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Flour power

Flour power: our beginner’s guide to pasta

It's quick, easy and versatile - here's how to make the most of pasta.


Pasta has something of a bad reputation but really, its appeal is obvious. Made from wheat flour and water, it’s quick and easy to cook as well as being affordable.

With over 600 shapes of pasta in existence, the options are boundless. But which pasta goes with which sauce? Generally, there’s a method to the madness. For example, spaghetti Bolognese might be a hugely popular dish in the UK and Ireland, but it’s not exactly true to the authentic recipe and Italians would be much more inclined to reserve a heavy meat sauce for thicker strands of pasta, like tagliatelle and pappardelle. The more delicate and thin pasta shapes are reserved for lighter sauces.

Unsplash/ Heather Gill
Unsplash/ Heather Gill

Get into shape


Similar to a small version of ravioli, agnolotti is stuffed fresh pasta usually containing meat or vegetables. It is typical of the Piedmont region’s cuisine. Agnolotti, in various guises, has become a signature dish in Dublin’s award-winning Forest Avenue restaurant. It’s not to be missed.


These are the shell-shaped pastas that come in various sizes. Popular with kids, they work in a bake and salads but also with a nice sauce, which gets captured in the shell.


Resembling bow ties, farfalle is generally a hit with children due to their interesting shape. Ideal for adding to salads and soups.


Very similar to tagliatelle, fettuccine is slightly wider and synonymous with Rome. The thick strands work best with a meat-based sauce. Fettuccine Alfredo is made from a very simple Parmesan and butter-based sauce.


Known as twisted spaghetti, fusilli consists of short coiled or spiralled pasta. They can be topped with any sauce, used in soups, salads or bakes.


Meaning ‘little tongues’, linguine is spaghetti-like pasta but it’s slightly more flattened. It’s often served with seafood sauces. It can be used in place of spaghetti and holds the sauce slightly better.


Macaroni is dried, short and slightly curled tubular pasta shapes most commonly associated with popular American dish, macaroni and cheese. It works very well in bakes and soups and is a good ‘starter’ pasta shape for young kids.


Meaning ‘little ears’, this pasta shape is small and curved, just like the name suggests. It comes from Puglia and is generally served with thick, chunky sauces.


This flat, long, ribbon-like pasta is quite broad – ranging somewhere between lasagne sheets and tagliatelle. It’s usually served with heavy meat sauces, such as wild boar ragu. It originates in Tuscany.


Extremely popular and generally much easier to eat than spaghetti, penne is medium length tubes cut diagonally at each end. They can be smooth or ridged (rigate) and go with a wide variety of sauces. Penne is also good in a bake.


Generally made of fresh egg pasta, ravioli consists of stuffed squares of pasta in varying sizes. Ideal for making yourself at home.


Rigatoni are large, ribbed tubes that are sometimes curved – ideal for catching chunky, meat sauces.


Probably the most popular pasta shape, spaghetti consists of long, round strands of either dried or fresh pasta. It’s ideal with the likes of carbonara. Although popular with Bolognese, you’re better off using a thicker strand for meat sauces.


Ribbon-like in shape, tagliatelle is usually about 5mm wine and a bit narrower than fettuccine. Great with meat sauces.


A ring-shaped pasta, tortellini is stuffed, fresh pasta filled with meat, cheese or vegetables and served in a sauce.


Known as ‘little worms’ in Naples, vermicelli is the thinnest of the pasta strands, and works best in light sauces.

Pasta for beginners

  • Use a large saucepan. You should be using 1 litre of water for every 100g of pasta and the water should be salted enough so that it tastes like the sea (roughly 10g of salt for every litre of water). The ratio is important given the amount of starch present in pasta.
  • Add the pasta to the already boiling water, bring to the boil and simmer uncovered for as long as the packet recommends. Generally, dried pasta takes double the amount of time of fresh pasta.
  • Fresh pasta isn’t necessarily better than dried – it’s simply different. Fresh pasta is quite soft when cooked, whereas dried pasta should be cooked ‘al dente’, which means ‘to the tooth’. There should be a slight bite to the pasta once it’s cooked.
  • Drain the water from the pasta but always retain some in case you need to add it to your sauce.
  • Mix the sauce through the pasta until it’s evenly coated, rather than spooning some on top to serve.
  • As a rule, you shouldn’t serve cheese with seafood pasta dishes.
  • When eating long pasta shapes, such as spaghetti or linguine, only a fork should be used. Never use a knife to cut the pasta, and a spoon should only be used for soups. Take a small amount of spaghetti on your fork and use the bowl to wrap the strands around the fork before eating.
  • The pasta should soak all of the sauce up, with very little leftover. It’s not considered good Italian etiquette to soak with any leftover sauce with bread, but some people do this. It’s known as ‘little shoes’ in Italian.

Three to try:

This easy pesto pasta dish is a great mid-week dinner

A classic slow-cooked spaghetti Bolognese that’s worth the time and effort

Darina Allen’s courgette and basil lasagne is a great meat-free option

Did you know?

Spaghetti and meatballs is an American creation, rather than Italian. Apparently, American favourite, mac and cheese, became even more popular in the States after September 11th as many people sought comfort in homely foods.

This article originally appeared in FOOD&WINE Magazine, May 2017