Fresh pasta has a problem. The issue isn't from a dearth of recipes or a lack of people trying to teach you how to make it, those are seemingly omnipresent both online and in books, but from a flaw that forms when trying to communicate the technique through a medium it wasn't intended to be taught, i.e. anything that is not teaching in person. The traditional Italian method for making pasta—dump a pile of flour on a counter, make a well in the center, add eggs, incorporate slowly at first, combine into a dough, etc—is all about feel, about knowing when you've added just the right amount of flour, when you've kneaded the dough just long enough. It leans heavily on the cook's intuition because despite the rather short list of ingredients—eggs and flour— a surprisingly vast amount of variables exist that can dramatically affect the finished product. What are some of these variables? Well...
To start, every recipe calls for the flour to be measured by volume, and volume measurements of flour are never precise. If you're scooping with a cup, you'll almost never scoop the same amount of flour twice. Meaning, your pile of flour is always going to be either a bit larger or smaller than the last time you made pasta. The same volume problem is true for eggs. Because despite the fact that they are sold in similar sizes, one "large" egg isn't going to be the exact same weight as another "large" egg. Plus, who knows how the proportions of yolk to white vary egg by egg? A larger yolk is going to contribute more fat to the dough, making it softer.
Speaking of making dough softer, the type of flour you use plays a huge roll in not only the final texture of the pasta but in dialing in the initial ratio of the dough. Heartier, whole wheat flours need much more liquid to hydrate to the same consistency as all-purpose white flour. Many traditional recipes call for '00' flour, which is white flour that's been milled extra fine, and so it will need less liquid than AP. Except that even within flour types there are variations of protein content. King Arthur brand AP flour has more protein (i.e. potential gluten) than Gold Medal AP, so the former will need more liquid than the latter. And as for your traditional '00', that's just a designation on how finely it was milled, it doesn't speak to the protein content of the flour, so if your Italian grandmother's secret recipe for pasta says to use '00' flour but doesn't mention the brand, you basically don't have a recipe anymore.
Oh, and I haven't even mentioned relative humidity in the air, which, at least according to my experience making pizza nearly every day for a year would indicate, plays a huge roll in the final hydration of a dough.
Point being, despite a simple list of ingredients there are whole host of variables that the cook must respond to. And it's the acknowledgment of said variables that forms the basis of the tradition Italian pasta technique. It's mixed on a counter-top and not a bowl precisely because there's no guaranteed way to tell whether or not you're going to need to incorporate all the flour. A counter-top allows the cook to easily mix in what is needed and discard the rest. But this is where the traditional technique, though totally correct, fails when not taught in person, because...
How the hell are you supposed to know whether or not you have enough flour in your dough?
The easy answer is that you know because you grew up watching various matriarchs in your house make pasta perfectly and you intuited the correct texture of the dough from them. And that's really great for you. Seriously, congratulations.
As for the rest of us, the goal is to learn the right texture so that we can eventually, despite the existing variables, make pasta quickly and confidently using the old-school method.
What's the right texture? Well the short answer is, not too soft. All of the maneuvering around ingredient variables serves the purpose of making sure you don't add too much moisture to your pasta dough. But if you haven't seen dough made correctly and instead, like me, learned from written recipes, you will likely be making way too wet of a dough. I did for years. Because I had only read recipes, and because those recipes called for approximations of ingredients and specifically mentioned that all the flour may not be used, I mixed up what I thought felt right (it wasn't), kneaded away, and always ended up with dough that was soft, sticky, didn't cut evenly, and cooked up too delicate without good chew. It wasn't until a chef at a restaurant I worked at asked me to make a batch of pasta dough and then, after I confidently handed him the result, threw that dough away, that I realized there was a problem with my approach.
With that in mind, the two most important things to remember when making pasta dough are:
- Incorporate more flour than you think you'll need. It's going to look really shaggy and dry at first, but trust me, this is the best time to get the ratio right. If you don't add enough from the get-go, it's a pain in the ass fixing it later.
- After kneading for a minute or two, the dough should not be sticky...at all. It shouldn't stick to the countertop, it shouldn't stick to your hands. If it does, it's too wet.
That's great advice, if I say so myself, but still requires that you have some experience with the dough to get it right. The goal here is to get you as close to right the very first time you make it so that, just like if you were sitting there observing a skilled matriarch, your first experiences are templates to follow and build from, rather than avoid. The best way to go about doing that, of getting the dough as close to right as possible, would be to give you a recipe expressed as sort of hydration percentage. Now, the phrase hydration percentage sounds really scary and complicated, but it couldn't be farther from that. All it is is an expression of the amount of liquid in a given recipe in proportion to flour. In what is called baker's percentages (because it's what profession bakers use), flour, no matter the quantity, is 100% and everything is measured according to that. If you have a 100g of flour and are using a 67% hydration, then you'll need to add 67g of water. That's it. Super easy. Baker's percentages allow you to work with a constant recipe instead of constant measurements, meaning it can be easily scaled up or down depending on how much product you want in the end. If in the above example you want more final product and thus up your flour to, let's say, 182g, all you need to do to get the right amount of water would be to multiply 182 by .67. Bam, 122g of water. That's WAY easier than adapting a recipe written for cups and tablespoons. Which is why recipes written for cups and tablespoons are, for the most part, dumb.
To turn pasta dough into a percentage, I made a batch using the old school countertop method, weighing each ingredient before mixing. After I formed what I deemed to be an acceptably hydrated dough, I weighed out the unused flour, subtracted that from the initial total, did some other basic math, and determined that my ball of dough had a baker's percentage of 53% eggs. That's not to say it was 53% eggs, but rather, for every 100g of flour there would be 53g of egg.
- I used plain, all-purpose, Gold Medal brand flour here. I wanted something standard and easily acquired.
- It was raining outside. I live in Portland after all. So there's a chance that if you live in Phoenix you may need to bump this up a percentage or two. But make it first, then judge after.
But the point, again, isn't that this percentage will be your go-to forever, rather than it will serve as a useful starting template to get you closer to the right texture. Make a batch exactly like this here, then the next time adjust it a bit drier or wetter. Maybe add a few egg yolks, or don't add any whites at all. Use different flours and see how it changes. Every time you make a change, take note of how it's different and whether or not you prefer that variation. Eventually, you'll dial in a feel for the dough and be able to leave your scale in the drawer and mix up perfect pasta all by feel.
Weigh out a few eggs. Keep in mind that for each egg you use you'll end up with enough pasta for 1-2 people.
Now that we have the weight of the eggs we'll be using, and we know that the eggs need to be 53% of the total weight of flour, then simply divide the weight of the eggs by .53. That gives you 196. So weigh out 196g of flour in a larger bowl then dump the eggs on top of that.
Mix the eggs up with a fork, slowly incorporating the flour. At a certain point you'll have to ditch the fork and just go to town with your hands. Embrace it.
Once all the flour is, more or less, incorporated into a very shaggy dough, dump in on the counter and start kneading.
After a minute all that flour you thought wouldn't be able to be absorbed by the dough will have, miraculously, been absorbed by the dough. This is not a soft, malleable dough and kneading it takes work. Do work. Knead for ten minutes.
OR, and here's where I have a theory that I haven't tested because I just thought of it and I've already made like ten batches of pasta and am kinda tired of it. But, in bread baking there's an incredibly important stage called autolyse which is a 20 minute resting period that takes place shortly after you mix the dough together but before you knead it. The point behind autolyse is that since the development of gluten hinges on the hydration of flour, you should let the dough rest, allowing the flour to properly hydrate before you go about kneading it and developing the gluten. It's a crucial stage that makes a very big difference in the chew of the final bread product. SO, if autolyse is so critical for gluten development in bread, why is it not a part of pasta making?? I don't know this answer. My guess is that if you wrapped the above dough with plastic wrap and gave it a good 20 minute rest, then kneaded it, you wouldn't have to knead it as long to get the same amount of chew in the final noodle. The upside is you do less work. The downside is the pasta takes a bit longer to make. I'll get around to testing different approaches soon enough, but I didn't want to delay this general recipe any longer than it already has been.
Editor's note: I finally got around to testing this out and it totally worked. I made a batch of dough with 53% hydration when it wasn't raining out ,and as a result the dough was a bit dry and very tough to knead. Rather than adding any liquid, I simply balled it up the best I could, stuck it in a zip-top bag, and let it rest for an hour. When that time was up the flour had absorbed remarkably more moisture. I rolled it out with a machine, spending a bit more time folding it over and re-rolling on the first stage (this functioned as kneading), and ended up with the best pasta dough I've ever made. So there's that.
Autolyse aside, knead the dough for a solid ten minutes. You want it nice and smooth and for indentations to spring back into place when you press on it with your finger. Now wrap this dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for a half hour.
This is the rested dough. Notice how it's shinier than the previous picture. That's because the flour has fully absorbed all the moisture from the eggs. Aside from being nearly impossible to roll out, unrested dough would likely break as well. So make sure you give it plenty of time to just hang out.
I have a pasta rolling machine. It's convenient as hell. You don't need one, but this is a dry, firm dough, and being such takes all sorts of elbow grease to get rolled out. Here's a great video demonstrating how to roll the dough out by hand and then cut it into various shapes. Notice how she makes various shapes by rolling the dough up and cutting it. If the dough was just a shade too wet, it'd stick to itself making this entirely impossible.
If you, like me, have a pasta machine, then cut your dough into as many pieces as eggs were involved. I used two eggs, so I cut it in half. Re-wrap the dough you aren't immediately working with so that it doesn't dry out. Flatten the chunk of dough with your palm, dust it with just a bit of flour, and roll it through the widest setting. Fold the dough in half and roll it though again. Keep folding and rolling through the widest setting until you've done this about ten times. Then roll it through progressively thin settings without folding it, until you've reached your desired thickness. Here's a great video demonstrating the whole process (though I don't bother with the part where he cuts off the corners).
Cut the pasta by hand, use the sheets for ravioli or lasagne, or send it through one of the cutters on your machine.
Toss the cut pasta with just a bit of flour and set it on a lightly floured surface while you roll and cut the rest of the dough. These nests of dough will stick to themselves a little bit but that's not a big deal. As long as you stir them sufficiently when you add them to boiling water, they will unstick on their own. Speaking of, cook them for one to two minutes in heavily salted, boiling water. Transfer the noodles with tongs directly to the sauce they will be served in and toss for a minute or two to combine.
Superfluous noodles can be boiled for 30 seconds, rinsed thoroughly in cold water, tossed with just a bit of olive oil, and frozen. Cook frozen noodles the same way you'd cook fresh, checking regularly for doneness, then transferring directly to the sauce.
Fresh pasta has unlimited potential uses and is a great way to turn leftovers into a delicious lunch or dinner. In the above picture I cooked some cracked pepper and chili flakes in olive oil for a minute, tossed the pasta in that, added cheese, preserved lemon, and parsley. It was delicious. It'd also be incredible in homemade marinara sauce.
The whole point of this recipe was to give you a jump-start on making really great pasta at home. It's not guaranteed to work perfectly because I can't control for the variables that you're confronted with. BUT I do think it gets you much closer on your first attempt than any of the traditional dump on a counter and stir methods. Every time you make pasta, pay close attention to texture, to what works best, and eventually you'll be able to make amazing pasta quickly, and all by feel.
If you have any questions, please post them as a comment below or email me at email@example.com. Cheers!