Pasta in the Southern Italian Tradition: Flour & Water, Rolled by Hand
When I want to make homemade pasta from scratch and don’t have a lot of time, my go-to pasta is always a Southern Italian style pasta dough made with just two ingredients, semolina flour and water. That’s it! No eggs, pasta machine, food processor, stand mixer, rolling pin or any fancy equipment required (ok, well, maybe a little elbow grease!). How to make this pasta is also one of my most requested classes when I teach as it is approachable, easy to learn and simple to prepare with just two ingredients and limited time. Because there are no eggs in this pasta, the dough ends up being what is referred to as “plastic,” which is what makes it easier to hold its shape rather than “elastic,” or stretchable. Thus, a perfect dough for hand forming unique pasta shapes.
This type of pasta is made with a superfine semolina flour. General baking flours are made from common wheat. Semolina (semola in Italian) is flour made with a particular species of wheat called durum wheat, which is a hard wheat. Regular semolina is coarse, similar to cornmeal and is typically used for extruded pasta shapes. Semola rimacinata is the very finely ground semolina flour used for making pasta in the Southern Italian tradition. It is the grind that is the difference between the two. Rimacinata means twice-milled, resulting in a more cake-like flour compared to semolina. The Italian Semola will say right on the label “Semola rimacinata di grano duro.” Although the grind is fine, the high protein (13% versus 8% of AP flour) and gluten content of this flour make it perfect to create a firm pasta dough that helps the pasta retain its shape and “bite” during the cooking process. It creates a nice chewy, al dente texture you cannot get using any other flour. If you plan to dry or freeze your pasta, durum wheat pasta will probably hold its shape over a longer time period. Semolina and semola rimacinata flour can be found in larger supermarkets, Italian specialty markets and online. You can certainly use the easier to find coarse ground semolina flour to make this dough, but it will take a bit more time and upper body strength to develop into a pasta dough by hand.
Making this pasta dough could not be simpler. A general guide is 2-parts semolina/semola rimacinata/1-part warm water. I typically tell students to not add their water to their flour all at once as different factors such as the temperature and humidity will affect how your pasta dough comes together. For instance, if I am making pasta at the beach on a hot, humid summer day, I will probably start with less water as the humidity in the air will affect the moisture content of my dough. Add water/additional flour sparingly as needed until your dough comes together and is tacky and not at all sticky.
Shapes! There are so many shapes you can make using this dough, from orecchiette, capunti, lorighittas, trofie- the pastabilities are endless when it comes to shapes! With many of these shapes the process begins the same, by rolling out a small portion of your dough into a long rope, typically the width of your pinkie finger 1.9 cm (3⁄4 inch) thick, cutting that pasta rope into small segments and then forming them into the desired shape.
Now it is time to cook your pasta! Note that I do not add salt into my pasta dough as I season my cooking water with salt. If you add a pinch of salt into your dough, it won’t hurt but it is unnecessary if you properly salt your cooking water. How much salt is always up for debate, but I typically add a few tablespoons to about 8 quarts of boiling water. If you cannot taste the salt in your water, you probably need more.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil (Salt your water like the sea!)
- Add the pasta, and don’t worry about all that semolina or cornmeal going into the pot with the pasta, it will create a nice starchy bath for your pasta.
- Fresh pasta cooks pretty quickly. The cook time will depend on the size of the pasta. For these two shapes, if you have made them as instructed, they should only take 2-3 minutes to cook. I set a timer and check my pasta frequently after 2 minutes.
- Drain, transfer to a large serving bowl and immediately toss with sauce and serve.
Don’t add any flour to your surface while rolling dough strips; friction helps the dough stretch into your long ropes or strands. If you try to roll your pasta snakes in flour, they will slip and slide and will not stretch into long ropes.
Once you segment your pasta snake into smaller pieces, toss the cut pieces with extra flour to avoid them sticking together as you work.
Texture: Texture can be created using simple household items such as a butter paddle, a wooden sushi mat, a silicone sushi mat, a gnocchi board, a textured silicone trivet or even a cheap textured placemat. Look around, you will be surprised at what you will find in your kitchen!
These pasta shapes are traditionally made with water but since pasta is really just some sort of flour and liquid, once you get the hang of making it with water, experiment with different sources of hydration. I have used the following in place of or mixed in with water with great results: aquafaba (chickpea liquid from the can!), whey, milk, or heavy cream.
Pasta making is all about the approach. Do not slavishly follow a recipe, use a recipe as a guide. Understand many factors affect the final result of your dough, from the type of flour you use, whether you are using a combination of flours, the hydration source, weather, humidity, it all affects the final dough. Pasta making from scratch should be meditative, not stressful. If your dough seems too dry, give it a bit more hydration, whether it is a spritz of water, a bit of olive oil, just hydrate it! Similarly, if your dough seems too wet, sprinkle some additional flour in and continue kneading. Watch, read and learn and if you invest the time, you will confidently be making pasta regularly!