Making pasta at home

Tips for success

August 7, 2009

Homemade pasta: I love it and will invest the time to make it, but I get so discouraged. Is there any secret? I have a hand-crank pasta maker, but should I invest in an attachment for my stand mixer?
— Jeanne A., Nashville, Tennessee

Hey, Jeanne, I have the pasta-rolling mixer attachment thingy, and it’s very cool. (I also have nearly every other mixer attachment, and major self-control issues.) You don’t need to buy one. The hand-crank machines are simple and reliable; lots of restaurants use them for daily production.

As for “secrets,” I don’t know how secret they are, but I’ll do my best to give you some tips on making fresh pasta.

Pasta takes some time to make at home, but it’s pretty straightforward. There’s nothing wrong with store-bought dried pasta, but it’s a different animal. Fresh pasta is more tender and has its own subtle, eggy flavor, and making it can be therapeutic.

The absence of fire, sharp things, and urgency also make homemade pasta a perfect kitchen project with kids, if you happen to be so equipped (either permanently or occasionally).

Making homemade pasta by hand is fun with kids.

Homemade pasta (or “paste” — yum!) starts with a simple dough of flour plus water and fat, both of which usually come from eggs. As in bread and pizza dough, the wet flour forms a protein (gluten) network that gives the noodles structure. Most of the physical work (kneading, rolling) of pasta-making is intended to develop and condition the gluten to create noodles with desirable shape and texture.

There are two popular methods of making pasta dough at home: by hand on the countertop or in a food processor.

By hand is definitely more fun, especially with kids. The classic approach is to mound the flour on the counter and create a deep well in the center into which the eggs are cracked, then mix until the proverbial shaggy ball is achieved.

The alternative is to pulse the flour in the food processor while adding the eggs/liquid. Once the dough comes together, it’s kneaded for a few minutes on a floured surface until it becomes smooth.

But how much flour? And how many eggs?

Here’s the first secret: A moister/oilier dough is easier to work with. You don’t want it so wet that it sticks to the rollers, but a very stiff, crumbly dough can give you headaches.

Man/myth/legend Mark Bittman has a recipe calling for 2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 eggs, and 3 yolks.

Alternatively, you can use Michael Ruhlman’s ratio (by weight) of 3 parts flour (about 5 ounces per cup) to 2 parts egg (about 2 ounces per “large” egg). (If you’re serious about this version, step it up and get a scale.)

Whichever recipe you’re using, feel free to work in a few drops of water or olive oil if the dough isn’t coming together or seems too stiff.

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After you’re comfortable with the basics, you can try working in other flavorings and pretty colors, such as spinach or carrots.

The next key is to give the kneaded dough a decent rest, wrapped (or bagged) in plastic or covered with a towel. Most recipes call for anywhere from a 10- to 30-minute rest; 30 is better than 10.

I can’t explain the resting principle better than Harold “Papa Bear” McGee, who writes that resting “allow[s] the flour particles to absorb the water and the gluten network to develop . . . With time the dough becomes noticeably easier to work, and the finished noodles end up with a cohesive consistency rather than a crumbly one.” Word.

Then it’s time to roll. A little flour in the pasta-machine works should prevent the dough from sticking as you advance through the settings. Once you’re at the thickness you want (or as thin as you can stand to go, if you’re using a rolling pin), it’s time to cut the sheets into noodles.

Fettuccine and angel hair are classic and easy, but when I’m making pasta with (or for) my daughter, I like to bust out the cookie cutters and make fun shapes. If I were a better dad, I would stack those shapes, fill them, and glue the edges with egg wash and crimp them to make tricked-out ravioli. Oh, well. The noodles alone (with butter or oil) are pretty popular too.

Homemade noodles have a subtle, eggy flavor.

When you don’t feel like dealing with the pasta machine, try Matthew Amster-Burton's recipe for fresh udon (Japanese wheat noodles), and debate the Marco Polo myth while you eat them.

Or if you’re looking for something easier, try spätzle, the Alsatian noodly dumplings. They’re made by drizzling a loose batter into simmering water and cooking them until they float. (Bittman has a recipe for this, too.) They are great sautéed in brown butter, and they also make a mean mac and cheese.

Incidentally, if you do decide to buy a pasta attachment for your stand mixer, I don’t recommend the pasta-extruding attachment that goes with the meat grinder. Although the promise of reliving one’s Play-Doh days is enchanting, the reality is less magical, as the process is slow and the noodles tend to clump together. For now, I’ll leave macaroni and spaghetti to the pros.

Based in Portland, Oregon, Hank Sawtelle has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees.

There are 15 comments on this item
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1. by mewfrance on Aug 8, 2009 at 9:58 AM PDT

I make pasta at home about once a month. I make the dough in my bread machine, where it develops that gluten, and sometimes (often) I lose track of it so that it sits there a good half hour. I use regular all-purpose flour (although here in France I think it’s more finely ground than in the US), and sometimes I slip in some other flours if I have something to use up, or maybe I use whole wheat flour. I have used chopped spinach as part of the liquid, or puréed vegetables (pumpkin, sweet potato). I use a 3:5 liquid/flour ratio; so I weigh the eggs (or puréed vegetables), divide by 3, multiply the result by 5, and add that much flour. So for 150g of “liquid”, add 250g of flour. Then I start rolling, with my hand cranked machine. Once I’ve cut, and I usually do fettuccine, at setting 7 or 8, I sprinkle with a lot of flour, and spread to dry, or bunch up into little “bundles”. Occasionally, I make ravioli. I find the process therapeutic because you just have to be patient, and go through the steps, like making bread. The first couple of times can be difficult, but then you get comfortable/skilled with the consistency that works.

2. by JudithK on Aug 10, 2009 at 3:49 AM PDT

Ciao! Nice write up on the pasta.
My rule of thumb is 1 part flour to 1/2 part liquid, usually egg.
You didn’t talk about flour...what kind of flour are you using?

3. by Jenny on Aug 12, 2009 at 10:42 AM PDT

I haven’t made fresh pasta in quite some time but I always found it enjoyable. And, if memory serves, I used two cups of flour to three eggs and then added at least a tablespoon of olive oil. I always mixed it using the mound and crack “method.”

Since I didn’t have a machine or any other special gadgets I only bothered with making ravioli. I stuffed with everything from asparagus to butternut squash. And then just usually topped with a simple sauce (brown butter and sage).

I cannot believe I haven’t done this in a while.

4. by pscheel on Aug 12, 2009 at 12:27 PM PDT

I’ve been making pasta at least weekly for the past couple of years and I always use the rule of 1/2 cup of flour and one egg per person, assuming pasta is the main course. I usually end up working in some more flour as I’m kneading so that it isn’t sticky, but that’s a good general guideline for starting and makes it easy to scale up or down.

5. by anonymous on Aug 12, 2009 at 3:53 PM PDT

Disagree on the spätzle. They are mainly a swabian/southern-german speciality, and not from the Alsace (although they are known there).

6. by Hank Sawtelle on Aug 12, 2009 at 4:39 PM PDT

JudithK, I usually use plain old AP flour. I’ve wanted to try semolina, but I’ve read it’s harder to work with (not sure how).

Anon, yes Swabian (which included the Alsace) would have been more accurate.

7. by JudithK on Aug 13, 2009 at 2:33 AM PDT

Ciao Hank.
Semolina can make a stiffer dough, harder to roll out. It also does not require egg protein to hold it together like a ‘tender wheat’ or grano tenero. It’s a very absorbent flour, if my grano tenero dough is too sticky, I use the semolina on the board when I roll out the pasta. I find a big rolling pin works faster than a narrow pasta roller outer machine.

8. by Kathie Comella on Aug 13, 2009 at 3:06 PM PDT

Nice article on pasta. My dad taught me to make pasta and I use the hand crank machine but mine is fitted with a motor. Dad always measured the eggs in a glass measuring cup, 3 cups of flour, 1/2 tsp salt, 3/4 cup of egg (can be 3 to 4 eggs), 2 Tb olive oil and 2 TB water. Measuring egg ensures the dough is neither too sticky nor too dry. Works very well. Just made a batch last night!

9. by anonymous on Aug 18, 2009 at 1:35 PM PDT

thanks Hank! Again you have enlightened me and come through, I will be putting your techniques to work..and thanks for posting on my birthday! What a bonus!

10. by Michael Hernandez on Jan 14, 2010 at 7:59 PM PST

I can vouch for the Michael Ruhlman ratio (from his book “Ratio”)--works great.

11. by anonymous on Aug 21, 2012 at 7:39 PM PDT

thank you. what you wrote is very helpful. i wish i read it before i went out and purchased an extruding attachment for the mixer. the heat from the mixer motor transfers to the dough making it very difficult to make a macaroni noodle. i shall keep trying! i will also use your recipe.

12. by Jaime Leister on Sep 3, 2012 at 5:57 AM PDT

Hi there, I was wondering if you have a favorite spaghetti noodle recipe. My spaghetti noodles tend to turn out a little mushy.

Softer is great for soup noodles, but I like a little more al dente (at least not squishy/mushy like a homemade soup noodle for the spaghetti. I also would like this recipe to make for homemade lasagne noodles.

I only have a hand crank machine (which I am grateful for and like working with in the kitchen)


Jaime L.

13. by JudithK on Sep 3, 2012 at 6:38 AM PDT

Ciao Jaime!
Typically, a ‘spaghetti’ noodle is a dried pasta, not a fresh pasta. If you want to make a dried problem, but you have to take a look at the flour that you are using. You need a hard grain, ‘grano duro’ flour. All purpose will give you mush.
Grano duro flour does not need any oil or additional protein, just water. 2 parts flour to 1 part water.
In the US, it’s tricky to identify the type of flour that you are using, but any Italian grocery store will stock grano duro. “Grano tenero, tipo 0 or tipo 00 does need egg.
Make the pasta as described, hang it over rods to dry and voila, you have spaghetti noodles!

14. by Jaime L on Sep 3, 2012 at 8:10 AM PDT

Thanks Judith, I was just looking at Caputo this morning. I will have to get some from my local store and give it a whirl! Thanks so much!


15. by anonymous on Sep 13, 2013 at 7:05 AM PDT

Please get a pintrest account I would fallow you :}

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Hank Sawtelle has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees, and an intense curiosity about food and cooking. Follow Hank’s blog, Sous Vide Jones.

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