Don't Fuss Over Fresh Pasta: The Dried Stuff Is Better


Sara Jenkins

Editor's note: This is the most recent piece in Sara's series about opening a new Italian restaurant in New York City. To try Sara's recipe for pennette pasta with Brussels sprout leaves and bacon, click here.

I really can't wait to get back into the kitchen. First I had to wait to get the gas on, then I had to wait for health inspection, which involved four trips in two days to the very special hell on earth that is the N.Y.C. Health Department. They almost could teach the Italians a thing or two about bureaucracy, although I still think the Italians have them trumped because everything official in Italy requires special pieces of paper with tax stamps on them. We don't have those here yet.

Meanwhile I just really want to get cooking in the brief window of time I have when the kitchen is all mine and I don't have to worry about prepping enough of the right food for the evening's customers or motivating my cooks. I can just cook and think about whether it tastes good or not. Obviously I have been thinking a lot about pasta. When I tell people I am opening a pasta restaurant they ask, "Will you make all your own?" And I am intrigued that for so many people it's the automatic assumption. In a way it's so very American, as I find we Americans are always so impressed by and obsessed with technique. I love to make pasta and I think I make a pretty great delicate egg pasta suitable for pappardelle or tagliatelle or ravioli, but it's not the technique that fascinates me—it's the whole dish, all the myriad shapes and sauces and pairings and the multitude of ways that some carbohydrates, perhaps a little protein, and some vegetables make a meal that people can and do live on day in and day out.

Somewhere along the line fresh pasta came to be thought of as the better product, and it's not. I would argue that a lot of times it's not really fresh.

I grew up on "dry" pasta. On the menus in the trattorias we ate in, pasta was listed under past'asciutta, dried pasta. At my friends' houses, that was what was served. There was no shame or sense that it wasn't a magnificent thing in itself. In Italy the production of dried pasta is very tightly regulated, so it's a stable and reliable product. So-called "fresh" pasta was something to make at home or buy from a specialty store for special occasions, at least in the more Southern Italian areas of Tuscany and Rome I grew up in. And in my mind, since there is no regulation on how it's made, it's less reliable and often inferior to artisan dried pasta.

Artisan dried pasta is usually made from carefully selected wheat, and the dough is extruded through rough bronze dies that give it a slightly jagged texture. The pasta is then dried over 48 to 72 hours, curing better than it would with a quick blast of heat. The resulting texture is part of what brings balance to the dish. The sauce and a little starch cling to it and bind to hold better as a sauce.

Dried pasta is also a product that can sit in your pantry for a couple of years without too much deterioration and it will basically always cook up the same way. It's got great texture every time, and there's no excuse not to always have it on hand. Somewhere along the line fresh pasta came to be thought of as the better product, and it's not. I would argue that a lot of times it's not really fresh. Fresh pasta is grand when made in the home or by some highly skilled Bolognese chef, but most that is available here and in Italy is made on an industrial scale. Giant machines fill the pastas, seal them, and cut them, and I am not convinced that beautiful delicate egg pasta can ever really hold up to those machines. So the dough is tougher than what you really want in a delicate egg pasta and more often than not I find it kind of gluey.

At Christmas and Thanksgiving I love to make homemade ravioli (not least because it drives my mother crazy). I make them in the afternoon a couple of hours before we cook and eat them. They are ethereal and heaven to eat, but they are also rich and feel like a celebration meal. And they take a lot of time and effort.

Artisan or even regular dried pasta, in contrast, is quick and always there, and it's good. It is so much easier to have a plate of spaghetti and tomato sauce or penne (or any short pasta) with a quick sauté of seasonal vegetables or meat sauce then it is to make fresh egg pasta. Dried pasta is well crafted, tasty, and healthy. And it has that texture that I associate with a great bowl of pasta, and for me it's the texture that I value.

Recipe: Pennette With Brussels Sprout Leaves and Bacon