A favorite among college bros and four-star chefs alike, pasta is the great equalizer of foods. While there’s not much variation in taste when it comes to different shapes, there’s no doubt that some types work better than others in specific dishes. And do you even really know what shape will show up on your plate when you order the fusilli alla vodka? Now you will.
Before you boil, know this: If you follow the directions on the box, you’re overcooking your pasta. You’ve probably heard that regardless of shape, pasta should always be cooked al dente (which means “to the tooth,” or slightly underdone). However, pasta is typically tossed with hot tomato sauce or scraped into a sauté pan full of sizzling meat and vegetables, which means it continues to cook after it’s pulled out of the water. So in reality, pasta should come out of the water when it’s a few minutes away from al dente. (Unless you’re one of those slap-it-in-a-bowl-with-butter-and-cheese kind of cooks—then follow your instincts and cook the pasta completely; but seriously you should try Bolognese.) Al dente pasta takes about three minutes less than the instructions, but nothing’s as foolproof as fishing out a noodle (or two) and taking a bite.
Take a deep breath; you’re about to become a pasta pro. We bet the next time you find yourself in Italy (or at your favorite local Italian restaurant), you won’t have to ask the waiter the difference between conchiglie and orecchiette.
Conchiglie: These small shells have a large opening, which makes them best for dishes where fillings can get stuck inside. Think hearty meat sauces and creamy pasta salads. Oh, and of course, this shape is ideal for mac and cheese too.
Farfalle: Also known as “bow-tie pasta,” farfalle (which literally translates to “butterflies”) works best in dishes with chunks of vegetables or meat. Summer pasta salads with farfalle FTW.
Fettuccine: While “Alfredo” is basically fettuccine’s last name, try folding other thick sauces, like creamy tomato with browned sausage or a classic Bolognese (also known as “ragu”), into these wide, flat noodles. They can take it! Red pepper and nut-based romesco is another acceptable (and encouraged) option.
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Fusilli: A windy noodle full of cracks deserves a sauce that can stick to it, like pesto. And tomato sauce and Bolognese and olive oil and… we could keep going.
Linguine: Ah, linguine. Slurp it up with a light white wine and butter-based sauce and a protein. Shrimp scampi, anyone? If you’re feeling a meal that takes minimal effort, it pairs perfectly with a simple combo of lemon zest, olive oil, and parsley.
Orecchiette: This pasta, which translates to “little ears” in Italian, does well with other bite-size foods, such as broccoli, cauliflower, sausage, and cherry tomatoes. You also can’t go wrong with a quick toss of peas and bacon.
Penne: Make the most of penne’s ridges by throwing them into a casserole with tomato sauce and cheese for a variation of baked ziti. Penne are also known for trapping large squirts of pesto or vodka sauce inside their tubes, and are therefore friends to us (but not our white t-shirts).
Ravioli: Since it’s already full of cheese or lobster or some other combination of rich things, fight fire with fire: Brown butter and sage is probably the only sauce one should ever put on ravioli. However, if you want to be complicated, you could do something with a fresh tomato sauce, which goes with everything.
Rigatoni: Thick Bolognese coats the ridge-covered outside and fills the cavernous tube’s interior, making rigatoni a perfect vessel for consuming as much meat sauce as possible in every bite.
Spaghetti: We’d argue that spaghetti is probably one of the most boring noodles, yet we all still love it. Carbonara (helllllo, creamy cheese sauce with bacon) is the only way to save it. Other decently acceptable sauces, such as tomato (and meatballs) or olive oil-based concoctions, should coat the noodles completely.
Tortellini: Like ravioli, tortellini are filled with cheese or meat, but can stand up to a bit more liquid—which makes a great option for brothy soups. Otherwise, these little belly buttons need no more than a simple sauce and possibly a few veggies thrown in for good luck and bit of crunch.
Ziti: The best choice for mac and cheese (and baked ziti, of course)! Here’s why: Ziti’s tubular shape is perfect for trapping cheesy sauce. And just so you know, ziti are actually a type of macaroni, so any recipe that calls for ziti can easily be swapped with elbow-shaped noodles.