High-quality dried pasta is widely available and quick to prepare, so why make your own?
This was the first question I put to Katie Leaird, a former America’s Test Kitchen editor and current food writer and pasta-making instructor who studied her craft in Italy. Without hesitation, she replied: “Because fresh pasta is a completely different food.” The texture of a fresh noodle, she insisted, is chewy in a way that’s impossible to replicate with one that’s been dried.
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You should also make pasta by hand—no food processor, no mechanical roller, not even a rolling pin—simply because you can. The tactile experience of pasta “fatto a mano,” or handmade pasta, is a meditative way to pass an hour or two, and it rewards you with a hearty meal, particularly when you’re making pici (pronounced “PEE-chee,” or sometimes “PEE‑shee”), the long, wonderfully chewy strands that have been rolled out on Tuscan tables since Etruscan times. Pici are inherently frugal too—a prime example of cucina povera—and simple to make: Mix together a dough of mostly flour and water; knead until it’s smooth and slightly springy; let it relax a bit; and roll pieces of dough into slim ropes.
Flour and water are the bulk of pici; olive oil, salt, and egg are occasional additions. Some cooks use fine white Italian tipo 00 flour; others use coarser golden semolina or a combination. I made flour-and-water doughs with both, as well as with all-purpose flour, and found the tipo 00 and all-purpose batches equally chewy, so I stuck with the latter for accessibility. The results were even nicer when I mixed the all-purpose flour with semolina, its coarse grind and color rendering the dough appealingly nubbly, pale yellow, and complex.
1. Start at center of strand, moving your hands outward as you roll.
2. When center of strand is about 1/8 inch wide, roll your hands back and forth to evenly thin ends.
Golden color would have been my main incentive for adding egg, so I skipped it (besides, many consider egg a modern extravagance). I skipped the salt too; salting the cooking water seasoned the dough plenty well. I did opt for the oil, though. Worked into the dough and brushed onto the surface, it lubricated the mixture so that it felt silky and pliable.
The Need to Knead
Kneading is what builds up gluten, the network of proteins that makes doughs like those for pici strong and gloriously chewy. You don’t want to shortchange the process, lest the strands break apart as they’re rolled and boiled. But there’s also a point of diminishing returns: The batch of dough that I kneaded over and over to maximize gluten development produced only marginally chewier noodles than the pici made from dough that I worked about half as much. After some experimenting, I found a sweet spot at around 7 minutes.
Then comes “apiciare,” the Tuscan word for shaping the dough ropes. Check out some YouTube videos; it’s so satisfying to watch an expert roll the dough into meters-long strands, as if spinning wool into yarn. It’ll make you want to get your hands in there—and when you do, my best advice is to start by rolling relatively short ropes as evenly as you can. Consistent width is more important than consistent length, and I found it easier to divide my dough into small pieces and roll each into a 2-foot strand. Getting the motions down will take some practice, but that’s part of the fun. As Leaird reminded me, you’ve got virtually nothing to lose.
“It’s flour and water. There is nothing lower-stakes. You can mix up more dough and just keep going.”