Pasta Picks: Why Shape Matters

Pasta comes in countless shapes and textures. Our chef explains the reasons why and offers tips for how to best match your pasta to your sauce.

While some people say pairing pasta and sauce is a matter of personal taste, others are adamant that steadfast rules apply. “Anytime you discuss food that is traditionally Italian, you will create a debate,” says Dan Kish, head chef at Panera Bread®, with a smile. “But the truth is, when you are talking about pasta, shape and texture really do matter.”

The Secret in the Shape

Pasta noodles are shaped to either trap and collect sauce or prevent sauce from clinging. For example, a ridged rigatoni pasta is a good match for a thick, hearty meat ragù. The chunky sauce easily adheres to the noodle’s ridged exterior and gets trapped inside its hollow center. The result is a perfect blend of pasta and sauce in every bite. On the other hand, a delicate capellini, or angel hair, pasta is best paired with a lighter sauce, such as a primavera with julienned garden vegetables, because a heavier sauce would overwhelm the fragile texture of its long, thin noodles.

Making a Match at Home

Keep this in mind: delicate noodles go well with a delicate sauce, while heartier noodles can stand up to a heartier sauce. Choose a pasta noodle that won’t over- or underwhelm the dish. Here are a few tips from our chef.

  • Tubular pasta or long, flat noodles like pappardelle work best with meat sauces. The sauce clings to the surface area and texture of these types.
  • Traditional tortellini—the kind with a hole in the center—is a great pasta to add to broth. Tortellini with no hole (like we feature in our Tortellini Alfredo) is better to pair with creamy sauces.
  • Long, thin noodles—like spaghetti—are ideally served with a light sauce, such as a simple tomato sauce or pesto.
  • Wider, flatter long noodles—like fettuccini and linguini—can stand up to a sauce with more texture (think classic linguini with clam sauce).
  • Shaped pastas, such as fusilli and shells, pair well with almost any kind of sauce, but they’re best with a sauce that has some texture, including chopped vegetables or meat.

“With these guidelines,” says Dan, “you can create tons of flavorful combinations.”