If you really want to rock a recipe, you need the proper ingredients, right? There is some wiggle room when making substitutions — like, using a plant-based alternative to an animal-based product may not kill the dish’s whole vibe. But savvy home cooks understand that every component of an elevated dish has an important role to play.
This concept applies to the choice of ingredients and how they’re prepared. Even though their flavors are similar enough, a finely diced shallot is totally different from a coarsely chopped red onion. After all, which one would you want floating around in your perfectly-emulsified vinaigrette? As far as pasta goes, the rule holds fast: the shape is crucial to the success of the recipe and the harmony of the finished dish.
Even when the ingredients of the pasta itself are simple and clean (in our case, that means 100% yellow peas and nothing else), the noodles themselves aren’t interchangeable. Each one has a special pasta superpower, that when used intentionally, helps take your cooking from “just fine” to “total fire.”
Here are four of our favorite pasta shapes to get acquainted with:
These corkscrew-shaped noodles, with roots in southern Italy, usually measure about two inches in length and feature tight twists. The name translates to “small wheels” in Italian.
The shape of rotini works quite well with tomato sauces, creamy sauces, and oil-based sauces, like pesto. Rotini is also a prime candidate for pasta casseroles with vegetables and proteins baked in. All of the little spaces between the twists collect the sauce, and the bouncy shape of the pasta also gives the noodles some height in a bowl or on a plate.
Consider Pasta Agile the denim jacket of pasta: It’s versatile and goes with everything! It’s a short pasta with a gentle curve and a half-open tube. The shape is reminiscent of a tiny water slide, and the texture is smooth.
The opening in the center of the noodle cradles the other ingredients in the dish, providing a complete flavor experience in every forkful. Shredded proteins, like tuna, crab meat, and carnitas, as well as smaller vegetable pieces, like corn and grated carrot or zucchini, work especially well with the shape.
Pasta Agile is a pasta workhorse and performs beautifully in all sorts of applications: seafood pasta, veg-studded pasta salads, and herby grilled chicken dishes. It even works great as an ingredient in chili!
Elbow-shaped pasta (sometimes referred to as macaroni) are basically short, curved tubes. Their hollow shape means that creamy, rich sauces can actually make their way inside the pasta, resulting in a silky mouthfeel. That’s why elbows are mac-and-cheese rock stars! The fun shape of elbows also makes them the #1 noodle among preschool artists. 🙂
Because they are small and hollow, elbows can’t always stand up to chunky, heavy sauces. Smaller, softer ingredients, like peas or chopped mushrooms, can nest in the crooks of the noodles, making for many pleasant bites.
This classic pasta shape is totally tubular! No, really — it’s literally a small, tube-shaped pasta with the ends cut at an angle to mimic the point of a fountain pen. The exterior sides of the noodle feature noticeable ridges, which lend a sturdy, robust texture, and grab onto sauces without going soggy.
ZENB Penne has the traditional shape and ridges, though of course, our protein-packed pasta is anything but standard. Use penne any time there are heaps of other medium-sized ingredients in the dish, like cubes of chicken, whole cherry tomatoes, or chunks of crumbled feta. The shape creates a nice balance of texture in each bite, and won’t get overwhelmed by robust meats and vegetables.
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