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).
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.
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.
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. Email questions for the Ask Hank column to AskHank@culinate.com.
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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