The Most Common Types of Pasta—and What to Do With Them
Know your tortellini from your manicotti.
Pasta is everyone’s favorite pantry staple. It can be a last-minute, eat-out-of-the-pan meal, or part of a fancy dinner-party menu. The popularity of pasta has gotten so widespread that even your local convenience store, once the place of spaghetti and elbows exclusively, might now carry up to a dozen different sizes and shapes of pasta.
Someone could teach a college course on the various types of pasta; each shape has a traditional history and application. But you don’t need to go quite that deep to up your pasta game. Essentially, you just need some basics so that when you are facing down the dozens of options in the pasta aisle, you can narrow down your choices. Let’s start with a key distinction to make when buying pasta: fresh vs. dried.
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Despite the colloquial implications of the word fresh, there is no quality differentiation here, just a usage difference. Fresh pastas will be found in the refrigerated section of your store and should be used quickly. In fact, quick is your first clue on fresh pasta, which cooks in a couple of minutes and can be much more delicate and tender than dried pastas. As such, it is a great choice for fast meals with simple sauces. Pestos, fresh tomato sauces, and light primavera styles all lend themselves to this style of pasta. One of my favorite dinner party side dishes is a fresh wide pappardelle noodle tossed with truffle butter, lemon zest, and chopped chives. Super simple and a showstopper.
Get the recipe: Classic Pasta Dough
Dried pasta is usually made with a harder semolina wheat and stored at room temperature. It has a longer shelf life than fresh pasta. I always have a few different shapes in my pantry. Dried pastas take longer to cook but tend to be sturdier, so they can hold up to heavier sauces, and work well in chilled salads or baked dishes where they need to retain their bite.
Get the recipe: One-Pot Cheesy Pasta Bake
Styles of Pasta
Once you have landed on fresh or dried, it is time to decide what style of pasta you need. There are four basic types of pasta. Strands, hollow shapes, other shapes, and filled. While obviously, from a flavor perspective, pasta is pretty much pasta, the shape and style of the pasta you choose can have a big impact on the eating experience, so choosing the right one can be paramount.
Strands of pasta can include either round or flat shapes that are long and can be as thin as angel hair or as thick as bigoli, which is thicker than traditional spaghetti. This category also includes things like linguine, fettuccine, and mafalde. These pastas are great for soupier sauces, because the long strands capture the sauce as you twirl them around. Use thinner ones for things like pesto, marinara or light oil-based sauces, and thicker ones for creamy things like carbonara or alfredo which need to stand up to some serious tossing and stirring.
Get the recipe: Fettuccine Alfredo With Bacon
These shapes include things like penne, rigatoni, elbows, and the like. They are designed to trap the sauce inside themselves, so adjust the size of your pasta to the size of the hole. Hearty, meaty sauces work great with larger shapes like rigatoni, while creamy or light sauces can work with smaller shapes, think little elbows or shells in your mac and cheese. The largest of these, shells and manicotti, are designed to be stuffed and baked.
Get the recipe: Sausage-Stuffed Manicotti
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These shapes can be anything from bowties to ear-shaped orecchiette to tiny shapes like orzo or acini de pepe. They are great in pasta salads, soups, and baked dishes, or even in pilaf or risotto style. Pick the shape that pleases you best but pay attention to size. Small sizes work best in soups since they have to fit on a spoon, whereas you can get away with larger sizes in salads or baked dishes where forks are involved.
Get the recipe: Orecchiette with Peas, Shrimp, Buttermilk-Herb Dressing
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These are usually fresh, and include any pasta that contains a filling, like tortellini or ravioli. They can be small, like tiny cappelletti, where three might fit on a spoon, or giant, like the classic oviolo which contain a whole egg yolk in the middle of a ring of cheese and can be the size of a small plate. Stuffed pastas are all about the stuffing, so keep your sauces simple to enhance but not overwhelm the filling. An intense filling, like rich butternut squash, is great with something simple like browned butter with sage. A milder filling, like cheese, can stand up to a more intense sauce like something meaty or spicy.
Get the recipe: Asiago Tortellini
Whichever pasta you choose, cook in heavily salted water according to package directions, and enjoy!