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Homemade pasta - man v machine

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Brendan Lancaster | 14:54 UK time, Monday, 9 July 2012

Many recipes for making fresh pasta assume you need a pasta machine, and in 'Food Factory' on BBC1 they even tried to make spaghetti with a meat mincer. Hmmm. In Italy you just need a long wooden rolling pin. This makes me wonder, can a novice get close to the delicious taste of fresh pasta at home with just a rolling pin and a little effort? 

So, I experimented by making pasta with and without a machine, and I was pleasantly surprised at the results.

A pasta machine

Haven't got one of these? No problem.

Rolling, rolling, rolling
Perhaps the most surprising discovery was that using the machine didn’t save me any time. 

Rolling the pasta with the machine was a fairly lengthy process, as I was thorough and put the dough through three times at each setting from 1 (widest) to 9 (thinnest).

By hand I rolled out the same amount of dough (150g) into two thin circular sheets in the same amount of time – about 15 minutes. There is no denying that using the rolling pin was physically hard work, and the machine did produce thinner sheets of pasta more easily. But the rolling pin gave results I was very happy with. It was certainly thin enough to make tagliatelle and other types of flat pasta.

Cutting it
A second surprise came when cutting the pasta. Using the machine to cut tagliatelle produced narrow, clean strips with perfectly parallel edges, as you’d expect. Cutting by hand is done by rolling up the sheet of pasta like a Swiss roll, then slicing it and shaking out the rolled up strands. Cutting by hand was very simple and fast - much easier than managing the machine single handed, although no doubt feeding the long strips of pasta into the machine while carefully catching the finished product at the same time would get easier with practice. Hand cutting also gave me control over exactly how wide I wanted my pasta ribbons – narrow tagliatelle, wider fettucine or extra wide pappardelle.

And the hand-cut pasta looked nicer. The irregularity gave it more character and it certainly looked more appealing when cooked and piled on the plate. The machine cut pasta looked very clinical in comparison.



Pros and cons
The machine made a lot more tagliatelle from the 150g of dough – thinner, narrower strips and more of them. However, the machine rolled pasta was so thin that it was very easy to overcook (I would stop at setting 7 or 8 on the machine next time). Another disadvantage of the thinner pasta was that it looked less yellow than the thicker hand-rolled pasta, and less appetising. The hand-rolled pasta had more bite, and had a rougher texture than the machine pasta – perfect for serving with pesto, parmesan and black pepper.

It isn’t necessary (or possible) to use a machine to shape some types of pasta. To make lovely little orecchiette or cavaletti the dough is rolled into a sausage and small pieces cut from it and squashed into shape, as you can see in the nice video on this pasta making blog post. (Use the egg-free pasta recipe for this – see below.)  Deliciously chewy in traditional dishes with chilli, anchovies and broccoli, or in Nigel Slater’s Pepper, tomato and basil pasta.

So if you are curious it's well worth giving pasta making a go, even if all you have is a rolling pin. It’s a lot of fun and makes very tasty, edible pasta. If you want to gear up to making it frequently, or in large quantities then a machine will save you physical effort. But I think I’d always choose to cut it by hand for the aesthetic pleasure of the home-made look. Buon appetito!

How to make it
Egg pasta recipes:
There are lots of variations of the pasta dough recipe. Some add salt and olive oil, some use various types of flour you can find at most large supermarkets. I used a traditional recipe - for each person you need 1 egg and 100g durum wheat flour, also called semolina flour or ‘semola di grano duro’, available from Italian delicatessens.

Egg-free pasta recipes
You can also make an egg-free dough, for example 350g semolina flour, 1 tsp salt, and enough hot water to make a stiff dough (150-175 ml). This is just as easy to handle as egg pasta and can be rolled out in the same way. It doesn’t have the rich flavour of egg pasta, but it is the pasta of choice for orecchiette and other types of southern Italian pasta.

In this video Paul Merrett shows how to mix and knead pasta dough. All dough types need to be kneaded for around 10 minutes or so, then wrapped in plastic and left to rest for 20 minutes or more before rolling out.

Rolling and cutting
There are hundreds of videos online showing rolling out dough and pasta making. A world of wonder to be explored. The important point is that, once rolled, the pasta should be worked straight away for stuffed pasta shapes, like tortellini, but for things like tagliatelle and spaghetti the rolled dough should be left to dry for 20 minutes or so before cutting to avoid the cut pasta strands sticking together.

Have you got any tips to share on making pasta by hand? Do you use a machine? What are your favourite home-made pasta dishes?


  • Comment number 1.

    I attended an Italian cookery class a few weeks back where we made pasta by hand without the use of pasta machines. From some of the dough, we made ravioli, rolling and sealing by hand. From the rest, we made tagliatelle, shown by the tutor the trick for lifting up all the strands easily with our knives to quickly carry them over to the cooking pot. Was just as good as machine rolled and cut in my opinion, though obviously the strands weren't as long, as we were restricted by sized of the chopping boards on which we worked.

  • Comment number 2.

    I have made pasta both by hand rolling and machine. I use a French roller (tapered at both ends) when rolling by hand as the curved roller provides precise control when rolling thin sheets. However, I can't roll them as thin as the machine does and I like thin sheets when making sheet-pasta dishes that are cooked in the oven (it's the crispy pasta bits mingled with slightly burned crispy cheese).

    Perfectly acceptable pasta sheets can be made by anyone who knows how to make dough and use a roller. Once tried it, there's no going back :)

    Trophie pasta can even be made without a roller, the pasta dough is hand rolled into small snake-like pieces about 45-50mm and twirled between your fingers to make a spiral shape. Served with basil pesto, Trophie pasta originates from the Ligurian region of Italy.


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