Until he apprenticed at Incanto in San Francisco, Michael Friedman considered fresh pasta sort of the holy grail of Italian cooking — something chefs should strive to make and perfect.
To make your own fresh pasta meant “you were at the height of your craft,” says Friedman, the chef behind the linguine, rigatoni, paccheri and other pastas at Red Hen in Bloomingdale. “I believed that for a really long time.”
But then Friedman worked with chef Chris Cosentino at the now-shuttered Incanto, and the Washingtonian discovered the many possibilities of dried pasta. Cosentino pushed the boundaries of the pasta that many simply shake from a box. He was extruding and drying pastas in-house, designing shapes unique to Incanto, such as a noodle that resembled tripe, which was then paired with two types of actual tripe, remembers Friedman.
Cosentino’s handiwork taught Friedman two things: One, dried pasta can have an art of its own. “And two,” Friedman deadpans, “it can be done.”
Well, it can be done if a kitchen has the time and space to dry pasta on dowels for a day or two. Sure, large commercial manufacturers such as Barilla can dry pasta in a matter of hours, but that high-heat approach can lead to a rubbery, one-dimensional product. By contrast, artisanal producers allow their extruded pastas to dry longer, sometimes for several days, at a lower heat. This Old World process results in pasta with starch content that can easily break down (assuming it’s cooked correctly), providing eaters with both an al dente chew and a creamy mouth feel.
But as Centrolina Osteria chef and owner Amy Brandwein notes, “We don’t have time to do half the things we want to do,” let alone prepare, extrude and dry pasta in-house. That may explain why so many chefs prepare fresh pastas when, in fact, almost all of them will tell you the same thing: They love dried pasta.
“I think it’s underrated,” says Mike Isabella, the chef and restaurateur behind Graffiato and other concepts. “I don’t think people use it enough at restaurants.”
Nick Stefanelli uses dried pasta at Masseria, his prix-fixe restaurant near Union Market. The chef and proprietor prefers the artisanal brands made in Gragnano, a municipality in Naples known for its dried pasta. Stefanelli likes not just the drying process used in Gragnano, but also the particular flours and water used to make the pastas. To the chef, the ingredients and process add up to a kind of terroir, which he says you can taste in the pastas he buys from Gerardo di Nola. (You can buy Gerardo di Nola’s bucatini, linguine and other pastas at the Organic Butcher of McLean for $6.99 a package.)
“The pastas have great flavor. You can really taste the wheat,” Stefanelli says. “It’s a slight nuance, but for me, it’s worth the price that we pay, because it builds into the flavor and layerings and everything that we put into the dishes.”
After his stint at Incanto, Friedman was determined to make his own dried pasta, regardless of the hassle. With only a week to go before the opening of Red Hen in 2013, he began experimenting. Friedman created his own strong dough — a three-flour dough with high gluten development, which he proceeded to extrude and dry. But he wasn’t satisfied with the results. The pasta wouldn’t hold its shape.
“The last resort was just to see what would happen if we froze it. So we would package it in containers and put it in the freezer after refrigeration,” Friedman recalls. “It holds its shape. It cooks incredibly quickly, and it’s al dente.”
Friedman has become such a fan of his “fresh dried pasta” — “once the dough is mixed, it’s basically cooked that day, so you’re tasting that freshness,” he says — that he prefers it over all commercial dried pastas. For Friedman, of course, that’s a rather low bar to clear.
“I find most boxed pastas disappointing. I do. Especially the artisanal” kind, Friedman says. “They do the job. They give you that al dente nature, but the flavor profile of them, they’re not something that blows my mind.”
Pasta tips and opinions from the pros:
• Look for dried pasta with a textured appearance or a powdery coating, says Stefanelli. Those signs indicate the pasta has been extruded through a bronze die and will cling to sauce better than smooth dried pastas extruded through Teflon dies.
• If you go to the trouble of making your own pasta at home, pair it with a simple sauce such as butter and Parmesan or pesto, says Brandwein. You want the fresh pasta to shine through.
• Paccheri are large tubes of dried pasta popular in coastal Naples, where locals often pair them with seafood sauces. Isabella takes a different approach: He pairs the pasta with a hearty oxtail ragu. You can even stuff the paccheri, the chef says, and bake them.
• Professional cooks generally prefer artisanal dried pastas from Italy. There are many different brands, some of which are available at markets such as the Italian Store in Arlington (703-528-6266 or 571-341-1080) or A. Litteri near Union Market (202-544-0183). But if you can’t find those pastas, Brandwein says De Cecco is the best of the grocery store brands.
• Dried pastas typically work best with heavier, rustic sauces such as meaty ragus, chefs generally agree. “I typically think tomato sauce pairs better with dry pasta,” says Brandwein. “Spaghetti pomodoro is famous for a reason.”
• Add salt to your cooking water (about 2 teaspoons per quart of water), but not oil. Olive oil will coat your pasta, making it hard for the sauce to cling to it. If you’re worried that pasta strands will stick to each other while cooking, just stir the pot. A lot.
• Starch is released into the water as pasta cooks, so don’t throw away the liquid. Mix about a quarter-cup into your sauce — or more, depending on how much sauce you’ve made — and then combine it with the pasta. The starchy water will help the sauce bind better with the pasta, says Friedman.