Three Pasta Shapes for the Elven-kings
August 25, 2020 8:34 PM   Subscribe

I want to streamline my pantry a bit, and am planning to pare down the variety of pasta we have to just three shapes. Which three should they be?

We don't cook pasta all the time, but maybe once or twice a week. I'm looking for three different shapes that can cover the most use cases, so something like one noodle, one chunky, and one smaller-sized. My current list is linguine, penne, and small shells or elbows.
posted by destrius to Food & Drink (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Personally I'd go for just linguine since it stores compactly (if you get it that way), and only buy other pasta if I were planning a specific entree.

But if you're looking for variety, maybe consider bow ties and/or little shells. Also egg noodles are a nice change and go well with meatballs.
posted by amtho at 8:40 PM on August 25, 2020

Long, shaped, and tube. These will cover every recipe situation. So linguine, spirals, and some kind of macaroni.
posted by blnkfrnk at 8:42 PM on August 25, 2020 [18 favorites]

What sauces do you cook most often? What goes with them?

For me, I need spaghetti, penne, and something curlier/chunkier than penne (gemelli or campanelle, usually), and then I have orzo as a back-up for times I'm making things that I could otherwise use rice for. The things I use spaghetti for would be weird and wrong with fettuccine or linguine. But I don't make al fredos or shellfish-y sauces that would necessitate fettuccine or linguine (and those things would be weird and wrong with spaghetti). I do make a lot of chunky tomato-based sauces that require penne or campanelle.

What do you cook most? What goes with that the most? Buy those.
posted by lapis at 8:47 PM on August 25, 2020 [4 favorites]

We have two, with a bonus third depending on how you're counting: spaghetti, campanelle, and egg noodles. Often the campanelle is swapped out for rotini or farfalle, depending on what's available and our pantry space. We purpose-buy ziti and lasagne noodles for baked pasta things a few times a year.

The spaghetti is pretty much always for tomato sauce and meatballs. The cut pasta is for chunkier things - we do a chicken broccoli garlic thing, and a sardine caper thing, and a spring vegetable lemon thing, and a bean and kale thing. Egg noodles are for a lot of my Eastern European family recipes. Smaller sized pastas don't seem to be a thing with us.
posted by Mizu at 8:58 PM on August 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

If I had to pick one pasta it would be cavatappi (grooved corkscrew tubes.) So toothsome for any chunky or cheesy pasta scenario. The grooves and the shape hold everything so nicely and the tubular aspect keeps them toothsome and intact.

If I could add one more it would be small shells, for use in minestrone soup.

If the pasta fairy was granting me one more, I'd say linguine, for long-noodle needs, including subbing for rice noodles in peanut sauce dishes.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:04 PM on August 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

Well, my pantry currently has spaghetti, for aglio olio, bowties (farfalle) for pan-frying with pesto, and... I don't really keep another because when I want thick noodles I want them fresh, and I don't really use tiny pasta for much. But orzo or tiny shells would be good if you make pasta soup often.
posted by Lady Li at 11:33 PM on August 25, 2020

We’ve settled on linguine and fusilli for day to day cooking and rotating cast of others for specific recipes e.g. lasagne, conchiglie, cannelloni i.e. we can get through a whole pack for a single meal. Oh and orzo for soup/ Turkish style rice.
posted by tomp at 11:48 PM on August 25, 2020

I basically want to avoid having lots of bags of leftover pasta of different shapes, none of them enough to make a meal. I guess I could add them to soups, but we hardly do soups where that would work.

We generally cook "western" food 50% of the time, and the most common kinds of pasta dishes we do are:
  • aglio olio
  • with a random mix of assorted ingredients like sausages, spinach, mushrooms, etc., usually bound together with jammy cherry tomatoes
  • ragu
  • pesto or mixed with green goddess dressing
  • baked pasta, often using a ragu, or mac-and-cheese
Being Chinese we also have a ready supply of Asian noodles, which we'd use when cooking Asian noodle dishes.

We like to cook and experiment with flavours though, and so often we will try out new sauces and recipes. Thus I'm hoping for some versatility, whereby each time we want to try something new we don't need to go buy a new box of pasta but can make do with what we already have.
posted by destrius at 11:54 PM on August 25, 2020

I've no idea why we settled for linguine over spaghetti... and thus far I've not really figured out in which applications the latter would be more appropriate over the former. Might be that we're used to noodles shapes being easily swappable in our local cuisine (when you order a bowl of noodles here you can just tell them which kind you want). I know Italians care a lot about which pasta shapes go with which dishes though...
posted by destrius at 11:57 PM on August 25, 2020

Given your pasta dish selection I would suggest these three shapes (which coincidentally are the three shapes we have stocked for years and years and served us well): linguine or spaghetti, penne, and fusilli or rotini.

I think the linguine vs. spaghetti choice is down to personal mouth feel. I personally like the heft of linguine so that is what we stock.

I love penne for saucy bakes (and my toddler loves to stick her fingers in them to eat.)

I mention either fusilli or rotini because I can't tell the difference? Basically, a twirly pasta. Great for saucy dishes with a bit of ground meat to get into the crevices.
posted by like_neon at 1:22 AM on August 26, 2020 [3 favorites]

I like angel hair pasta over spaghetti, and small shells for use in soups and macaroni and cheese. Baked ziti is my other staple food so I guess that's penne, but with ridges? What are those called again?
posted by Kitchen Witch at 2:49 AM on August 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

We normally do have three kinds of pasta: Spaghetti or Linguini which we don't use that often; penne for mac and cheese, pasta bakes, most pasta things in fact; and some small macaroni or shell pasta mostly for soups.

I suppose we also have giant couscous, which is technically a pasta, or orzo, which is rice shaped pasta. I use them a lot in salad or tomato based dishes for texture instead of couscous. I would probably pick them over spaghetti type long pastas actually, they're more versatile and we just don't eat spaghetti that often.
posted by stillnocturnal at 3:57 AM on August 26, 2020

Tbh you can throw a bunch of thise different shapes together and cook them in one pot. (I mean, dont do angel hair and linguine but im fairly sure penne and farfalle have similar cooking times and this is coming from someone who grew up in NJ and is very particular about Italian food.)
posted by raccoon409 at 4:55 AM on August 26, 2020 [6 favorites]

I’m gonna be a little hypocritical, because I currently have like seven bags of open pasta in my pantry, but I really only think you need one or two. If it were up to me, I’d just do either farfalle or rotini. There aren’t very many applications where something else would best one of those two. But my wife likes vermicelli, and I made some homemade Mac and cheese with elbows, and my mother-in-law is gluten-free, and my wife insisted on buying some quinoa pasta that tastes disgusting, and on and on. The vermicelli and elbows are the only ones I look at and understand why we have them, and even with the elbows, I wish I’d bought a smaller quantity.

Italians may be picky about such things, but I’m not Italian so I don’t really care. ;)
posted by kevinbelt at 5:05 AM on August 26, 2020

With what you said your usual sauces are I think the ones you listed are a great set of options.
posted by brilliantine at 5:25 AM on August 26, 2020

My staple pasta are wholewheat fusilli. I have white spaghetti for when company comes (if ever. Thanks, lockdown) but at home on my own, it's all about the fusilli.

Basically, what you are looking for in your shaped pasta is how they catch sauce. Fusilli are great for sauces like pesto because the little grooves fill up with sauce and you get your pasta/sauce flavourbomb in one bite. Your sausage/cherry tomato sauce would *sing* with good wholewheat fusilli.

I like penne but I find sauce doesn't adhere to them as well. They come into their own when immersed in a more liquid sauce that can get into the tubes. They're great for pasta casseroles on the macaroni principle.

For carbonara, alfredo or creamy sauces, I'd still use the white spaghetti or linguini.

... and now I really want pasta. THANKS OP
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:30 AM on August 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

Yes, so I've been trying to decide whether the "chunky" pasta should be penne or fusilli; I've kind of thought that they would be in the same category so I should choose one or the other. So I guess I could have both? But then I wouldn't have a smaller-shaped pasta which I sometimes use for bakes. But I guess I could use penne for bakes.

Man this is so difficult
posted by destrius at 6:59 AM on August 26, 2020

I'd second gemelli as your medium, chunky pasta, since it has a short and thick shape. I like it a lot better than penne and its variants, or other spirals like rotini or fusilli. It works very well for both pasta salads and things with sauce, and it retains a nice thick chew.

Instead of elbows or shells, look at orecchietti for your small pasta. It's similar to shells but has a really nice unevenness - they clump together in the pot, are never too delicate, can stay chewy when you cook them al dente.
posted by entropone at 7:25 AM on August 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

I guess I could have both

cavatappi basically IS both: the chewy tube aspect of penne and the spirally sauce and chunk-holder aspect of fusilli
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:47 AM on August 26, 2020 [8 favorites]

There are so many pasta shapes because everybody likes something different. I generally have spaghetti and linguini, some egg noodles, and spirals for pasta salad. One way to deal with partial quantities is to cook the whole box, and use the extra for leftovers. I like the Indian dishes that come in packets on pasta, or canned chili (a variant on Cincinnati chili, add cheese), butter and garlic, etc.
posted by theora55 at 7:57 AM on August 26, 2020 [2 favorites]

I do mainly spaghetti and rotini for western pasta, and one slot for random stuff (egg noodles, bow tie, etc)

But yes I also recommend cooking the whole bag/box at once. One difference of spaghetti over linguine is it is lower friction both in the pot and on the plate. Up to you whether it's a pro or a con :)
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:04 AM on August 26, 2020

I basically want to avoid having lots of bags of leftover pasta of different shapes, none of them enough to make a meal.

It's actually common enough to just throw similar shaped pasta together as a use-up-what-you-got measure; there's even a term for it in Italian ("Pasta misto"). So even if you do end up with like a quarter bag of radiatore sitting around, it's totally fine to add some fusilli to it to make up enough for a full meal if you need to.

The danger I see in trying to identify the Three True Shapes is that if your supermarket happens to be out of one of those shapes one day when you go grocery shopping, that throws a wrench in your works; you'd probably just pick something else close to it, and then you'd end up right back where you started eventually with lots of bags of leftover pasta of different shapes. So instead, I'd define the Three True Shapes more broadly.

1. You want something long and skinny. Spaghetti, linguini, fettucini, all those fall into this category. These are good with thin sauces. I tend to go for linguini largely because it's usually what they have most often when I hit up the grocery store.

2. Something short and chunky, with nooks and crannies to catch the chunks in chunkier sauces. I swing back and forth between campanelle (they look like calla lily flowers), cavatappi, fusilli, penne, radiattore, and rotelli for this, based purely on what's available. (I tend to make chunky and hefty sauces, so orichette and farelle are a little too flat for my taste.)

3. This one is more optional - a smaller one for soups or casseroles. You say you don't make soups all that much; but this is also what I'd use for things like tuna casserole, chicken and pasta bakes, pasta salads, and homemade mac-and-cheese (and if you've never made homemade mac and cheese, hoo boy, do yourself a favor and give that a try). I opt for elbow macaroni, ditalini, or the smallest size shells here - anything cute and wee.

I'd opt for:

* Linguini for the long slippery thing,
* Elbow macaroni for the soup/pasta bake/casserole thing, and
* For the short-and-chunky, go with whatever is in the store and strikes your fancy at a given moment. To combat the "scant amount leftovers" issue, just start a container going in your pantry that you can decant scant leftovers into, waiting until it builds up enough to clear it all out with a pasta misto. (Or use that in a pasta-and-something casserole too.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:05 AM on August 26, 2020 [8 favorites]

Spaghetti, Wagon Wheels, Campanelle
posted by sammyo at 9:13 AM on August 26, 2020

Bucatini, orecchiete and rigatoni in this house.

Bucatini is my favorite dried pasta shape by a mile, you should give it a shot. You can think of it as hollow spaghetti. Sometimes also called perciatelli.
posted by STFUDonnie at 9:23 AM on August 26, 2020

Here the favorites are linguine, penne and alfabet or stelline for soups. But we don't restrict ourselves much, so we have many others too. Right now it is summer so season for pesto made from scratch and served with pasta, potatoes and string beans. For this, trofie or trenette are typical, so if I can find those, I use them. Otherwise spaghetti work fine. I am a bit surprised at the love for all the spirally types. I won't say I never use them, but I find it hard to get to the right balance of al dente and slippery wonderfulness.
Looking at your preferences, I might substitute macaroni elbows for the soup pasta. I almost never do bakes, and if I do, penne are almost always delicious. Penne do well with anything creamy. But the elbows have a certain comforting magic and they can work in a soup if you ever make one.
posted by mumimor at 11:47 AM on August 26, 2020

I basically only ever buy DeCecco penne rigate.
posted by vunder at 12:27 PM on August 26, 2020

You can pry my casarecce from my cold, dead hands. It works with absolutely everything - ragu, pesto, oil, minestrone, butter and cheese, cream sauces. Everything gets caught in those little twists and tunnels.
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 6:59 PM on August 26, 2020

I just want to note that there are many pasta shapes because different sauces go with different pasta shapes, traditionally. Do whatever you want (seriously! it's fine!), but there's just kind of an intuitive "This is the correct pasta for this sauce" thing that happens when you do a lot of Italian cooking.

With your list, I'd do:
* aglio olio - SPAGHETTI
* with a random mix of assorted ingredients like sausages, spinach, mushrooms, etc., usually bound together with jammy cherry tomatoes - PENNE, CAVATAPPI, OR CAMPANELLE; could do PENNE
* pesto - ? MOST ANYTHING?
* mixed with green goddess dressing - ?
* baked pasta, often using a ragu, or mac-and-cheese - SHELLS OR RIGATONI

So if you're trying to get it down to three, I'd probably do spaghetti, penne, and rigatoni. (But I think it's also ok to have half-boxes of pasta in your pantry and just buy more as needed.)
posted by lapis at 7:55 PM on August 26, 2020

From Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Italian Cooking:

Matching Pasta to Sauce
The shapes pasta takes are numbered in the hundreds, and the sauces that can be devised for them are beyond numbering, but the principles that bring pasta and sauce together in satisfying style and few and simple. They cannot be ignored by anyone who wants to achieve the full and harmonious expression of flavor of which Italian cooking is capable.

Even if you have done everything else right when producing a dish of pasta – you have carefully made fine fresh pasta at home or bought the choicest quality imported Italian boxed, dry pasta; you have cooking a ravishing sauce from the freshest ingredients; you have boiled the pasta in lots of hot water, drained it perfectly al dente, deftly tossed it with sauce – your dish might not be completely successful unless you have given thought to matching pasta type and shape to a congenial sauce.

The two basic pasta types you’ll be considering are the boxed, factory-made, eggless dry kind and homemade, fresh egg pasta. When well made, one is quite as good as the other, but what you can do with the former you would not necessarily want to do with the latter.

The exceptional firmness, the compact body, the grainier texture of factory-made pasta makes it the first choice when a sauce is based on olive oil, such as must seafood sauces and the great variety of light vegetable sauces. That is not to say, however, that you must pass up all butter-based sauces. Boxed, dry pasta can establish a most enjoyable liaison with some of them, but the result will be different, weightier, more substantial.

When you use factory-made pasta, your choice of sauce will be affected by the shape. Spaghettini, thin spaghetti, is usually the best vehicle for an olive-oil-based seafood sauce. Many tomato sauces, particularly when made with butter, work better with thicker spaghetti, in some cases with the hollow strands known as bucatini or perciatelli. Meat sauces or other chunky sauces nest best in larger hollow tubes such as rigatoni and penne, or in the cupped shape of conchiglie [shells]. Fusilli are marvelous with a dense, creamy sauce, such as "Sausages and Cream Sauce," which clings to all its twists and curls.

Factory-made pasta carries sauce firmly and boldly; homemade pasta absorbs it deeply. Good, fresh pasta made at home has a gossamer touch on the palate, it feels light and buoyant in the mouth. Most olive oil sauces obliterate its fine texture, making it slick, and strong flavors deaden it. Its most pleasing match is with subtly constituted sauces, be they with seafood, meat, or vegetable, generally based on butter and often enriched by cream or milk.
She follows with a five page chart about pasta shapes and their recommended sauces. She lists, for the pastas I mentioned:

Rigatoni: Tomato with onion and butter; tomato with sauteed vegetables and olive oil; amatriciana; eggplant and ricotta; spinach with ricotta and ham; peas, bacon, and ricotta; roasted red and yellow pepper with garlic and basil; tuna with tomatoes and garlic; fish; gorgonzola; red and yellow pepper with sausages; prosciutto and cream; boglonese (ragu)

Spaghetti: Tomato with onion and butter; tomato with olive oil and chopped vegetables; eggplant and ricotta; fried zucchini with garlic and basil; smother onions; butter and rosemary; aio (aglio) e oio (olio); pesto; pesto with ricotta; tuna with tomatoes and garlic; scallop with olive oil, garlic, and hot pepper; fish; butter and parmesan; carbonara

Penne: Tomato wit porcini mushrooms; mushroom with ham and tomato; spinach with ricotta and ham; peas, peppers, and prosciutto with cream; roasted red and yellow peppers with garlic and basil; cauliflower with garlic, oil, and chili pepper; tuna with tomatoes and garlic; fish; gorgonzola; asparagus with ham and cream; prosciutto and cream
posted by lapis at 8:11 PM on August 26, 2020 [3 favorites]

Thanks for all the replies! One issue we have is that only the more common shapes are readily available here, so as much as I'd like to try bucatini or orecchiette they're going to be difficult to buy without finding some speciality store (and even harder what with COVID blowing up supply chains).

In the end, I've decided to go with:

1. linguine (and maybe occasionally a switch to spaghetti),
2. penne
3. elbows

and maybe some fusilli as well. The pasta misto (also spelled "mista", according to Google?) idea is good too, maybe I can just generally buy chunky pasta that has similar cooking times and then not worry too much about leftovers. Cooking the entire box is an interesting idea, but I'm not really sure we will actually use up the leftovers because I'm the only person in the house who will eat cold pasta.

Skipping rigatoni because thus far the ones I've found here tend to get a bit.. soggy-ish, without as much bite as penne. And speaking of penne, I have an unusual relationship with it, because my first experience with it was when I first went to the US for college, and that was the pasta they served at the cafeteria, lukewarm with a very bland tomato sauce. It was so bad I was turned off the shape for years, and only recently started liking it again.

One shape that I've tried most recently was maccheroni, the straight and thin macaroni, and I quite like its bite. Can't really figure out which category it belongs in though; it's too long and thin to be chunky, or to replace the wee pasta shapes.

@lapis, that last comment of yours is going to supply me with a month's worth of meal ideas!
posted by destrius at 9:01 AM on August 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

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