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Pasta shapes and sizes

Pasta comes in many pasta shapes and sizes - literally hundreds of them.

There is no need to know them all - unless you want to write a doctoral thesis about pasta shapes.

Generally, I am satisfied with eating just two or three types or shapes of pasta most of the time - spaghetti, fusilli and penne. As I cooked pasta more regularly, I naturally began to explore more - linguine, fettucine, marcaroni, angel hair and some of the bow / shell-shaped pasta, as well as large shapes for stuffed pasta.

But I am fine without these. Seriously, how much variety does a person really need? So instead of trying to impress you with my knowledge of 350 or 530 different names of pasta shapes, I think it would be more useful if I simply discuss the main types and what each shape is suitable for.

Despite the many different types of pasta, they all fall into a few basic shapes. The guidelines - and remember, they are only guidelines, not rules - are as follows:

  • Thick pastas are more suitable for thick, heavy sauces such as meat sauce
  • Thin / delicate pastas suit light, thin sauces.
  • Pasta with holes or ridges are good for chunky sauces
  • Short pasta shapes - which may be thick or thin - can be used in pasta salads
  • Really small / tiny pastas are mostly used in soups
  • Large, hollow pasta are suitable for stuffings.

Long, thick pasta

Spaghetti is probably the most common and well-known type of pasta - especially outside of Italy. Its shape might be described as "long cord".

Other similar-shaped pasta might be described as "flat spaghetti" and they include linguine (narrow like spaghetti), fetucinne (slightly broader) and tagiatelle (even broader, typically 0.6 cm to 1 cm in width).

Technically, there is a difference between spaghetti and the flat types of pasta. Spaghetti and most other shapes are extruded from a pasta making machine, whereas flat pasta are usually made as flat sheets and then cut. Also, most of the flat pastas contain egg and when they do, the package would say all'uovo.

But in terms of usage, these pasta shapes are similar. They are highly versatile and go well with just about any type of sauce, certainly not just tomato-based sauces. They can even be used in stir-fried dishes like Asian-style fried noodles. This explains their universal popularity.

Sheet pasta

Talking of flat, sheet pasta, we must not forgot lasagna or lesagne (plural). This is almost in a class of its own - although there are variations in the shape, such as whether the ends are wavy or straight.

And lasagna is bascially cooked in one way - layered with cheese and sauce (usually a tomato-based sauce) and then baked. For some reason, lasagne has become highly popular in the United States - where it is even the favourite of Garfield, the cartoon cat - possibly more so than in Italy.

Short, thick pasta

Popular short, thick pasta include and penne (hollow cylinders) and fusilli (spirals).

Penne comes in two main sub-varieties - penne lisce, which has a smooth surface and the more popular penne rigate which has a ridged or "furrowed" surface. There are good, practical reasons for these pasta shapes. The hollow centre as well as the ridged surface allows penne to hold more sauce, while the diagonal ends act as scoops for the sauce. The design looks good too.

Fusilli, in the shape of small, thick spirals, is similarly designed to hold more sauce. To cash in on its good looks, fusilli often comes in green and red colours, flavoured with spinach and beetroot respectively. It is nowadays quite common to fine wholemeal fusilli as well.

Like long thick pasta, both of these pasta shapes are also highly versatile. They are commonly served with sauces such as pesto as well as in pasta salads.

Large hollow pasta

Penne also belongs to the category of pasta shapes that might be described as "hollow pasta". Even larger than penne are some large, hollow pastas that are used mainly in casseroles and in baked dishes where they are typically stuffed with fillings mad with minced meat, vegetables, etc.

These include canneroni, which are short but broad tubes, cannelloni which are longer, bigger tubes amd maccheroni, which are hollow pastas that could be as long as a person's fingers.

Another tube-shaped pasta is rigatoni. It is larger than penne and the ends are not cut at an angle. Nonetheless, it is also highly flexible like penne and can be used with a variety of thick, creamy or chunky sauces. For non-Italians, this might come as a surprise - rigatoni often emerges in surveys as the most popular form of pasta in Italy.

Thin, delicate (and long) pasta

Among thin, delicate (and long) pasta shapes, probably the best known is angel hair or capellini. This is the thinest and finest shape of pasta. Yet another type of thin pasta is spaghettini or "thin spaghetti", which is somewhat thicker than angel hair, but still thinner than spaghetti.

In Asia, the Italian word vermicelli - which refers to another thin pasta, just slightly thicker than angel hair - is more widely known. This is because vermicelli is used in Asia to describe a type of thin, Chinese rice noodles called beehoon or bifun. This is also popular in Vietnam.

Thin pastas cook in as quickly as two minutes, so you need to pay full attention to avoid over-cooking. They generally go well with light, thin sauces, such as those prepared with just small amounts of olive oil, with vinegar or lemon juice.

Thin pasta also go well with seafood like shrimp or squid / calamari - although shellfish like clams and mussels are usually served with thicker pastas like spaghetti.

Macaroni - small and thin

Macaroni and other similar-sized, similar-shaped pastas - like farfelle (bow-tie / butterfly) and various types of shell-shaped pastas - might be described as short, small and thin. They are shorter and thinner than penne and fusilli but not quite as small and thin than other types of pasta used mainly in soups.

These pasta shapes work well in salads and they are also okay with lighter sauces such as those used with long, thin pasta.

Howeever, macaroni has a special place outside of Italy. In the United Kingdom and America, macaroni is popularly baked with cheddar cheese in a dish simply called Macaroni with Cheese.

Among the Chinese, macaroni is popularly served with a Chicken broth and shreds of chicken meat or with ham or sausage. In fact, macaroni is more widely served in Asia by the Chinese, Malays and other Asians in pushcart stalls and casual, open air food centres, than by Italians in Italian restaurants.

Micro pasta

Finally, micro pastas are really tiny pasta shapes.

Some are so small that they are not commonly thought of as pasta. This is couscous. It looks like a grain - like millet - and is cooked and served like a grain, in Southern Europe, the Middle East, Morocco and other Mediterranean countries.

The more common tiny pasta shape is alphabets, which is pasta shaped as A, B, C... There is also farfalline, which is a smaller version of farfelle or "bow-tie" pasta. And there are plenty other micro pasta shapes with uncommon Italian names, no real need to know them all.

Just know that these are mostly used in pasta soups, where the pasta is a minor ingredient, along with vegetables, beans, etc. rather than in pasta dishes where the pasta is the main ingredient.

Click here for another article that classifies pasta and noodles not by pasta shapes but by the types of flour used.

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