Architecture for the Taste Buds

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Pasta is a marvel of geometry and construction.

It’s architecture for the taste buds. Long or short, thick or thin, smooth or ridged; each shape is a unique construction of form and consistency designed to capture and absorb sauce differently. The classic pairings—linguine with clams, spaghetti and meatballs, cavatelli and broccoli—have persisted in the Italian culinary repertoire because of their ideal expressions of taste. It’s what the Chinese call kou gan: the harmonious interplay beyond flavor that we translate as mouth-feel.  

If the sauce is tasty and the pasta well-prepared, you can’t really ruin a meal with a bad match. The dish just won’t come together as it should. The noodles won’t be able to cradle the meat or the sauce won’t coat the pasta properly. A poor distribution of components and a puddle of sauce at the bottom of the bowl is about as bad as it gets. But get it right, and it’s magic.

A well-engineered pasta dish.

The goal of saucing pasta is to coat each noodle completely but not excessively. Every surface should have a light veneer, with no excess pooling, and the sauce-to-pasta ratio should achieve a balance between the flavors.

With that goal in mind, there are a few building blocks to proper pairing.

Surface area: This establishes the total amount of sauce that each noodle can contain. Not much clings to a very thin pasta. Generally, the thinner the noodle the more delicate the sauce match. Pastas like capellini (angel hair) or anellini (little rings) should be floated in broth or be tossed in an olive oil or butter sauce that lubricates each strand. Step up to a linguine or a ribbony fettuccine, and the sauce can be more substantial and robust.

Surface texture: Ridges add surface area and give texture to the surface for a sauce to cling to. Artisanally-made pastas also tend to achieve a rougher surface texture from heritage strains of wheat and rustic bronze dies used to cut the noodles.

Structure: Grooves, twists, tubes, frills, shells; they all create opportunities for sauce to cling and chunks to nestle. Smaller shapes like orecchiette (little ears) gemelli (the twins) can handle creamy, cheesy sauces and small bits like pine nuts and peas. Large-scale hollow varieties like rigatoni (lined tubes) and conchiglie (seashells) can support substantial meat sauces, whole beans, and vegetable chunks.

Fresh versus dried.

The sauce pairing rules of surface, texture, and structure are the same, but there are fundamental differences that need to be considered when choosing between fresh and dried pasta. Fresh, generally egg-based noodles have a soft texture that can carry and absorb sauce more readily than their dried counterpart. The softer texture of fresh pasta also obscures many of the textural variations that are so pronounced in dried pasta. This makes fresh pasta more versatile but less nuanced.

In the food world, pasta is virtually unrivaled for its well-considered diversity of styles. Each shape, size, and texture has been conceived for a specific effect. A bit of kitchen engineering can help you achieve the ideal dish, but even off-the-mark can be delicious.

For further explorations, The Geometry of Pasta is a remarkable website companion to a remarkable book of the same name. Part graphic design showcase, part cookbook,  the Geometry of Pasta is a modernist study of tubes, twists, spirals, and ribbons—with recipes. I highly recommend a spin around the site.

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3 Responses to Architecture for the Taste Buds

  1. Janice says:

    I haven’t tried any of the recipes, but it is awfully nice to look at!

  2. Claudia says:

    I am in the midst of cooking from it and reviewing it. I found the book to be an original and delighted in its approach.

  3. Yesim says:

    Pasta is my favourite dish,i can eat all day and never will be bored of that..

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