Quick guide to Italian ingredients: Pasta secca

Pasta
Long, short, and minute pasta secca

 

I remember it coming as quite a shock, a few years ago,  when discussing what to have for lunch with my English partner that my suggestion of pasta was met with an incredulous, ‘but we ate that yesterday. We can’t have it every day. It will get boring.’ For me, having been brought up on an Italian diet, the idea that pasta could get boring just by being eaten every day was a new one. How could it? There are so many different types and shapes, and they all taste different!

Italians eat a lot of pasta. If you take the average amount eaten by the average person and divide it by the average portion size, it indeed suggests that the average Italian eats pasta about 330 days of the year. And the majority of this pasta is pasta secca or dried pasta.

Pasta secca is made from durum wheat flour and water only, and today is produced mostly in factories. As part of the process it is extruded through a machine which makes it into the wide variety of shapes we are familiar with. However, extrusion machines have been with us since the 17th century, so it’s not true that this type of pasta belongs only in the post-industrial world.

One of the first companies to start making pasta secca on an industrial scale was Buitoni, based now as then in the town of Sansepolcro, about 20km from La Madera. The company, which started in 1867, is still one of the largest producers of dried pasta in Italy, but today it is owned by Nestlé.

The best quality dried pasta is produced using extrusion machines with bronze dies. This gives the outside of the pasta a texture which is perfectly suited to holding the sauces its served with.

Outside Italy, there is an attitude that dried pasta is  in some way inferior to fresh pasta, but this is not true. The two are simply different. Many Italians will only eat fresh pasta, which is usually made with eggs, once a week for health reasons. As a friend of mine once said, ‘Imagine what your cholesterol levels would be like if you ate it every day!’ Unless its a special occasion, pasta will usually be eaten for lunch, which for most Italians still remains the main meal of the day. This in part accounts for the fact that obesity levels in Italy are lower than in many developed countries.

There are many different shapes of pasta secca, each with a different mouthfeel, and eaten with sauces specially designed for the shape. Generally however, they divide into long (e.g. tagliatelle, pappardelle, spaghetti), short (penne, fusilli, conchiglie), and minute (e.g. quadrucci, stelline). Although it is usually a beige colour, pasta secca is also made in a variety of colours for special occasions, such as green (coloured with spinach), red (coloured with tomato paste), orange (coloured with carrots), and even brown (coloured with cacao) and black (coloured with cuttlefish ink).

Sauces depend on the shape of the pasta, with, for example, long flat pasta usually served with chunky or meaty sauces while long thin pasta is served with creamier sauces. This is why in Italy, there’s no such thing as spaghetti bolognese, because the shape of the pasta is not suitable for the sauce—as well as the fact that the pasta shape and the sauce come from two different regions, but that’s another story!

 

My favourite kind of dried pasta is rigatoni. What’s yours?

 

5 thoughts on “Quick guide to Italian ingredients: Pasta secca

  1. I’ve never understood the British snobbery regarding fresh pasta as ‘better’ when most Italians are happy with dried! Nor have I understood the food-shaming associated with it (carbs?! OH MY GOD I’M GOING TO GET SO FAT GUYS!) when it’s a staple food in a country with a low obesity rate – I think it’s because outside of Italy, it’s been bastardised with horrid premade sauces and suchlike. Reading up a bit more about it changed my attitude towards it for the better – I very rarely cook spagbol, preferring to serve my ragu’s in a lasagne or over shapes like penne or fusilli which will hold the thick sauce. I only cook spaghetti in puttanesca nowadays, or in spelt form with an olive, parsley and anchovy pesto (Nigella Lawson recipe, an absolute winner).

    I’ve only ever done casarecce with diced, cooked courgettes (another Lawson recipe).

    By the way,have you ever cooked pasta in the ‘risottata’ manner – where it’s cooked in one pan with a few ingredients like pancetta and peas and the water poured on so it absorbs it? I’m a recentish convert to that method and just curious if it was popular (or siccoso as they say) in Italy?

    1. I couldn’t agree with you more. As I said, it’s also because in Italy we tend to eat pasta at lunch time unless it’s a special occasion—carbs at lunch time, protein in the evening, is the norm here. As well as what you’v mentioned, the classic accompaniment for ragù is tagliatelle, both of which are from the province of Bologna. I am aware of cooking pasta that way, but although it’s supposed to have been shown to some journalists in a restaurant in Italy, it’s not widely known here. The classic method for cooking dried pasta here is 100g pasta + 1 litre of water. It’s very difficult to convince people to depart from tried and tested methods here.

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