Everything I Have Learned About Making Extruded Pasta
For whatever reason, extruded pasta is veiled in mystery. It’s ridiculously simple to make, but to do it properly you have to stumble upon the right recipe and then accept it with blind faith. That’s not my style at all. For me, the “right” recipe was completely counter-intuitive to what I already knew about pasta. I need to know how and why something works so that I can understand it enough to improve upon it.
Spoiler alert: use 3 parts coarse semolina to 1 part water.
Once upon a Christmas I received a pasta extruder in the form of a KitchenAid stand mixer attachment called the Gourmet Pasta Press. Although I know a lot about pasta dough, I quickly learned that extruded pasta is drastically different than the kind you roll out. My go-to dough recipes, normally toothsome and chewy, were coming out soft, gummy, and unable to hold their shape. The supplied manual contained a recipe, but it was more of the same. Information online was scarce. Mostly humble food bloggers like myself struggling to crack the code. I’d occasionally stumble upon trustworthy Italians, namely Emilio Mitidieri, who would suggest a 3:1 ratio of coarse semolina flour to water. No eggs, no oil, and definitely no all purpose flour. But also no explanation. Clearly I was going to have to figure this out myself.
I’ll tell you right now: they’re right. When it comes to pasta, Italians are always right. However there is a little more to it than just a simple ratio. If you’re still reading this, then you must be among the precious few like myself who make extruded pasta with the KitchenAid attachment. It seems to be the most accessible extruder so my explanations will revolve around it and I cannot guarantee my techniques will work on other devices. I’m not at all affiliated with KitchenAid and in fact there are way better extruders out there. This one can still make some really good pasta, but some of the components are cheap plastic including the dies which are traditionally metal (ideally bronze) to help give the pasta a rough texture that sauce can cling to. The Gourmet Pasta Press may be may be on the cheaper end of the spectrum when it comes to extruders, but it gets the job done just fine including the rough texture.
The dough itself is so simple and easy that it’s frustrating how long it took me to figure out. Spoiler alert: use 3 parts coarse semolina to 1 part water. That really is the gist of it, but that does leave a lot of questions - and when it comes to something as simple as this, the devil is in the details.
Step 1: Measuring. Weigh out 300 grams of coarse semolina flour in the stand mixer bowl and 100 grams of lukewarm water in a liquid measuring cup. This will make around 3/4 pounds of pasta. You’ll get close to a pound of dough, but not all of it gets processed. You can certainly scale this up, however I don’t recommend making a smaller batch because 100 grams is already a very small amount of water. If you try to use less you’ll find that plus or minus a drop can throw everything off. Do yourself a favor: use a scale and measure in grams to be precise.
Step 2: Mixing. With the paddle attached, slowly increase the speed to as high as you can go without spraying flour outside the bowl, around 4. With the mixer running, slowly pour in half the water all around the edge and allow to mix in. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl and paddle with a rubber spatula. Turn the mixer back on and add the rest of the water. Stop and scrape everything down once more then let it mix a couple more minutes to fully incorporate the water.
Step 3: Feeling it out. Now what you have should resemble a bowl full of wet sand. It won’t form a dough ball, but you should be able to squeeze clumps together in your fingers. When making pasta dough it’s important to remember you can always add more liquid to hydrate, but you cannot simply add more flour if it’s already too wet. The flour has to hydrate, but it won’t incorporate properly if added late. You don’t really get an opportunity to “feel out” the dough because the machine kneads it which is why you should use a scale to measure your ingredients.
Step 4: To the machine! Unlike most pasta dough where resting for at least 30 minutes is critical, this dough does not need to rest at all. In fact, I wouldn’t even risk it because the hydration level is so low you wouldn’t want it drying out any more. With traditional rolled pasta, you would knead the dough to link together proteins, creating a web of gluten that gives pasta its signature chew. The gluten needs to rest and relax before it can be rolled, otherwise it will snap back to its original shape. With extruded pasta, the machine does all of the kneading and it is much more extreme than what any human can do. By lowering the hydration and raising the raw horsepower, you get a pasta texture that can stand toe-to-toe against a rolled egg pasta.
Now it’s time for the fun part. Remember making Play-Doh spaghetti when you were a kid? Well you’re in the big leagues now baby! Still, we are adults after all so, yeah there’s going to be a little more work involved. You’ll need to set up an area to work, operate the stand mixer, and cut the pasta as it gets extruded.
Step 1: Setting up. Once your dough is ready you can set up your work station which might vary depending on which pasta shape you’re making. Start by attaching the pasta extruder to the stand mixer. Next place a large baking sheet dusted with semolina under the extruder. If you want 12-inch spaghetti, you may have to prop up your stand mixer with books or something. I like to measure the distance from the extruder plate to the baking sheet so it’s a simple matter of cutting the noodles when they reach the bottom for nice equal lengths.
With everything in place, set your mixer speed to 6. You may need to adjust this up or down during the process. At high speeds you may not be able to keep up with it and the pasta may get deformed. For example, you can tighten the twist is in fusilli by speeding it up. The mixer has to work really hard to extrude the pasta so it’s also possible your machine will max out at around 6 anyway. I find the texture improves slightly at higher speeds so just listen to the mixer and increase the speed until you can hear no difference when you set it higher.
Step 2: The fun part. To begin extruding, just start putting your dough in a bit at a time. Since it moves like wet sand, I start by squeezing a small lump together so it’s easier to add, but I also add it in it’s loose sandy form too. Avoid working the dough much though. All you’ll do it toughen it which is hard on the machine. Don’t overcrowd it either or the machine will have a difficult time pulling it through. If you find yourself needing to use the provided tool to push the dough down, do so as gently as you can because, again, this is very hard work for the mixer and you don’t want to stress any plastic components (trust me, I broke one testing hydration levels). It takes a while to get started.
Step 3: Things are heating up. The first few noodles to emerge will most likely look terrible. Or they might start off perfect then quickly fall apart. I throw the very first couple of inches straight in the trash because no matter how well I clean my extruder, those first noodles just smeared their way through any residual flour or lubricant that may have been there. The next few noodles will be bad too, but just toss them right back into the extruder. That’s right. At this point the extruder is building a tremendous amount of pressure which will warm up the metal plate and the dough itself. This is what we’re waiting for. Your noodles may be dry and crusty, maybe torn or malformed. That’s okay just throw them right back in until it’s had a chance to warm up. It helps to let one of the first rounds get really long, regardless of shape. The added weight hanging below can help set it up for better shapes and also seal off any tubular shapes that are splitting as they come out. For example spaghetti may come out curly until it’s long enough to hang straight under its own weight. Keep adding fresh dough as necessary too. I like to sandwich ugly noodles between dough so they come out even on the other side. Before very long, like magic, you will suddenly see perfectly shapes emerging. When I’m satisfied with how the pasta is shaping up, I throw one last batch back into the extruder than switch to just dough form there on out. Your pasta should come out perfect now, but if you make a mistake cutting too long or short you can still throw them back in. Place the finished pasta on the baking sheet with flour. For smaller shapes, leave a little space so they don’t stick together. Longer shapes like spaghetti can be curled into little nests and dusted with additional semolina to prevent sticking, or placed over a drying rack.
Although we’re making fresh pasta here, you simply must dry it at least a bit before cooking. To dry the pasta, just leave it on the sheet pan dusted with semolina and give it a gentle shake to prevent sticking. Flour added to pasta after kneading won’t hydrate properly so it becomes gummy when cooked, however semolina is so coarse and dry that it will simply wash away during cooking and will not affect the texture at all. Don’t try to speed things up with a fan or it may crack. If you want to store it you can dry it for a full 2 days and it should last basically indefinitely, though the quality will surely deteriorate after a year or two.
The main reason for drying is to allow the shape to set. If you cooked rigatoni right after extruding they would fall flat and limp instead of remaining an wide, open tube. Another reason is to extend cooking time. Fresh pasta cooks really fast and if you don’t let it dry out a bit, you run the risk of overcooking it. I try to let it dry for at least an hour which may only add a minute or two to the cook time, but that’s a nice added buffer as you boil and taste for that al dente bite.
Cooking extruded pasta is not much different from any other kind. Add it to boiling water and taste every minute for doneness. The cooking time depends on how long it has been drying and how thick the shape is so it’s really about tasting it more than setting a timer. That said, with this technique you’re usually looking at 2-5 minutes total. Now keep in mind pasta gets finished in sauce after boiling and this is part of the total cooking time. When you taste it, you’re looking for a chewy al dente texture - maybe even too chewy - and a slight raw taste of the flour. At that point it should be about 80% of the way there and it will finish cooking in whatever sauce you have prepared. For example, spaghetti dried for just over an hour might be al dente after boiling for 3 minutes. So for practical purposes you should actually boil for only 2 minutes then finish it in a sauce where it will continue to cook, but much more gently. Just taste it every step of the way and trust yourself enough to know what you like.
Your pasta water is also important and the following is true for all pastas, with minor exceptions. Season your water with 1 tablespoon of kosher salt per quart of water, or, 1/4 cup of salt to 4 quarts (1 gallon of water). Contrary to what you may have been told, you do not need a giant pot of water to make pasta. In fact, the only time I ever use a full gallon is for ravioli because they are a bit delicate. For a fully dried pasta, whether packaged or homemade, I use only 6 cups of water because it boils faster, uses fewer resources, and it gets concentrated with starch from the pasta which is a good thing. I normally use 2 or 3 quarts for fresh pasta because it is a bit more delicate than dry packaged pasta. To this I add salt and a big handful of semolina flour. The flour makes the water extra starchy. In restaurants, they use the same giant vat of boiling water for all the pasta so before long it becomes very starchy. This water gets used to finish a lot of pasta sauces. It can thicken a sauce if cooked down, thin it if added as-is, and best of all it emulsifies the sauce meaning it allows the fat-based ingredients to mix with the water-based ingredients for a glossy smooth sauce doesn’t taste greasy or contain broken curdled cheese. When your pasta is almost finished, add it to your sauce using tongs or a spider, or, drain it in a colander set over a bowl. Either way just be sure to reserve that starchy water! It’s your secret weapon to making good pasta sauce.
Salt and starch are hugely beneficial to have in your water, but oil is not. Adding a bit of olive oil to the water will help prevent it from sticking and reduce the chances of the pot boiling over. This might sound good, but these are trivial benefits that come at a cost. Your pasta will be oil-slicked when it comes out and this will repel rather than adhere to sauce. To stop pasta from sticking all you have to do is stir it once or twice in the beginning. The boiling over thing is true (the oil breaks the surface tension on the top of the water so it can’t bubble up as much), but who cares? Just use a bigger pot or less water if this is an issue for you and save your precious olive oil.
The Why Behind It All
Okay so it’s mostly all about a a simple semolina and water dough. My question is, why? Why can’t I add eggs or oil? Why coarse semolina and not 00? Why no salt? Well I can’t promise you all the answers, but I did spend a year trying to figure this out so I’ll do my best.
Why No Eggs? It stands to reason that if you replace the water with eggs or maybe even just yolks that you would get a better tasting pasta. If you go crazy and do the math, which I did, you can test if hydration depends on water specifically or any liquid such as fats. Eggs will give the pasta better flavor, but it is not worth the huge sacrifice to texture. But why? I think part of it is the heat. Once the machine has been running for a while it gets quite hot and actually cooks the eggs as the pasta gets extruded. Eggs are also just different than water in that they have fat and protein as well. History may shed some additional light on this phenomenon. Semolina and water pasta is a southern Italian tradition due to the fact that the south was once a generally poorer region. Eggs may have been too expensive or too scarce. So we can think of this as a pasta created to specifically not have eggs in it. Although he explicitly recommends water, Emilio Mitidieri says you can use eggs or really any combination of liquid ingredients, but in my experience eggs ruin extruded pasta at least with this particular machine.
Why No Oil? There are 2 reasons for adding olive oil to pasta dough: flavor and texture. Olive oil tastes good and a small amount will add a certain silkiness to rolled pasta. This is not at all desirable in extruded pasta. We’re going for a rough and dry texture that has a pleasant chew and grips sauce well. So similar to eggs, adding olive oil will improve the flavor, but as a lubricant it will impede the kneading process. Skip the oil.
Why Semolina Flour? The two pasta flours you should know about are coarse semolina and 00 (zero zero). Semolina flour comes from durum wheat which has a high protein content. 00 flour simply refers to a flour that has been ground down to a fine power. It’s similar to the difference between granulated sugar and powdered. Interestingly, the “00” depiction has nothing to do with the type of flour used, just the grind. Semolina is the right flour for extruded pasta because of how much protein it has and because of its coarse texture. We can’t get any extra protein from eggs to form a gluten network so it’s important to start with a flour that has the most protein possible. You can buy fancy Italian semolina flour, but if you’re shopping at the supermarket, just look for the Bob’s Red Mill brand. Specialty markets may sell semola ricante which is Italian for 00 semolina. This is awesome for rolled pasta, but for extruded you really want the coarse stuff because it has more protein. Wait, how can that be if they’re both milled from durum wheat? The milling process changes the wheat grain. The whole point of flour is to make wheat digestible. A wheat grain has three parts: the bran which is an indigestible shell, the embryo germ which is tiny, and the soft edible endosperm. When you grind this up the bran breaks down first and it gets sifted off with the germ with only the larger endosperm remaining. This is prized for it’s protein and gluten properties, but the more you grind it, the more you take away.
What About the Salt? Some pasta purists will say you should never add salt to your dough, but this has been put to the test by many reputable sources and largely debunked as a myth. Of course extruded pasta would be the exception! Adding a bit of salt to your dough won’t adversely affect it as much as eggs or oil will, but most commercial salt - even kosher - has anti-caking agents in it and these will alter the texture for the worse. If you can find salt that is truly just salt like that from Jacobsen (that is, the ingredients simply read “salt” or “sea salt” with nothing else) then it’s probably okay to add in, but I admit I have not tested this. Way safer to properly season your water instead.
I should note than as leftovers, extruded pasta really falls flat. Even boxed pasta holds up better the next day. It just gets mushier than you would expect. My advice? Eat up every last bite as soon as you make it.
Fresh Extruded Pasta
300 grams semolina flour, plus more for dusting
100 grams warm water
Weigh out flour in the stand mixer bowl. With the paddle attached, increase speed to 4. Slowly add the water, half at a time, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula between pours. Allow to mix for a few minutes until it has the consistency of wet sand.
Attach the pasta extruder to the stand mixer and place a large baking sheet dusted with semolina flour under the extruder.
Set mixer speed to 6 and begin adding dough a bit at a time. Make several test noodles to allow the extruder to warm up. Feed test noodles back through the extruder. Once the extruder has warmed up and the shapes come out as desired, stop making test noodles and switch to just the dough adjusting speed as necessary.
Place finished pasta on the prepared baking sheet, dust with additional semolina, and shake gently to prevent sticking. Allow pasta to dry at room temperature for at least an hour to allow the shapes to set.
In a large pot bring 3 quarts of water and 3 tablespoons of kosher salt to a rolling boil then add a very large handful of semolina flour.
Add pasta and cook until just shy of al dente, anywhere between 2-5 minutes depending on the shape and how long its been drying. Reserve pasta water. Finish cooking pasta in a sauce of your choosing. Adjust sauce consistency with seasoned pasta water and/or unsalted butter. Serve immediately.