten proteins all slippery, preventing them from building a strong network—when I tested this using different amounts of olive oil, I found that, sure enough, more oil made for softer, mushier, less elastic noodles. And, to complicate matters, I had a really hard time getting the flour and yolks to come together. It was a dry, tough dough that's difficult to mix and knead; not exactly beginner-friendly.

Difficulty aside, an all-yolk pasta may make great noodles, but it's not sufficiently elastic to use for stuffed pastas, which require dough that can be rolled more thinly and is, quite simply, bendier. I needed to strike a better balance.

At this point, I knew there was no point in adding water—if I wanted additional moisture, egg whites were definitely a better bet. It seemed clear that my dough was going to require a combination of whole eggs and additional yolks. I ultimately settled on three yolks for every egg white. What's that? You like softer, mushier noodles? Good for you. Add a teaspoon of oil to my basic recipe. Want a richer, eggier flavor and a more golden hue? Throw in an extra yolk and add a little more flour. This is your dough.

The Golden Ratio: Determining Hydration

To figure out exactly how much flour to use with my eggs—technically speaking, to find my ideal hydration level—I made five batches of dough. Using the same ratio of yolk and egg white for each, I began with four ounces of flour and, moving in half-ounce increments, added flour to each batch until I could no longer get the dough to come together.

After kneading them for ten minutes each, they looked like this:

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Once I'd let them rest for 30 minutes (more on resting times shortly!), I went to roll out all five doughs. The wettest dough and the driest dough were completely unworkable. They simply wouldn't pass through the roller—one was incredibly sticky; the other crumbled into dry clumps. Sometimes, a longer resting time can help a dough hydrate more, and it is possible that the driest of these could be rehabilitated with additional time. We'll get to the pros and cons of long rests in a bit.

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Ultimately, the sweet spot that I—and my blind tasters—settled on is one whole egg (1.4 ounces white; .6 ounces yolk) and two yolks (1.2 ounces yolk) for every five ounces of flour. The one on the left was so wet that the noodles stuck together; the one on the right was dense and almost stiff. But the middle pasta, our unanimous winner, makes a dough that's relatively easy to mix and knead, but isn't so wet that the pasta sticks to the roller or itself. It tastes good, looks good, and has that signature delicate, satiny texture.

To Salt or Not to Salt

My dough was almost perfect; the only thing I wanted to test was whether I'd get even better flavor by adding salt directly to the dough, instead of just my cooking water or sauce. The simple answer is yes. Do it! Salting pasta water is still well and good, but there's no compelling reason not to salt your dough—I tried fine-grain iodized salt and slightly coarser kosher salt. Both work; I prefer the flavor of kosher salt. Just don't use a coarse sea salt, which will keep your dough from developing a silky-smooth texture. Hypothetically, you could salt your pasta even more and skip salting your pasta water, but I choose to make a dough that still tastes good after cooking in salted water since it gives me a little more flexibility when it comes to the flavor of the final product—I can make and freeze batches of dough and then decide how salty I want my pasta to be on a case-by-case basis.

Mixing and Kneading

At this point, we're working with ten ounces of flour, a teaspoon of salt, and two whole eggs plus four additional yolks—it'll make four to six servings and can be halved or doubled as desired. If you have a good food processor, you can go ahead and toss all your ingredients in and let it run until it forms a big ball. Let it keep whipping around in there, or take it out and knead it with your hands. You can get to a similar point with a stand mixer, using your dough hook attachment.

But I gotta admit, I love making pasta by hand. It's a little more work, but it's satisfying, fun work. It also gives you a lot more control. I'm going to let you in on a little secret: When I'm making pasta at home, I don't measure my flour. Sure, I'll weigh out a rough amount, but when it comes to working with flour and eggs, there are a lot of variables that you simply can't control. Your eggs might be slightly big or small; it might be an especially humid or dry day. All of these things will impact how much flour you'll need. Mixing by hand guarantees that you can adjust your dough as you're working, ultimately allowing you to develop your ideal texture with greater precision. Here's how to do it:

Step 1: Make a Well

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Weigh out your flour and pour it onto your surface in a pile. Then, with your fingers, make a hole in the center. You'll want it to be relatively wide—at least four inches—to accommodate all those eggs. Now add your eggs to the center. These photos show the old-school technique, in which you actually whisk the eggs once they're on the countertop, but there's no reason why you can't whisk them ahead of time. Add any other ingredients you're using—salt and/or oil.

Step 2: Mix

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Using a fork or your fingertips, gradually start pushing the flour into the pool of egg. You'll keep adding flour until it no longer makes sense to use the fork—the dough will be wet and sticky, but holding together as a single mass.

Step 3: Knead

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At this point, take out your bench knife and scrape off any dough sticking to your fork or your hands. Then, begin to fold additional flour into the dough with the bench knife, turning the dough roughly 45 degrees each time, to more evenly incorporate the flour. Once the dough feels firm and dry, and can form a craggy looking ball, it's time to start kneading.

I'm not gonna lie: kneading is a pain in the butt. It's a lot of work, and you'll want to be firm and persistent. An under-kneaded pasta won't have the same kind of snappy spring as a properly worked dough, and you may even wind up with bubbles or bits of unincorporated flour. It's almost impossible to over-knead a dough, though, since it'll eventually build up so much elasticity that it won't allow you to continue. That said, you don't want to keep the dough out for too long lest it begin to dry out—around ten minutes of kneading will allow you get a smooth ball of dough without drying being an issue.

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To knead, simply press the heel of your hand into the ball of dough, pushing forward and down. Rotate the ball 45 degrees and do it again. You'll want to keep going until the dough no longer looks powdery—it should have a smooth, elastic texture similar to a firm ball of Play-Doh. If your dough feels wet and tacky, add more flour as necessary.

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If it feels too dry, don't add water unless it literally cannot hold together. This is what too dry looks like:

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If, as with the dough above, incorporating water seems really necessary, I recommend using a spray bottle, which will allow you to add very small amounts of water to a large surface area of dough. If your dough looks wetter than the photo above, it's probably fine. Just keep kneading.

Once you have your ball of kneaded dough, wrap it tightly in plastic. If you'll be coming back to it later in the day, stick it in the fridge but be forewarned that it will gradually acquire a grayish tinge, which won't affect flavor or texture but does make for a disappointing presentation. For more time, tuck the wrapped ball into a zipper lock bag, removing as much air as possible, and freeze it for up to three weeks. Otherwise, you can leave it on your countertop. It's time to talk resting.

Resting

Now that you've built up that gluten network, you have a dough that's incredibly elastic and springy. The resting period allows the flour to continue to hydrate, and the gluten network to relax. Most experts will tell you that if you tried to roll out your dough at this point, disaster would ensue—your dough will be too dry and too elastic to roll out.

If we were working with rolling pins, that would probably be true—the dough would just keep snapping back. But we're in the 21st century and it's a little more complicated than that. Here are six doughs. The one all the way on the right wasn't rested at all. The one on the left rested for six hours. In between them are doughs that rested for 15 minutes, 30 minutes, one hour, and three hours.

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I rolled the six-hour and the no-rest doughs once, through the widest setting, to see what would happen.

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You can see that the unrested dough up top is freaking out. It's all rough and jagged because the rolling has essentially snapped those little gluten bonds in half. But as I continued to roll it through increasingly thinner settings, it took on a much smoother texture. By the end, there was very little visual difference between the two.

Ultimately, I rolled out and cooked all six doughs. Was there a difference between them? Yes. The dough that hadn't rested at all was a little harder and firmer, a little more rubbery. The doughs that had rested for an hour or longer were almost identical. It's sort of like the difference between blender pesto and mortar-and-pestle pesto. The former isn't bad but the latter is definitely superior. It also takes a lot longer. In this case, you're not stuck manually grinding something up, but if you're looking for a quicker method, this is your cheat. No rest, or just a few minutes, is not going to make inedible pasta. In fact, it'll make pretty damn good pasta. But it is a trade-off and only you can say whether or not it's worthwhile.

Rolling

Take a deep breath and give yourself a pat on the back, you're almost done. And hey—this part's pretty fun!

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Cut your dough into four pieces, set one aside, and wrap up the rest. Use a rolling pin to flatten the dough to at least half an inch thick. Try to keep the shape and size relatively even from end to end. This will make our later steps a little easier.

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Then, turn to your pasta maker. For this stage, you'll want the flat roller—the ones with teeth come later. Turn it to the widest setting (on most machines, it's labeled either "0" or "1"). If you're using a stand mixer attachment, turn it to a medium-low speed. If you're hand cranking, you'll just want to be steady and consistent. First timers may want to work with a partner, so that one person can crank the machine and the other can feed the dough into the rollers.

Now we're ready to do a first pass. Simply feed the dough into the roller like so:

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You'll want to gently support the exiting end with the flat of your hand or your index finger. Send it through the first setting until it passes through without resistance—at least three times. Then turn the dial to the next setting. This will narrow the space between the rollers, pressing your pasta even thinner. You'll notice it getting quite a bit longer as you proceed. You'll want to pass the dough through the rollers at least two or three times for each of the first three settings. Later settings will only require one or two passes, though.

Unfortunately, no matter how careful you are, mistakes happen. The pasta goes through funny and doubles up, or it gets a hole. That's where laminating comes in.

Laminating is basically a process of folding the dough into a smaller package and feeding it back into the pasta-maker. The main argument for laminating has to do with the final texture of your dough, but it's also a great way to patch up any pesky holes. There are two basic types of folds you can do, pictured below. It's easiest to laminate before your dough has gone farther than the third setting—as it gets longer, it becomes almost impossible to feed back into the machine.

One method requires two folds, and the other requires three. I haven't noticed a difference in my final results, but I personally prefer three folds because it makes for neater corners and, in case you haven't noticed, I'm a little particular about this stuff. Here's the three-fold technique:

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And this is the two-fold method:

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In either case, you'll want to feed the dough back in at a rotated angle—this allows you to change up the direction the roller is pulling the pasta, and I find the dough is more sturdy and manageable when I've laminated at least two or three times over the course of rolling. That said, the difference does seem more pronounced when handling the uncooked dough, versus actually eating the final product.

But wait! BE CAREFUL! What you don't want to do is forget to turn it back to the widest setting when you put the laminated dough back in. Because...this happens:

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Yeah. Not so good.

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If you're planning to make fettuccine, I'd recommend rolling it to the third-to-last setting (usually, it's labeled "6"). If you're going to use the dough for ravioli, you'll want to go a little thinner, since stacking two sheets of pasta will make the edges twice as thick—I go one more setting. The pasta will be very delicate and translucent at this point, so handle it with care. If the dough becomes longer than you can reasonably handle, simply lay it down on a cutting board and cut it in half. Dust one half with flour and cover it with a kitchen towel; continue rolling the other.

Once you've rolled, laminated, and rolled again all the way to your preferred thickness, you'll want to cover up the pasta with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap to keep it from drying out.

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Dust some flour onto parchment or wax paper, lay the pasta on top, and continue to sprinkle flour as you fold it over. (No, you shouldn't lay your pasta on the towel like I did in those photos. Just put it all on the parchment paper.) If you're working in warm, humid conditions or notice the pasta sticking together, you can instead cut it into approximately 12- to 14-inch sections and place a sheet of lightly floured parchment paper between each layer.

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At this point, you can forge onwards and make noodles, or you can prepare a stuffed pasta or lasagna. I'll be covering ravioli, agnolotti, and the like in a future article; for now, let's talk noodles.

This part's super easy: just feed a 12- to 14-inch section of dough through the fettuccine- or linguine-cutter...

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...catch it as it comes out...

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...dust it with flour, and curl it up into little nests. If, for any reason, your pasta winds up sticking to itself, just ball it back up and start over. It sucks, I know. It happens if a room is too hot, or if your dough is a little too hydrated; next time, add more flour or dust the sheets a little more heavily to compensate.

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And voilà! You just made pasta! Want an even wider noodle or a more handmade appearance? Use a sharp knife or a pizza cutter to slice the dough into strips by hand, instead.

Cooking

Now's the really easy part. Boil up some salted water and toss those noodles in. They'll cook quickly—I'm talking 60-seconds quickly—so be ready to taste and drain them almost immediately. That said, while fresh pasta cooks rapidly, it's important to make sure that it's thoroughly cooked. Unlike dry pasta, it actually gets slightly firmer during the first phase of cooking. If you don't cook it long enough, the egg and flour proteins won't set, your starch won't fully hydrate, and you'll end up with a kinda pasty pasta. Personally,I like my pasta cooked for around 90 seconds, but you may find that you prefer a shorter or longer boiling time. Just don't exceed two minutes—that's when it starts to get mushy.

Tah dah!

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