Cooking Fundamentals: Fresh Pasta

How to make pasta at home
Making fresh pasta at home can be intimidating. It seems (like pastry) to be a skill/technique that signifies an advanced home cook. Many argue that it isn't worth the effort, with all the high quality pastas in stores these days. And while it's true, there are ample supplies of high quality dried pasta available, most fresh pasta in your average grocery store can be easily beaten (and at a fraction of the cost) by making it yourself.

You are a very lucky person if you live near an Italian market that sells the good stuff, but making your own pasta also allows you to personalize and customize stuffed pastas. Ravioli, agnolotti, tortellini and more are just waiting to be explored and tailored exactly to your taste.

Really good fresh pasta requires only two ingredients - flour and eggs. I like to add just a touch of olive oil to my pasta, but it certainly isn't necessary, and many hard-core pasta makers might criticize my choice. Regular all-purpose flour and grocery store eggs will give you wonderful pasta, much better than most you can buy, but your basic pasta recipe can be upgraded and modified by playing with those two ingredients. Changing from whole eggs to mostly egg yolks, substituting semolina flour or type 00, or adding other ingredients to suit your personal tastes all yield results worth your time and effort. Several recipes include black pepper and Thomas Keller adds milk to his fresh pasta. Once you start experimenting, you'll find what you like best.

My basic recipe uses 2 cups of type 00 flour, 1 tblsp olive oil, 2 whole eggs and about 4 additional egg yolks. This amount will easily serve 4. The amount of eggs can be variable, sometimes your dough will need a little more, sometimes a little less.  When you start, I highly suggest starting with a wetter dough, it's much easier to add additional flour to a too-wet dough when you are beginning, than trying to add moisture to a too-dry dough. After a few attempts, you'll get a sense of what is easiest for you.
These proportions are what I like if I'm doing stuffed pastas. If I'm making ribbons like pappardelle or linguini, I'll add a bit of semolina to the mix and probably use 3 whole eggs instead of the extra yolks (the extra yolks add a smooth richness, while the whites give additional body/texture.) Either way, I start my pasta dough by dumping the flour on the counter, making a well in the center, and adding the eggs.

From here, I use a fork and start mixing slowly, first breaking up the yolks, then incorporating the flour. If you are intimidated by the well method on the counter, you can do the same thing in a large bowl, or even mix the dough completely in a food processor. It's your pasta. It will turn out great either way. I've tried all three methods and like them all, usually choosing one over the other depending on my time and mood. There is something very romantic and old-school about making pasta on your counter, but it takes more time and can be a mess. I've had eggs run across my counter in a failed well-method attempt, but fortunately, those days are behind me!

Start mixing slowly...
Adding more flour as you go.
Once your dough has come together into a unified mass, time to wrap it in plastic and toss it in the fridge. It needs to rest 20-30 minutes before you roll it.

Pasta attachment on my kitchenaid.

When it comes time to roll, you've got several options. When I started, I used a rolling pin. It definitely works, but it took some elbow grease and I had a hard time getting the dough as consistently thin as I wanted. So I started looking into pasta machines. The hand crank ones are affordable, but I ended up getting the attachments for my mixer. I use the the basic sheet roller pretty exclusively, but you can buy cutters for linguini, etc. The advantage for me was that I can roll my pasta easily by myself in batches. That's quite a task with the hand crank kinds.

So from here, you pull out your rested dough and start the final kneading/rolling process. I cut off a hunk of the dough and start by feeding it several times at the thickest setting (0). Every time you feed it through, fold the dough over itself and feed it again. I like to do this 4 times or so when I start, you'll feel the dough get smoother and smoother as you go.

Rolled and folded, time to feed again
Another fold/roll.

Once your dough is feeling smooth and pliable, change the settings on the roller (from thinness settings 1 through 8) and feed it through again and again, watching the dough get thinner and thinner at each pass. I like to support both the front and back of the pasta with the back of my hand or flat of my fingers palms up. Be careful as the pasta gets thinner - your fingertips or fingernails can easily rip or tear the pasta sheets. Take the pasta to the your desired thinness (I go as thin as possible for stuffed pasta, but like ribbons to be a bit thicker) and set it aside until ready to cook. 

Important - if you are cutting your pasta by hand, flour the sheets very well so they don't stick to each other. If you aren't cooking the pasta immediately, you can store it in the fridge, I like to separate the pasta in layers with plastic wrap between or they'll stick together like crazy.
Fresh pasta cooks quickly, just 1 to 3 minutes in boiling salted water, depending on the thickness. It absorbs sauces really well and has such a velvety texture, it's pretty irresistible. Just be careful when you cook, it is delicate and overcooking will turn it to mush.

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