Some nights, there’s nothing better than boiling some noodles and making pasta for dinner (optional side: vino!). A simple, classic dinner. But there are so many types of pasta. So let’s learn about the most common.
Oh, the possibilities with pasta. There are so many types and shapes. You can pair with classic marinara and tomato sauces or get creative with creamy, herby concoctions. You can experiment with matching different sauces with different types of noodles. You can add different veggies and proteins. Bottom line: Pasta is an easy dish that allows for a lot of experimentation.
However, while any pasta is a simple and delicious dish, there’s an overwhelming amount of noodles you can cook to make your pasta dish. Before you go crazy adding all the flavors and finishing touches, let’s learn a little about all the types of pasta shapes themselves and how pasta is made.
Types of pasta
There are so many types of pasta. Luckily, they can be grouped into a handful of categories — short pasta, long pasta, sheet pasta, stuffed pasta, and dumpling pasta. Long pasta can be hand-rolled or made with an extruder, but many types of short pasta (not all) have to be made with an extruder to create their unique shapes.
These are your long, thin ribbons and strand pasta shapes. They’re best when cooked with creamy sauces that only have very small-sized chunky ingredients, if any at all.
Angel hair pasta is long and thin, thinner than spaghetti. It’s best with light oil-based and cream sauces. Anything too chunky may overpower it. Try pairing it with a classic homemade marinara sauce for a traditional Italian dinner. Shredded chicken or shrimp scampi are both great protein additions.
It looks a lot like traditional spaghetti. However, it’s more round, and there’s a hole through the middle that gives each noodle a hollow center. This makes it a little thicker than spaghetti noodles. When cooked in soups, pasta dishes, and casseroles, it hoards extra sauce. That’s the superpower of bucatini.
Like a flat spaghetti noodle — that’s fettuccini. It’s a thicker and more dense noodle. It’s fairly wide, so it works well with chunky meat sauces, unlike other types of long pasta. Of course, creamy alfredo sauce tossed in with fettuccine is a dynamic duo.
Who doesn’t love spaghetti? It’s cylinder-shaped like angel hair and bucatini. However, it’s thickness falls somewhere in the middle. It’s not quite as thin as angel’s hair, but it’s thinner than bucatini. Meatballs are always a classic combination. Bored with traditional spaghetti? Give it a twist by making pesto shrimp spaghetti.
Linguine resembles fettuccine, but it’s not as wide. It’s a common noodle pairing for seafood dishes, mixed with white wine sauces and clams and mussels. Any cream-based or white wine sauce tastes like a dream with linguine noodles.
If you think long pasta can’t get any wider than fettuccine, think again. Pappardelle pasta noodles are even better at meshing with rich, meat-based sauces. For example, it’s most commonly used in ragu or bolognese, but it’s also great for seafood pasta dishes. It’s big, bad, and sturdy, so you can throw any hearty sauce its way.
It’s easy to mistake tagliatelle and fettuccine. In fact, in some parts of Italy, cooks refer to tagliatelle as fettucine. Both types of pasta look like flattened spaghetti and are a similar width, but tagliatelle will be a little thicker of a bite. It can also handle thick meat sauces, but it’ll do a cream or tomato sauce justice, too.
Think thin. Vermicelli noodles are skinny. There’s Italian and Asian vermicelli — one is made with semolina and the latter a rice noodle. You can toss vermicelli with some olive oil and canned tomatoes for a light spaghetti-like dish, or use them in stir-frys and soups.
Shorter noodles come in a variety of shapes that will all catch sauces in different ways. It works great with thicker and chunkier sauces that have meat and vegetables. Because of their unique shapes, most short types of pasta are made with an extruder machine that cuts the shapes with a mold.
Campanelle pasta is one of the lesser heard of pasta shapes. It’s rolled in a cone and has a ruffled edge, like a small bell-shaped flower. The hollow center will catch thick sauces well, and you could even cook as a substitute to elbows in macaroni and cheese.
Picture a tube-shaped pasta, but slightly open with rolled edges that weren’t quite connected. Casarecce is like a loosely rolled and twisted noodle. The center will also catch sauces well.
This hollow, spiral-shaped noodle is also referred to as double elbow pasta. The multiple twist and turns provide lots of surface area to get coated with sauce and trap it inside, plus the extra length gives more chew. Yes, it’s great in macaroni and cheese).
This spiral-shaped noodle has a lot of grooves and crevices to catch extra sauce and dressings. It’s sturdy enough to toss with a thicker sauce like marinara or meat sauce. But it’s also commonly used in pasta salads.
You can use radiatori noodles in soups and casseroles. It’s not as common in grocery stores, but it’s a unique shape. It’s like a futuristic spiral. Dare I say it looks like a mini parking garage?
Rotini is a commonly known corkscrew-shaped pasta. It has a tighter spiral than fusilli. But like fusilli, it catches all types of sauces well. From thick and meaty to oil-based to creamy, it can handle it all. I particularly love it in this one-pot chicken cacciatore.
You first met elbow macaroni noodles when you were crafting in kindergarten. But you likely grew to love covered in cheese, as an adolescent and an adult. It’s a small, half-circle shape. In addition to making pasta dishes, it’s an excellent noodle choice for casseroles.
It sounds exotic, but it’s merely bow tie pasta. You’ll find it in all types of creamy pasta as well as pasta salads (and maybe even accompanying elbow macaroni on your kids’ art project). There’s not a lot you can’t do with this type of pasta.
Gemelli pasta noodles look like two thin ropes twisted together. However, it’s playing a trick on your eyes. It’s one noodle twisted to look that way. It collects sauce well, and it’s a common noodle choice when adding leafy veggies and herbs to pasta and pasta salad.
Penne is likely already a family favorite in your kitchen. It’s a hollow cylinder-shaped noodle with slanted edges. It has ridges that make its texture ideal for catching sauce. You might also see it called mostaccioli. In addition to various pasta recipes, it’s another common noodle used in casseroles. I mixed with chicken and zucchini in this chicken piccata pasta dish.
Rotelli looks a lot like something you’d see in a kid’s soup (and often will!). It’s a fun wheel shape that catches all types of sauces and ingredients in a soup or pasta. It’s small and bite-sized.
Rigatoni looks like the sister noodle to penne. It’s also cylinder-shaped with ridges in its texture. However, it’s slightly stumpier and not as narrow, and it doesn’t have the slanted edges that penne does. Like penne, the ridges and gaping center will trap sauce, so every bite is cheesy and creamy and flavorful. I love it in my creamy butternut squash pasta recipe.
These noodles are often compared to the shape of ears, and you can see why. While it’s a diverse type of pasta that works well with most recipes, cream sauces love to cling to it. The little dips in its centers look small but work magic for catching sauce and flavor.
Ziti is another type of pasta that looks very similar to penne. It’s also narrow and hollow, but it has straight edges and no ridges in its texture. Baked ziti is a common dish on the menu at Italian restaurants, so it’s casserole-friendly. Others love it tossed with a little olive oil or tomato sauce for a simple weeknight pasta dish.
Conchiglie is simply another word for shells. You’ll see them in a variety of sizes from mini to small to medium to jumbo. Of course, homemade macaroni is their claim to fame, but their open centers are great for trapping any type of cream sauce or thick and hearty meat sauce.
Orzo is often mistaken for a grain, but it’s a type of pasta, possibly the smallest of the small pasta shapes. It resembles rice, and it’s often used to make an orzo salad. It can also add great texture to soups.
Ditalini is also on the smaller end of the spectrum when it comes to small pasta shapes. If you were to slice a ziti noodle into several smaller noodles, that’s what ditalini resembles. It’s common in minestrone soup, and it’s a staple ingredient in pasta Fagioli.
Exactly as it sounds, sheet pasta noodles are thin and flat like a sheet of paper (but small dimensions of course).
This is easily the most common type of sheet pasta. Its ruffled, decorative edges characterize its shape. Of course, it’s used to make a classic lasagna, layered between ricotta cheese and meat sauce in a traditional recipe (vegan versions are popping up everywhere). You can buy no-boil lasagne noodles that are precooked and dehydrated. The moisture from your cheese and sauce is enough to rehydrate the noodles without having to cook them separately before you bake.
These noodles all have one thing in common. They can be stuffed with delicious, cheesy, ooey-gooey, vegetable, or protein-based filling. It opens a lot of doors for infusing flavor into your pasta dishes.
I like to think of tortellini as small air tubes floating down a river. Or little donuts. You can buy it stuffed with cheese and meat. You can drench tortellini in sauces or serve it in a brothy or tomato soup. It’s also great tossed in a little oil and parmesan cheese since it already has lots of flavors stuffed into the filling.
Ravioli is square and stuffed. Store-bought ravioli is often on the smaller side, but don’t be surprised if you’re served large ravioli at some Italian restaurants. The edges are pinched close and have a ruffled texture. You’ll find them stuffed with everything from cheese to vegetables to meat.
Think of manicotti like jumbo penne noodles. It’s the same texture and shape but much larger. And you know what that means? More space to stuff it with cheese and sauce. My family loves it baked as a casserole. It also loves a good meaty bolognese sauce in the center.
Cannelloni noodles are a mashup of lasagne and manicotti noodles. It’s a tube-shaped pasta (like manicotti) with no ridges (like lasagna). It starts as a sheet pasta that’s rolled into tubes. It’s stuffed like manicotti noodles often with cheese and tomato sauce.
We talked a little about these above with the different sizes of conchiglie pasta (shells). It’s simply another name for jumbo conchiglie. You’ll typically make stuffed shells with a cheese filling (don’t be afraid to mix some herbs and flavor into it). Then top it with sauce before you bake.
Mezzelune pasta sort of resembles a potsticker, but it’s a little flatter. It’s a hand-rolled pasta that starts flat. It’s cut into ovals that are then stuffed, folded in half, and have pinched edges to seal it shut before boiling.
The one type of pasta you need to know in this category is, drum roll please…
Made differently from hand-rolled and extruded pasta, gnocchi calls on the potato as the base ingredient with flour and egg added. The result is a dense and small dumpling shape. Home cooks a chef alike love to get creative with gnocchi, dousing it with creamy sauce, making it from butternut squash instead of traditional riced potato, or making it festive with a pumpkin sage sauce, for example.
Specialty types of pasta
You’ve likely noticed specialty types of pasta cropping up on grocery shelves. Producers are making gluten-free versions, using beans or lentils as the sole ingredient. You can also buy whole grain pasta, so it’s clear there’s a demand for healthier ways to consume our favorite pasta dishes.
How is dried pasta made?
You’ve seen the pasta aisle at the grocery store, so you know you have options. If you were to travel the world, you’d discover hundreds of pasta types, some with different names in different regions. However, there are 20 to 30 that are most common in the U.S. They’re made using two methods: hand-rolled or extruded.
Most types of pasta contain two simple ingredients: flour and eggs. Alternatively, it’s sometimes made with just flour and water. The flour and egg (or water) is kneaded until it forms a dough, which is then rolled out and cut into various shapes. This sums up the first method.
The second method, extrusion, is how most types of pasta sold commercially are made. The dough is put through a machine that cuts the pasta into various shapes, long or short. The recipe may vary, but the egg is typically omitted for water instead, and semolina flour is often used instead of all-purpose flour. Semolina is a coarse flour that comes from durum wheat, and it’s a little darker than regular flour.
Fresh pasta versus dried pasta
While making fresh pasta will always be a delicious experience, you may consider dried pasta for heartier dishes that need the noodles to stand up to bold sauces and more intense cooking (like in casseroles). Freshly rolled pasta will cook faster since it has a more tender texture.
Selecting and storing pasta
If you make fresh pasta, you can save the cut and shaped dough in the fridge for two or three days until you plan to cook it. Keep it in an air-tight container. Alternatively, you can freeze it for up to two weeks. Dried, store-bought pasta from the box is best eaten within a year.
When selecting a type of pasta, consider the sauce. Long and thin noodles work best with lighter oil-based or cream-based sauces. If you’re making a chunkier sauce, stick to any of the shorter pasta varieties.