Ten ways to take pasta to the next level

by Tom Wildman 8 March 2016

Pasta is one of Italy’s most basic foods, but it is also one its most versatile. With just the simplest of steps regular pasta dishes can quickly be transformed. Read our top ten tips and tricks to take your pasta to the next level.

A Cordon Bleu graduate from Tante Marie Culinary Academy, Tom shares his food passions both in the kitchen and by writing about his favourite dishes.

Although a history graduate, Tom soon realised his call for the culinary arts and trained for a Cordon Bleu qualification at Tante Marie Culinary Academy. He loves sharing his equal passions for food and travel, with Mexican and Vietnamese foods being top of his hit list. When not in the kitchen, he can be found out on a foraging trip or perhaps playing ultimate frisbee.

1. Make your own

Although good quality dried pasta is increasingly easy to find, it still doesn’t compare with homemade fresh pasta. Making it from scratch gives you the freedom to experiment with different shapes, colours and flavours and cook authentic Italian recipes with pasta varieties that can’t be bought in the shops. If you own a pasta machine, making fresh pasta is surprisingly easy and can be relatively quick with a bit of practice. But if you don’t have one, don’t let that stop you – a heavy rolling pin will get the job done with a bit of muscle, and if it's good enough for millions of Italian nonnas, it’s certainly good enough for us. Read our how to make fresh pasta guide for step-by-step instructions.

2. Add a touch of colour

The beautiful golden yellow colour of pasta is so ingrained in our minds that something different always makes for a fun surprise. The most commonly used pasta colours are black (flavoured with cuttlefish or squid ink), green (flavoured with spinach) and red (flavoured with tomato). Adding cuttlefish or squid ink to your pasta dough creates a particularly dramatic effect, as demonstrated by Rosanna Marziale’s stunning Squid ink pasta with mussels, calamari crackling and mozzarella purée. To create your own, take a look at our squid ink pasta how-to guide. This same basic method is used for all the different pasta colours, allowing you to experiment with any number flavours. Lorenzo Cogo, for example uses cherry purée for his beautiful Cherry tagliolini with seaweed and watermelon skin.

3. Incorporate new flavours

Coloured pasta looks fantastic, but tends to only add a subtle flavour to the finished pasta. To add a more punchy flavour, try adding finely chopped herbs to your dough. A wide variety can be used, but it works best when matched with the ingredients in the pasta’s accompanying sauce. Alessandro Gavagna recommends any combination of mallow, lemon balm, wild fennel and mint for his Spaghettini with herbs and vegetable sauce.

4. Boil, grill or bake

Pasta can be cooked in a number of ways and doesn’t just have to be boiled. Many Italian chefs par-cook their pasta and then finish it in the sauce, often with a few tablespoons of the starchy cooking water. This allows the pasta to absorb some of the flavour, while the water helps to emulsify the sauce. Another option is using a grill to give your pasta a crunchy texture; Igles Corelli par-cooks lasagne sheets and places them under a grill until puffed up and golden brown.

5. Stuff it

Stuffed pasta is a great way to use up leftover ingredients and is always fun to put together. Ravioli and tortellini are the most well-known shapes, but most regions throughout Italy have their own unique shapes and fillings. For a versatile recipe that uses up garden vegetables, take a look at Lorenzo Cogo’s Ravioli with garden trimmings, chamomile, tequila and almond, or treat your friends to a memorable dish with Daniele Usai’s Egg yolk ravioli with truffle and Parmesan. If it’s your first time making filled pasta, fear not – learn how to make ravioli with our easy to follow guide.

Use a grill to give your pasta a crunchy texture; Igles Corelli par-cooks lasagne sheets and places them under a grill until puffed up and golden brown.

6. Super subs

There are many clever ways of substituting pasta for other ingredients. Spiralized vegetables are particularly popular right now due to their numerous health benefits; try adding courgetti or spiralized carrot to your pesto or tomato sauce for a healthy pasta alternative. Our Italian chefs may not be quite as keen on spiralizing, but do use other pasta-shaped ingredients in their recipes. Two-Michelin-starred chef Mauro Uliassi thinly slices cuttlefish to resemble tagliatelle and tops it with nori pesto and fried quinoa for an impressive starter.

7. Give gluten the boot

Gluten-free pasta has come a long way in the last few years and is now stocked by all major supermarkets. If you have a gluten-intolerance or simply want to avoid it, why not have a go at making your own? Christina Bowerman’s Rice tagliatelle, red mullet, peppers and bottarga features a fantastic pasta made from a combination of buckwheat and rice flours.

If you have a gluten-intolerance or simply want to avoid it, why not have a go at making your own?

8. Don’t knock gnocchi

Gnocchi on a top ten pasta list? Although not pasta in the traditional sense, many do choose to classify gnocchi in the same group on the basis that the recipe uses the same ingredients, usually with added potato. However you define them, gnocchi are just as versatile as regular pasta and can be used interchangeably with most sauces. For best results, gnocchi should be shaped while the potatoes are still hot to avoid a claggy, chewy finish. This means gnocchi is much quicker to prepare than pasta, as the dough requires no resting time. Try making gnocchi at home with our how to guide, or get inspired with our favourite gnocchi recipes.

9. Super soups

Pasta doesn’t always need to be the star of the show. Drop a handful into your soup to add some bulk and turn it into more of a substantial meal. The classic Italian wedding soup is a meal in a bowl and features tortelli, swiss chard and sliced mortadella in a rich meaty broth. A warming bowl of Minestrone is one of the ultimate comfort foods; Antonio Carluccio serves his with chunky vegetables, tubettini pasta and pesto.

10. Shape up

There are over 350 different pasta shapes (at least), so why limit yourself to a select few? Our Italian chefs use a variety of pasta shapes rarely seen outside of Italy, such as tagliolini, fusilloni and mlinci. Traditional pasta recipes use shapes that best match their accompanying sauce – for example, tubular pastas are generally used with thicker, more chunky sauces, while long, thin pastas work best with looser, olive oil-based sauces. For a truly unique pasta shape take a look at Luca Marchiori’s recipe for passatelli – a little known pasta from Emilia-Romagna made with breadcrumbs, cheese and eggs.