The secret to making pasta at home is that it’s not actually that hard, especially once you have all of the right tools. But even decisions as seemingly simple as whether you should buy a hand-crank pasta machine or an electric one can quickly become daunting if you don’t have a guide. Do you need a ravioli pin, or will a tablet suffice? What about a drying rack? So to figure out what pasta-making tools you really need, and which you can leave sitting in your Amazon cart, we asked Linda Miller Nicholson, author of Pasta, Pretty Please and the wizard behind the colorful, handmade twirls of dough featured on the Instagram account Salty Seattle, to walk us through everything she uses to cut, shape, and cook her lovingly made and endearingly bright pasta.
For most people making fresh pasta at home, an electrical pasta machine is overkill. But even if you’re getting a modest hand-crank pasta-maker, it’s important to invest in one that’s accurate. That’s because a pasta machine is basically made of two rollers, which start at a wider width then taper inward. “As you reduce the space in between them, that’s what makes the pasta sheet get thinner and thinner, and the calibration on those two rollers is very, very important,” explains Nicholson. “So even if it’s a 64th of a millimeter off, you’ll have one side of the pasta sheet pulling and being a little bit more narrow, whereas the other side doesn’t grab it quite as much.” That’ll leave your pasta more prone to tearing, which will undo all of your hard work. One brand that’s very much solved this problem, according to Nicholson, is Marcato Atlas, an Italian company that’s been making these pasta machines since 1930. “There’s a hand-cranked version, which is fun if you are with someone else or even by yourself,” she says, and they’re reliable enough for even the biggest batches.
Another pasta-making tool that’s worth investing in is a rolling cutter. “You wind up using them so much in pasta-making that you don’t want the cheapo, stainless-steel ones,” says Nicholson. Also, because those lesser-quality ones are “not ergonomically comfortable, they don’t have the ability to cut nearly as well.” That’s why she likes this brass one from LaGondola with a wooden handle, which is heavy enough to smoothly and evenly slice through dough without tweaking your hand unnecessarily.
Nicholson has what she describes as a love-hate relationship with the pasta bike, but the trick to making friends with this funny-looking gadget is to not think of it as a cutter but as a scorer. It’s not going to cut through every line, consistently and firmly because it has so many moving parts. But it’s a handy tool for “anything that needs essentially, like, fairly precise squares or rectangles — like garganelli or cannelloni — or really anytime you want to cut a lot of something quickly.” Just remember to go over the scored lines with your nice, smooth rolling cutter.
Another must-have tool for making fresh pasta is a bench scraper, for dividing dough evenly and even helping to mix ingredients, and Nicholson’s absolutely favorite one is the Campbell’s dough knife. It is hand-forged by a man in the United Kingdom, and Nicholson describes it as nonstick and “virtually indestructible.” However, you must also order it from this man’s Instagram account. A more readily available option that we like is OXO’s stainless-steel scraper, which isn’t hand-forged but is reliably sturdy, especially for the occasional pasta-maker.
If you’re new to making pasta but have your heart set on making ravioli, Nicholson recommends this tray, which is both easier to use than a ravioli pin and creates less waste. “The ravioli tablet actually has the perforations on an overlay. You roll a pin over, and the pin in conjunction with those perforations actually cut the ravioli in one movement, rather than having a step to cut afterward.”
Stainless-steel round cutter set
These stainless-steel round cutters are great if you’re making tortellini or cappelletti — pasta shapes that start with circular pieces of dough that are then shaped — but they’re also nice to keep in the kitchen, more generally. “You can use them for everything: biscuits and cookies and pasta and making funny Halloween shapes of things for my kids; they come in very handy. I think, just in general, having a set of nesting circular cutters comes in very handy,” says Nicholson.
Once your pasta is cut and shaped, you need a place to store it or let it dry out a bit, especially if you’re not eating it all at once. And the easiest way to do this is to lay out your pasta on a sheet pan. Nicholson recommends getting full-size sheet pans if you can because “you have more pasta-drying power with that.” But if space is a constraint, or you want something a little more versatile, get a half-pan. And though you don’t need them to be super durable, since you’re just laying out pasta on them and letting them dry, she recommends keeping a set just for pasta so that the pans don’t warp from the heat of the oven.
You can also buy a lid for your half-sheet, which makes it easier to store fresh pasta in the fridge or take it on the road, if you’re traveling to someone else’s house for dinner. Just be sure to buy the lid integrated with the pan, from the same brand, otherwise they might not fit.
You don’t want to lay out pasta straight on the metal sheet pan because it will almost definitely stick, so be sure to put down a piece of parchment paper first. Nicholson likes precut sheets, for ease of use.
“I feel very strongly about plastic wrap,” says Nicholson — so much so that she keeps an 18-inch roll of the stuff mounted underneath her kitchen cabinets for ease of use. When you’re making pasta, you’re using a lot of plastic wrap to keep fresh dough from drying out. “You’re always pulling it down, your hands are floury, so trying to get out a little tiny box and finagle and work with the box while you’re, you know, in the middle of needing an extra pair of hands anyway is not a pleasant thing.” And the reason Nicholson likes the 18-inch-wide plastic wrap is because it’s the same width as her half-sheet pans. “So when you’re talking about a half-pan, you can go across the short direction of a half-pan.”
Stackable food-drying trays with nets
Though drying pasta and letting it rest on a sheet pan is more than sufficient for most types of pasta, for filled pasta like ravioli, it can be nice to let these more delicate pastas rest on a food-drying tray with a net. “Even if you’re lining the sheet pan with parchment and sprinkling it with semolina, if you’re, you know, working slow and you have it out at room temperature, filled pasta will still occasionally stick to the parchment,” says Nicholson. “The airy drying racks do circulate airflow beneath, and they’re very handy for room-temperature drying over a period of time — say, like an hour, hour and a half.” It’s also nice for a little nest of tagliatelle, since the airflow ensures that “it doesn’t clump down there on the bottom like it would with a sheet pan.”
Since she’s making so much pasta, Nicholson has a bespoke drying system in her kitchen, made by mounting long wooden dowels from the hardware store underneath her kitchen cabinets. But the plug-and-play solutions work if you’re not willing to install more kitchen gear. “I use those for any pasta that is like a long-noodled pasta, like fettuccine, tagliatelle, lasagna, pappardelle. And even if I’m ultimately going to nest those pastas, meaning wrap them into the little coils and set them on a drying tray or sheet pan, I still tend to hang them for a few minutes just so that they can develop a little bit of a skin on the exterior so that when I nest them, they, like, don’t stick together.”
Once your pasta is made, it’s time to cook it. For that task, Nicholson likes this stockpot from Demeyere. “It’s extremely even, and it cooks really well,” she says. “Also, I cook on induction, so it’s important to me, obviously, that something is magnetic.”
However, if you don’t want to spend over $400 on a stockpot, or don’t need to worry about having induction-friendly cookware, any 8.5- or eight-quart stockpot will do, like this well-reviewed one from Cuisinart for under $50.
Nicholson uses one of these spider strainers to drop the pasta into her stockpot full of (salted!) boiling water and to gently remove once it’s done. Using this tool is easier than trying to dump out a gallon of hot water into a colander and is less violent than pulling out a strainer from a dual-immersive stockpot, which can be hard on the pasta. “It’s funny; whenever I teach workshops, I realize that I touch the pasta like it’s a baby. I’m gentle with it,” says Nicholson, because “you put so much work into it, and you want the end result to really be the very best it can be.”
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