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Pasta Dough 101

Pasta Dough 101

Pasta was one of the first things that came to mind when I decided to create a blog about how recipes are dumb.  That said, I do totally follow a basic recipe to get me started.  Remember though that a recipe is just a guide.  It's a tool.  And like any other tool, if misused, you end up having to replace perfectly good drywall.

....

Anywho, here's why this recipe is "dumb":

When you measure flour, it's almost never perfect.  The measuring cup might be a bit overfilled, or there might be an air pocket at the bottom.  Measuring by weight is far more accurate, but even then, the ounce measure I give you isn't as accurate as a gram measurement would be (USA! USA! USA!). 

Then you have the eggs.  As it turns out, a large egg is not a large egg is not a large egg.  They're going to range in size.  I anticipate that this will eventually be read by someone in the UK (hello, and I'm sorry for what we've done to the language). Your large eggs are a different size from ours entirely.

None of that matters though (eventually).  To become confident with making pasta, it really is all about your senses.  Does it look right?  Does it feel right?  Those are things that come with time, but I'm gonna do my best to explain it.  Also at the end of this post, is a video I made to show you what the right way looks like.  Watch it over and over again, so that I get lots of views...and so you understand it, I guess. 

Disclaimer: you get what you pay for with free music.  Feel free to mute the video, unless you like bad jazz.

Basic Pasta Dough

  • 2.5 cups (12.25oz) unbleached, all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 large eggs

How to turn that stuff into puhsketti:

In a large bowl, mix the flour with the salt.  I like to use a fork for this.  Make a well in the center, large enough to fit the eggs.  Add the eggs.  Add the olive oil.  Same fork scrambles the eggs.  Gently continue to stir, gradually widening said stir to incorporate the dry into the wet.  Eventually, it'll get more difficult, so you might have to abandon the fork and get in there with your hands.

I should back up and acknowledge that doing this in a bowl is not a traditional approach.  If you're like me and watched Molto Mario while you stayed home sick from school, you probably remember a mountain of flour, with the eggs and oil being sacrificed to the volcano gods.  That method is fun and might make you feel important, but I must warn you that it's not as easy as it looks.  If that volcano wall breaks, you get a pyroclastic flow of eggs on your shoes.  So to avoid a "guy on the bridge in Dante's Peak" situation, I use the bowl. 

Within the bowl, you're trying to just achieve a situation where there isn't any more dry white flour.  It will not be cohesive, and it will not be pretty.  That's ok. 

Lightly dust a work surface with some extra flour.  Dump the crumbly mess out of the bowl and onto the dusted work surface.  Take a bench or dough scraper (alternatively, take yourself to a store and buy a bench or dough scraper) and start chopping at the "dough", occasionally scraping any errant crumble back to the center.  Doing this hydrates the flour, leaving you with an eventual dough that is much smoother and much less sticky.

After about a minute of doing this, you end up with something that is little more cohesive and a lot more yellow.  Test success using the "pinch test".  Grab any small piece, pinch it between your fingers, and see if it holds its form.  Success?  On to the next step.

You have a dough now.  It isn't strong though, because you haven't developed the gluten.  Gluten is the protein in wheat flour.  It is also apparently very scary, so make sure you have a knife nearby.

To develop the gluten, you need to knead.  The process is simple, if not a little bit repetitive.  It takes some practice, but despite what others might tell you, you can't really over-work pasta dough.  It'll go through a resting phase during which any possible over-working will be undone.  More on that later.

Kneading: Pat the dough into a loose (it will still be crumbly) disc.  Fold it in half towards yourself.  Using the palms of both hands, gently push the dough away from you while using a slight amount of downward pressure.  You should feel like you're stretching it.  If it starts to stick to your hands, you might be pushing a little too hard.  Lighten up.  Rotate the dough clockwise, only a 1/4 of the way.  The right "point" of the original half moon of dough will move from the 3:00 position to the 6:00 position.  (author's note:  I made that intentionally confusing, so that you would have to watch the video.  Views.)

Repeat that motion several times.  Fold, push, rotate.  After a few minutes, the dough will become smoother, yellower, and more elastic.  I like to increase the pressure at this point to really ensure that I wake that gluten up.

Ok, so you woke the gluten up and it's never been awake, so it's super stressed.  Try and put stressed gluten through a pasta machine.  I dare you.

(don't)

Your dough needs to rest now; it's been through a lot.  Lightly dust it with flour, wrap it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes. 

Now that you have well-rested pasta dough (it should feel significantly softer), you are ready to roll (pun).

Setting up your rolling station:

Pasta machine.  Extra flour for dusting.  Semolina flour for lining a sheet pan.  A sheet pan.  1-2 lint-free towels.

Whether you have a hand-crank or electric pasta roller, the basic process is the same.  Start by cutting the dough into 3-4 more manageable pieces.  Otherwise, the eventual sheets of pasta will get as long as this blog omg.

Start with your first piece of dough.  Using just your hands, lightly flour it, and press the dough into a very flat oval. Make sure that it is as uniformly shaped as you can get it.  If it goes in looking weird, it'll come out looking just as weird...just thinner.  Like the gym, I guess.

Take one end of the oval, and pinch it as thinly as possible.  This will give your machine something to hang on to.  Set your machine roller to the widest setting (zero or one, depending on the machine).  Place the tapered end of the dough into the roller, and brace it there while you begin to crank.  If using an electric roller, start on the 2nd slowest speed.  Once the roller has ahold of the dough, release your grip on it and let the machine do the work.  Take your rolled dough, and fold it in half from end to end (making it shorter, rather than narrower).  If it feels sticky, dust lightly with flour and roll it through on the lowest setting again.  Repeat the folding and rolling step 3 more times, with the dough having gone through the widest setting a total of 5 times. This might seem like overkill, but this lamination process creates a dough that doesn't need any more flour and one that is superstrong and smooth.  After that 5th roll, you will notice a huge difference in the texture. 

Change the machine setting to one number thinner.  Roll the dough through.  You can start increasing your speed now, as the dough can handle it.  Also, no more folding.  Skip a number, and roll it through again. Repeat until it has gone through the 2nd to thinnest setting.  So, as an example, the process would look like this if your machine's widest setting was zero:

0, fold, 0, fold, 0, fold, 0, fold, 0,1,3,5,7

Dust a sheet pan with semolina flour, and carefully place your sheet of pasta on the semolina.  If your sheet is longer than your pan, you have 2 options.  (1) Cut the sheet in pan-sized smaller sheets, using scissors. (2) Dust the top of the pasta with semolina as well, and fold it over onto itself.  Cover your finished pasta sheets with a towel, and move on to the next piece of dough. 

From here, you can make lasagna, ravioli, fettucine, agnolloti, Giada de Laurentiis, you name it!

Because there are so many options at this point, we'll save next steps for a future blog post.  Just know that fresh pasta can be cut into just about any shape that you like, and then only takes about 3 minutes to cook in boiling salted water.  Whatever you don't use, can be frozen for up to a month in freezer bags and cooked from frozen.  I recommend finding a day that you can really commit to this, and then make a month's worth of pasta.  Freeze what you aren't cooking that day.  Make a tradition of it.  Video below.  Hit me with questions in the comments!

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