Picking the Perfect Pasta

Picking the Perfect Pasta

Pasta is simple to make—deceptively so. But a lot goes into choosing the right type and cooking it perfectly. Here are our best pro pasta tips.

It seems straightforward enough: Boil water, throw in some dried dough, and you’ve got dinner. But rewind that scene for a second. When the water boils, exactly what are you dropping in? Spaghetti or linguine? What about tagliatelle? Have you puzzled the differences between orecchiette and penne? Tortellini and ravioli?

And then there’s the sauce….        

We asked Panera Bread® head chef Dan Kish for some straight talk about your squiggly or stuffed options so you can get down to the easy part of the pasta meal: eating it. “There is a balancing act in the marriage between the pasta and the sauce,” he says, explaining that the shape and the surface texture of the pasta determine what type of sauce works best. Some shapes work better with lighter sauces, and some are meant for heavier, creamier ones.

For example, ridged and tubular pastas, such as penne, rigatoni, or ziti, pair nicely with pomodoro (tomato) or light cream sauces with vegetables because the ridges and tubes give these lighter-bodied sauces someplace to “stick.”

Meat sauces, such as Bolognese—a red sauce rich with minced or chopped beef, pork, and/or veal—also go well with tubular pasta, because the little bits of meat work their way into the tubes, creating a delightful combination with every bite. On the other hand, long, lean, flat-surfaced pastas, such as fettuccine and linguine, work nicely with herb-based sauces, like pesto, or cream sauces, like Alfredo, because these types of sauces cling better to flat surfaces, Dan says.

Made your choice? Good. Now to the cooking! One tip for perfect pasta, our expert says, is to use enough water. Pasta that’s too crowded in the pot is more likely to stick together. “You need almost a gallon of water to cook a pound of pasta; you want the pasta to be free-floating,” he explains. Another trick to keep the noodles from sticking is to not drain the pasta completely when it’s cooked. Dan recommends putting the mostly drained pasta back into the pot and adding the sauce immediately. The slight amount of cooking water blends into the sauce and helps it adhere better to the pasta. Imagine a dish of pasta in which every forkful is the ideal mix of pasta and sauce—as opposed to when the sauce sinks to the bottom of the dish.

Thinking casserole? Simply mix cooked pasta with tomato sauce and some cooked ground meat, top the casserole with mozzarella cheese, and bake it till bubbly. It’s simple to prepare and, served with a salad, is always a crowd pleaser, he says.

In the year and a half that Panera Bread has been serving pasta, it’s become a favorite meal, whether as a small portion with a salad for lunch or a full one for dinner. This fall Panera will feature three delicious dishes.

  • Tortellini Alfredo: This is Panera’s most popular pasta offering. The half-moon-shaped pasta is stuffed with a blend of ricotta, Swiss, and Romano cheeses and folded and pinched to resemble Venus’s belly button. It’s then topped with a simple, herb-infused sauce of cream, butter, and Parmesan.
  • Pesto Sacchettini: A beggar’s purse pasta—smooth on the surface and gathered and pinched on one end—is filled with a six-cheese blend and tossed with a nut-free pesto made from basil, garlic, olive oil, and Parmesan.
  • Butternut Squash Ravioli: New this autumn, Dan says, this ravioli combines butternut squash with crushed amaretti cookies, which work to absorb the moisture from the squash and add some sweetness. The pasta is served with a leek and garlic cream sauce and topped with fresh baby arugula and frizzled onions.