The best form of pasta depends on the scenario.

By Stacey Ballis
December 10, 2019
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Pasta is the rare food that is at once both a money- and time-saving pantry staple, but it can also be an all-day project. It can be as simple as a box dumped in a pot for quick boil and a toss with olive oil and grocery store tub of grated cheese, or as complex as handmade, fussy, stuffed ravioli the served in a sauce filled with hard-to-source and expensive ingredients. In many ways, it is this very duality that makes pasta so wonderful an ingredient.

There also seems to be a kind of pasta hierarchy. Fresh is best, homemade if possible, but if not, at least bought from the refrigerated section of the store. But is this actually true? Turns out, as with all things pasta, the answer is both yes and no. When you use fresh, homemade pasta and when you use the dried kind depends on what you want to make.

When to Use Homemade Pasta

Making pasta from scratch doesn’t actually need to be hard. If you have the time and energy—and a pasta attachment for your stand mixer helps, too—it's just a matter of flour and eggs. But if you put in the work to make homemade pasta, you want to show it off. Save it for stuffed pasta like ravioli or tortellini, or when you really want to taste the pasta, like when it's tossed in a simple pesto, rather than in a baked pasta dish. Of course if you want to make pasta for you lasagna, go ahead! But if it's a once-in-a-while kind of thing, simple works best. 

When to Use Fresh Store-Bought Pasta

Whether it is the sealed packages from major brands available in the supermarket, or the fresh pasta bar at Whole Foods, or handmade delicacies from a local Italian specialty shop, freshly made pasta is my go-to for anytime I am entertaining and want and need a pasta that will cook fast, or when I want something light. Fresh pasta is more delicate than dried, so it is less forgiving in both the cooking and timing arenas. If you lose track of it for even a moment, it can turn to mush. It is great for very light sauces that don’t require a lot of manipulation. Use this when you want something to prepare a la minute for guests, or when you are craving a super-fast dinner for yourself.

When to Use Frozen Pasta

This is fresh pasta that has been flash frozen and is often my choice for stuffed pastas like ravioli or tortellini or the like. You cook them straight from frozen, so while they aren’t quite as fast as fresh, they are faster than dried. I don’t have the patience to make my own stuffed pastas, and these are a great substitute. I often buy them at local Italian delis or markets, since then they are frequently made in-house which is usually tastier than a commercial brand.

When to Use Dried Pasta

Some pasta dishes simply work better with dried pastas, which are easier to make al dente, and are sturdy enough to stand up to heavier sauces, like hearty Bolognese. It also lasts a long time in the pantry, so you can keep it on hand for quick meals and comes in all sorts of gorgeous shapes and sizes. If possible, you want to seek out dried pastas that are made with hard durum wheat or semolina, which is nutty and brings more flavor and sturdiness to your dishes, and that your shapes are extruded through the traditional bronze dies, which create a special texture on the outside of the pasta that is great at holding on to sauces. Seek out Italian brands when you can. My current favorite is Pastifico Di Martino. This large family-owned pasta producer in Italy near Sorrento is making the kind of pasta that makes your last-minute weeknight spaghetti a little extra but is still fancy enough to serve to guests. Plus, their packaging is gorgeous! It's the kind of pasta you can gift to foodie pals.

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