Cooking Basics

Pasta shapes and sauce tips

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variety of pastas
There truly is a pasta for every sauce and every taste
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Match pasta shapes and sauce for a winning and classic Italian dinner

Before I learned how to cook, my knowledge of which pasta shapes went with different sauces was limited to “elbow macaroni goes with cheese” and “spaghetti goes with the stuff in the jar.” The dozens of shapes in the pasta aisle baffled me. Do the wheels need oil? Does angle hair need holy water?

I finally discovered a good pasta cookbook and learned all of the ins and outs of the nooks and crannies placed in those shapes to hold the many types of sauces. My pasta shapes and salt tips won’t make you an Italian chef, but they’ll make cooking Italian a little more interesting.

Spaghetti, linguine and fettuccine

Let's start with the most familiar pasta shapes - the long, thin ones such as spaghetti, linguine and fettuccine. Spaghetti and linguine should be used with tomato-based sauces that can coat and lubricate the entire lengths of the strands. These also go well with meaty or Bolognese sauces and with pesto and other olive oil-based sauces.

The ribbon shape of fettuccine and the thick wavy shape of malfada noodles hold their body well in the thicker tomato sauces and also in the cream-and-cheese based sauces like Alfredo. On the other hand, thinner pastas like capellini and angel hair are overwhelmed into pasta balls by thick or creamy sauces, so serve them with just olive oil, butter or a light pesto.

Penne, rigatoni and ziti

The next major shapes are the tubes. Penne, rigatoni and ziti are perfect for the chunkier sauces filled with vegetables, meat or mushrooms. The tubular shapes hold the chunks inside and the ridges hold the sauce on the outside. Cheese sauces go well with these pastas because the short tubes don't get tangled in the sticky coating like thinner noodles would.

Tubes are also good for baked dishes because their thick sides hold up to the heat and long cooking time.

While not a tube, the corkscrew shape of fusilli pasta belongs with the tubes because it holds the thicker sauces in much the same way. Elbow macaroni is too short and narrow to hold much thick sauce, so paired with cheese is where it does best.

Finally, the firmness of all of these thick pastas make them ideal for salads coated with mayonnaise or oil. I left out manicotti, which is too big to fill up on its own, so these large tubes are usually filled by hand with ricotta cheese and baked with a tomato sauce.

Fun shapes

Those odd shapes like wheels, ears and bells make them fun pastas for kids' dishes, but they also serve a purpose in adult entrees. The wheels (rotelle), ears (orecchette), bells (campanelle) and shells (conchiglie) pair well with seafood dishes, chunky meat sauces and creamy cheese sauces. Their little bowl shapes are great for holding bits of shrimp, sausage and vegetables. Along with bow ties (farfalle), these pasta shapes are great for cold salads as well.

Tiny pastas such as orzo can be served with any tomato sauce or in a salad, but they work best in soups like Italian wedding soup. Filled pastas like ravioli and tortellini should be served with a thin tomato sauce or a light cream so the fillings can stand out.

Remember, these tips for pairing pastas and sauces are just guidelines. The many shapes of pasta any various types of sauces make experimenting a tasty and fun experience.

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