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Fresh pasta is many things, but vibrantly hued is not one of them. There are times when this couldn't matter less—times when you're dousing it in a thick, colorful sauce or making uova in raviolo. But sometimes you want to keep things super simple without sacrificing an eye-catching presentation. And sometimes you just want some bright pink noodles, dammit.
Luckily, if you've been following our fresh pasta series, you already know that making pasta from scratch isn't all that hard or complicated. As for adding some color to the mix? It's barely even an extra step. Excepting some minor prep, the process is virtually identical to making regular fresh pasta. (For those of you new to the game, you can find our full instructions for making fresh pasta right here.)
I should make it crystal clear from the get go: colored pasta is not the same as flavored pasta. There are ways to add flavors to your pasta and we may get to them eventually, but for the most part, colored pastas are purely an aesthetic undertaking. And frankly, speaking from personal, if limited, experience, I'd urge anyone looking to flavor their dough to reconsider: you'll always get better, fresher, more nuanced flavor from a sauce.
Pasta Coloring Basics
Coloring pasta dough is as easy as coming up with an intensely colored purée and adding it to your dough as you bring it together. In fact, once you've got your colored purée, the process is virtually identical to making regular neutral-colored pasta. Today we're going to be making four different colored pasta doughs. A bright pink dough colored with beets, a deep dark black dough colored with squid ink, a green dough made with spinach, and a golden orange dough that gets its hue from tomato paste. For the orange and black doughs, we're pulling our coloring straight out of a jar, whereas for the pink and green dough, we boil our vegetables then purée them until completely smooth before incorporating them into the dough.
The only real variable you'll want to watch out for is water content. See, pasta relies on one thing above all others: gluten, the network of proteins that form when water and flour mix to give pasta its stretchy texture and bite. Developing gluten is crucial for classic pasta.
But there's also such thing as too much water—a dough made of just flour and water turns out bland, mushy, and...well...watery. In my traditional pasta recipe, I found that using a higher ratio of egg yolks to egg whites was the way to go. But when it came to testing colored pastas, that natural water content in my puréed vegetables made it unnecessary to add quite as much egg white. It's a delicate balance, but if you decide to experiment on your own, just know that getting it wrong is nothing a little extra flour or water can't balance out—at the end of the day, it all boils down to the textural cues we'll be covering in our kneading stage.
Before we go any farther though, there are a few things you'll want to have on hand. 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 (along with your coloring agent of choice). Using a rolling pin's a lot of work though, so I use a pasta-maker. At Serious Eats Headquarters, I call on the help of a stand mixer attachment; at home, I turn to 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 think you'll still manage to get by.
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 wood table; a marble countertop; a big cutting board—just find yourself a spot where you can make a big floury mess.
Weigh out your flour and pour it onto your surface in a pile. Then use your fingertips to make a hole in the center, like a big floury doughnut. You'll want it to be relatively wide—at least four inches—since we'll be adding a bunch of eggs in there. You can plop the eggs right in—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. Now's when you'll also add some salt and the coloring agent of your choice.
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.
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.
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. If, on the other hand, it's so dry that it refuses to come together, you'll want to add a little water. I find that a spray bottle works best to evenly moisten the dough without adding water in excess.
Once you have your ball of kneaded dough, wrap it tightly in plastic. 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 a little. 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.
The truth is (and yes, I've tested all kinds of intervals), you can get away with a pretty short resting period, especially if you're going to be rolling your dough with a machine—the process of repeatedly rolling and folding the dough will do some of the resting work for you. That said, I typically let my dough rest as long as it takes me to clean up my work station. By the time I've wiped off my counter, rinsed the flour off my hands, and gotten my roller set up, my dough's had a nice healthy rest of 20 to 30 minutes*. In the case of these colored doughs, where you want to really ensure that the purée or ink has evenly penetrated the entire ball, I often do a couple extra minutes of kneading after the resting period, when the gluten network is a little less tight and therefore easier to manipulate. When you're done, it should look something like the doughs above.
*If you're planning to wait several hours, rest the ball in the fridge, instead. For even 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.
And there you have it: everything you need to know to start making gorgeous, colorful pasta at home.