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How to Pair Pasta Shapes with Sauces, Soups and More

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If you’ve ever put a sauce and pasta together and thought the combination wasn’t quite right, there might be a reason: not all pasta is ideal for all dishes.

There are over 300 pasta shapes, so you’ll be forgiven for the occasional misstep.

“I get super excited when I see a shape that I don’t know or hadn’t thought of in a long time,” says cookbook author Katie Parla, whose books include “Southern Italian cuisine” and, with Evan Funke, “American Sfoglino: A Master Class in Handmade Pasta.”

Parla straddles two schools of thought in choosing pasta shapes. The American side says: “do what you want”. The Italian team, resident for two decades, takes into consideration the traditions of its adopted country. (In “The essentials of classic Italian cuisine” the legendary Marcella Hazan says that the principles of pairing pasta and sauce “cannot be ignored by anyone wishing to achieve the full and harmonious expression of flavor that Italian cuisine is capable of”.)

Parla’s diplomatic view: “There may be opportunities for a delicious textural experience if you don’t strictly follow tradition.”

Still, you need to think about which pasta shapes you use for which dishes. Here’s an overview of some major categories, along with examples and suggestions on how to use them. Keep in mind that shapes can be classified in several ways.

Examples: angel hair, bucatini, fettuccine, linguine, mafaldine, pappardelle, tagliatelle

“Long, flat pasta, such as spaghetti, linguine and fettuccine, tolerate butter and homogenized sauces such as clams, tomatoes or garlic and oil sauce particularly well,” says Lidia Matticchio. Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali in “Lidia masters the art of Italian cuisine.” Carbonara and cacio e pepe are two popular dishes with sauces that cling well to the strands. The same goes for Hazan’s tomato, onion and butter sauce.

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Sauces don’t need to be textureless to work well with long noodles, although smaller pieces work better with these types of pasta. “A Bologna-style meat stew really goes wonderfully with noodles of varying thicknesses,” like pappardelle, Parla says. Spaghetti or linguine with clams or other seafood are natural pairings. In Genoa, says Parla, you can find pesto with linguine.

I wanted the ultimate Bolognese. Six recipes later, I found the best stew of them all.

Think beyond the longer shapes you may be familiar with. “I also really like giant versions of stuff,” says Stephanie Le, who recently posted “This Noodle Life” with her husband Mike. You may come across ziti or fusilli on a large scale, the latter working very well in the Spicy Sesame Oil Chili Noodles recipe, just like the lasagna mafaldine.

Examples: Cascatelli, cavatappi, fusilli, radiatori, rotini

If you want something to stand up to a thick sauce like a stew, shapes with ridges, frills, or corkscrews provide plenty of “architecture” for grabbing chunks of meat or vegetables, Parla says. Same pesto. You’ll find textured pastas that are long, like mafaldines and long fusilli, and short, like rotinis and radiators.

One of the most recent arrivals on the scene is cascatellia form concocted by Dan Pashman of the Sporkful podcast and a New York-based pasta company Sfoglini. (Trader Joe’s also sells it.) Try it in Cascatelli with green olives, Calabrian chiles and lemon tuna.

If you’re looking to go beyond Italian sauces, Mike Le recommends pairing mapo tofu with ridged or ruffled shapes.

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Examples: Cavatelli, conchiglie, elbow macaroni, farfalle, gemelli, lumache, orecchiette, pipette, trottole

Although less showy than some of their ridged or ruffled counterparts, many short pasta shapes are adept at trapping hearty sauces. Think of the openings of the shell-like conchiglie or the shallow crater of the ear-like orecchiette. In Italian Sausage, Tomato, and Eggplant Pasta, choose from campanelle, cavatappi, fusilli, or gemelli.

The short, scoopy shapes are also good for creamy sauces, Parla says. See the bow tie pasta with a spicy vodka cream sauce, complete with farfalle.

Short pasta offers nice textural contrasts between the inside and the outside, the thick and the thin, explains Stéphanie Le. She notes that they work well in cold pasta salad because they catch ingredients in their crevices and are less prone to breaking when cooled.

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Examples: Paccheri, penne, maccheroni, rigatoni, ziti

The tubes offer many texture variations. “A tubular dough will collect the flavorful bits of your sauce in its nooks and crannies; bones on your pasta will create a great mouthfeel,” according to “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine.” You’ll find these ideal ridges in Rigatoni with Broccoli and Lemon Sauce.

The tubes “go so well with the concentrated, creamy meat sauces of southern” Italy, the kind where a rich cut of meat is braised in a tomato sauce in which it melts, Parla says.

Consider making carbonara with rigatoni, one of the go-to pasta shapes for the dish in Rome.

Examples: Acini, anelletti, ditalini, farfalline, fregula, risi, orzo, stelline

These fun, tiny shapes can be rings or tubes (anneli, ditalini), balls (fregula) or even stars (stelline). The size means they are easy to pick up, making them ideal for eating with a spoon. “We make a ton of noodle-enriched soups,” Parla says, and it’s common to find “little chunky shapes” in thinner broths or starchy bean or potato soups. Minestre and minestrone, similar but not identical, are two common examples of soup. (The minestrone pasta salad is a cold version of the concept.)

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The little shapes are also delicious in a pasta salad and hold up well in the fridge. For a salad without an awkward size difference, dice the vegetables in your salad so they’re about the same size as the pasta. Try the little pasta salad with corn, tomatoes and feta for the summer.

Stock your pantry with a few shapes. Consider having at least a few types of pasta on hand that can cover a variety of recipes. “If you’re short on space, always keep three doughs on hand,” says Mike Le. He recommends having a long (tagliatelle) and short (fusilli) shape in your cabinet, as well as a fun shape that feels special. Parla’s choices: long (spaghetti or spaghettoni); sinuous (fusilli or gemelli); small and scoopy (the snail-shaped lumache); tiny (ditalini); and short tube (mezze rigatoni).

Smart replacements. When you change form, try to replace like with like, say the Les. Try to match the length as well as the texture (smooth or ridged).

Use good pasta. Les Les strongly recommends choosing pasta that has been extruded through a bronze die. Look for this information on the packaging and a more floury surface appearance on the pasta. Bronze cut pasta releases more starch and encourages sauce to cling.

Use pasta water. “I would say you can make pretty much any sauce stick to any shape of pasta,” Parla says. This is true if you emulsify the sauce by using pasta water, tossing the pasta into the sauce, and adding cheese and other fats to help it cling.

Try new shapes. “There are so many different shapes that you’ve never seen before in the usual supermarket aisle,” says Stephanie Le. If you want to broaden your horizons, check out an Italian market. And don’t stress too much if your experience isn’t perfect. “Pasta is really indulgent,” she says.

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