Pastabilities: How to Pair Pasta Shapes and Sauces

Updated on March 26, 2018
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Exploring food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes... one ingredient at a time.

Wheels and tubes, twists and folds and grooves—pasta comes in hundreds of shapes, each with its own unique history, beauty, and place on the dinner table. For centuries these shapes have evolved alongside Italy’s cornucopia of local ingredients; if you know how the flavours relate to the forms, you hold the secret formula to good taste.

— Jacob Kenedy, author of “The Geometry of Pasta”

According to the World Wide Web, there are at least 350 shapes of pasta. The basic recipe for the dough is the same—why are there so many different shapes?

Noodles are like people. Some adore a ton of sauce, and others desire just a mere hint. Delicate pasta (angel hair or linguine for example) would collapse under a heavy sauce, but shine with a light garlic olive oil or simple cream sauce. Big, hearty pasta can stand up against a hearty sauce. Tube-shaped pasta is perfect for grabbing chunky bits of tomato and sausage.

There are no “wrong” combinations, but if you really want your pasta or that pasta sauce to be at its best, let’s find which pairs work together.

Long, Thin Pasta Shapes

These incredibly delicate strands of pasta are a challenge to cook and sauce perfectly. They are best stirred into broth or sauced with nothing more than a fruity olive oil (use the good stuff), or a homemade pesto. If you must add cheese, I would suggest a mere dusting from your microplane.

 
Broth
Garlic & Olive Oil or Pesto
Marinara
Alfredo or Cheese Sauce
Chunky Meat Sauce
Capellini (angel hair pasta)
x
x
 
 
 
Vermicelli
x
x
 
 
 

Long, Medium and Wide Pasta Shapes

These are the kinds of pasta we reach for when we're hungry for a plate of spaghetti and meatballs; or a hearty shrimp alfredo dish; or wide noodles layered with ricotta cheese, rich red sauce, and vegetables (lasagna).

 
Broth
Garlic & Olive Oil or Pesto
Marinara
Alfredo or Cheese Sauce
Chunky Meat Sauce
Bucatini
 
 
x
x
x
Fettucini
 
 
x
x
x
Fusilli
 
x
x
x
 
Lasagna
 
 
x
x
x
Linguine
 
x
x
 
 
Mafalde
 
x
x
 
 
Pappardelle
 
 
x
 
x
Spaghetti
 
x
x
 
 
Tagliatelle
 
 
 
 
x

Short Pasta Shapes

Short kinds of pasta are "all the rest". Some of them are tiny; ancini di peppe is often cooked for toddlers when they are ready to graduate from baby food. Orzo looks (and cooks) like rice, but it is made of wheat pasta dough.

The medium-sized are the kinds of pasta, with all of those crevices, twists, and dimples, that luxuriate in almost any kind of sauce. Macaroni and cheese casseroles and sturdy soups beg for these types of pasta. Don't get stuck in a rut with using elbow macaroni.

 
Broth
Garlic & Olive Oil or Pesto
Marinara
Alfredo or Cheese Sauce
Chunky Meat Sauce
Ancini di peppe
x
 
 
 
 
Cavatappi (fusilli)
 
x
x
x
 
Conchiglie (seashells)
 
 
x
x
 
Ditalini
x
x
 
 
 
Farfalle (bowties)
 
 
x
x
 
Fiori
 
 
x
 
 
Gemelli
 
x
x
x
 
Gnocchi
x
x
x
x
 
Macaroni
 
 
x
x
 
Orecchiette
x
x
x
x
x
Orzo
x
x
 
 
 
Penne
 
 
 
x
x
Radiatore
 
 
x
x
x
Rigatoni
 
x
x
x
 
Trofi
 
x
x
x
 
Ziti
 
x
x
x
 

Recipes

Chicken Broth

Any small pasta (see the table above) can be simmered in store-bought stock for a comforting easy-to-digest meal. This is true comfort food when you or a loved one are feeling unwell. Long-thin pasta (such as angel hair or vermicelli) should be broken into short pieces (about one-inch) before cooking in the broth.

However, if you have the time, please use this recipe from the Food Network for homemade chicken stock. You won't be disappointed.

Basil Pesto

This is my favorite recipe for a simple basil pesto.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups basil leaves, gently packed
  • 1/2 cup walnuts (yes, pine nuts are traditional, but walnuts are easier to find)
  • 2 tsp. minced garlic
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 3/4 tsp. salt

Instructions

  1. Place basil, walnuts, and garlic in the bowl of food processor. Pulse into finely chopped. Add oil, cheese, and salt and process until a smooth paste, stopping several times to scrape down sides of the bowl.

For other flavor ideas, check out my article on "Pesto Perfected."

Marinara Sauce

This marinara contains a secret ingredient. Yes, anchovy fillets.

No, it doesn't taste "fishy". The anchovy completely melts into the tomato sauce, imparting a salty umami flavor. If you are vegetarian or vegan you can substitute 2 teaspoons of capers, rinsed, drained, and smashed.

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 flat anchovy fillets, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 30-ounce cans Italian whole tomatoes in puree
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

Directions

  1. Melt butter with olive oil in large, deep saute pan over medium heat. Stir in garlic and cook 30 seconds. Add anchovy; lower heat and cook until anchovy is dissolved.
  2. Pour the tomatoes (with puree) into the container of a blender and process until smooth.
  3. Add tomatoes and remaining ingredients to saute pan. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to low. Simmer, uncovered, 30 minutes.

Alfredo Sauce

Here are three recipes for alfredo sauce. Two are low (or lower) in fat but still made luxurious with a hint of bacon in one and cream cheese in the other. However, the third option is the full-meal deal, a full-fat alfredo by Ree Drummond.

Cheese Sauce

This next recipe is an adaptation of several posts on the internet for "Stouffers Copycat Macaroni and Cheese." This is not your mac and cheese from the blue box. After cooking and draining the pasta, you prepare a white sauce, stir grated cheese into the sauce, combine the cheese sauce and cooked pasta, and then (here's the good part), bake in a hot oven until browned and bubbly.

Ingredients

  • ½ pound (2 cups) fusilli*, uncooked
  • ¼ cup butter
  • ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 ½ cups whole milk
  • 2 ½ cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese (see Note below)
  • ¼ pound (4 slices) American cheese
  • ½ cup sour cream (not non-fat or low-fat)
  • Salt and ground black pepper

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. Cook the pasta according to package directions until al dente. This means that it is almost cooked, but still a tiny bit chewy. (Your pasta will be baked in the oven and will finish cooking there.) Drain and set aside.
  3. Warm the milk in a microwave-safe measuring cup. It doesn’t need to be hot—just take the chill off.
  4. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for about 2 minutes.
  5. Slowly pour in the warmed milk. Stir constantly until slightly thickened.
  6. Add the cheese, one handful at a time, whisking well after each addition. Don’t add more cheese until the previous handful is melted.
  7. Stir in the sour cream and then season to taste with salt and pepper.
  8. Carefully add the drained pasta and stir to combine thoroughly.
  9. Pour into buttered 9-inch square pan. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until bubbly.

NOTE: Don't use pre-shredded cheese in this recipe. Most cheese-in-the-bag is coated with potato starch which can cause your creamy cheese sauce to become grainy and gloppy (yuck!).

* See above table for other choices

Chunky Meat Sauce (Bolognese)

This recipe is an adaptation of the bolognese created by Marcella Hazen. Yes, it takes several hours to prepare, but every moment is worth it. Do read the comments; they contribute as much as the recipe itself.

I would also add that (in my humble opinion) the carrots and celery should be cut to very fine dice, not merely chopped. It's not a stew. The vegetables should provide flavor yet not be obvious morsels in the sauce.

A Penne for Your Thoughts

What is your favorite pasta-sauce combination?

See results

Questions & Answers

  • How do you get the little pasta birdsnests to stay intact in boiling water? Mine come undone and end up as loose spaghetti.

    Instead of boiling in a large pot, I have managed to keep mine intact by gently simmering in a large shallow pan. Nudge them occasionally with a fish spatula so that we won't stick to the bottom of the pan. If you need to cook a lot of them, you might have to cook several batches.

© 2018 Linda Lum

Comments

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    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      4 months ago from Central Florida

      I hear you, Linda. We would have a blast together, although I'd probably want to tour your property first!

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      4 months ago from Washington State, USA

      I'm pretty sure I could live on pasta. And, especially at this time of year, when the weather is unbearably warm, anything with lemon, if it's hot, seems somehow refreshing. Would love to hear what you end up making. Actually, wish you lived close enough that we could cook together. I bet we'd have so much fun!

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      4 months ago from Central Florida

      Mmmm. It's 4:19 and I'm wondering what to have for dinner. Pasta sounds like just the ticket!

      A couple of weeks ago I made chicken in lemon caper sauce (no cream) and served it over angel hair. It was delicious!

      Sometimes when I get lazy and need a pasta fix, I'll boil egg noodles and dress them with milk, butter, salt and pepper. It was a favorite after school snack when I was growing up. Other times I'll switch up the noodle shape and add torn up American cheese to the milk and butter mixture.

      Love, love, love pasta!

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      8 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Kari, you KNOW I love pasta (hence my alias). I have a jar of capers waiting to be used up. I think you've given inspiration for tonight's dinner. Have a wonderful weekend.

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      8 months ago from Ohio

      I love pasta. All types of pasta! My favorite is campanella in a lemon-cream sauce with capers. Just talking about pasta makes my mouth water, lol.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      8 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Dennis, I love pasta carbonara (and my hips are living proof). That's such a unique dish however. The sauce isn't separate from the pasta. Perhaps I should devote an article to making the perfect carbonara. Thanks for the suggestion.

    • profile image

      Dennis kent 

      8 months ago

      You did not mention pasta carbanera with bacon and finished using a raw egg cooked by the hot pasta. A family favorite.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      8 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Eric, in the past few weeks we have been experimenting with rice noodles, soba (buckwheat), and even making our own udon noodles (that was fun!). I love pasta!!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      8 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Linda I was thinking about this and realized that the good Vietnamese cooks us different noodles (pasta) for different soups just like you article for western dishes. Cool huh.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      8 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Rachel, sometimes spaghetti squash just doesn't satisfy, does it? I do hope you can soon try these. Thank you for your kind comments. Blessings to you as well.

    • Rachel L Alba profile image

      Rachel L Alba 

      8 months ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

      Hi Linda, Being Italian, I love all Italian dishes and recipes and yours are so authentic looking. I love your combinations and as soon as my doctor releases me from this no carb diet, I will be trying one or all of your recipes. Thank you so much, your pictures are making my mouth water. I will be pinning this article.

      Blessings to you.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      8 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Eric, when I was on my walk a few days ago I noticed that the stinging nettles are already popping up. It's time to don the leather garden gloves and gather a bucket full of those tops to make pesto.

      Both of my daughters love angel hair; I prefer something a little more sturdy and rustic, but what really counts is the sauce.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      8 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Cool stuff. My wife really likes Angel Hair with Marinara.

      I had no idea that pesto was so easy to make. Oh boy.

      Making food fun is your specialty.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      8 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Bill, you can eat any pasta with any sauce, but some will simply work together better than others. Angel hair wold become a gloppy mess if you tried to turn it into macaroni and cheese and orzo would get lost in a bolognese.

      I can do many things, but controlling the weather ain't one of them. I agree with you, we need that sunshine back. There's so much to do.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      8 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Flourish, I hope it's "Dad-approved". Thanks.

    • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Lum 

      8 months ago from Washington State, USA

      John, I really like the colored pastas. There are beautiful ones made in Italy. Almost too pretty to eat.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      8 months ago from Olympia, WA

      There are good pairings? When did eating become so difficult? lol I learn something new every single time with your articles, Linda. Thanks!

      Where's the sun? I need the sun?

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      8 months ago from USA

      My dad was a good scientist with Stouffers for 20 years. We’re gonna try that recipe!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      8 months ago from Queensland Australia

      A very helpful hub, Linda. I wondered why certain types of pasta always seemed to be used with particular sauces. I enjoy lasagne and fettuccine most probably. I also love the coloured vegetable pasta in just a light olive oil sprinkle.

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