A Guide to Pasta & Noodles

Since March is National Noodle Month – thank you, National Pasta Association – we’re celebrating by delving into the vast world of pasta and noodles. Though its history is tangled, pasta has been an American favorite for generations. The United States consumes nearly 6 billion pounds of pasta every year, and the popularity of pasta increases 20 percent during winter. As ubiquitous as it’s become, pasta still has a mysterious past, and its present-day place in American culture isn’t totally straightforward, either. How many types of pasta are there? What’s the difference between pasta and noodles? This guide boils down the answers to those questions and more.

History of Pasta

Pasta’s history is as varied as the shapes and types it comes in, as modern experts continue to argue over where pasta originally came from. They mostly agree that it was somewhere in Asia, though some sources claim that its origins stem from ancient Etruscans. How pasta moved westward is also a hotly debated topic, with at least one theory crediting nomadic Arabs.

Although pasta’s journey from Asia to Italy is unclear, the country is famous for its pasta dishes. Recipes can be found in Italian cookbooks as far back as the early 1200s. English noblemen toured Italy in the 18th century and brought the food back with them, which in turn was brought to the United States. Although pasta had been introduced in America, it apparently didn’t gain popularity until Thomas Jefferson returned from his 1789 tour of Europe with two cases of macaroni (and if you didn’t know, now you know, Mr. President).

Pasta vs. Noodles: Who’s the Impasta?

I’m sure many of you have had this debate before: Are pasta and noodles the same thing? Should we use these terms interchangeably? As it turns out, we should not. The difference between pasta and noodles begins in the creation process.

Pasta is typically made from durum – also known as semolina – with flour and water to create a stiff dough that is molded into a variety of shapes. Noodles are made from a variety of different kinds of flour and formed into unleavened dough then rolled into a flat sheet and sliced. Once cooked, there are obvious differences in their textures. Pasta is typically cooked to al dente, where it is soft on the outside yet firm to the bite. Depending on what style of dish you prepare, noodles typically have varying degrees of firmness and softness but tend to be springy.

Types of Pasta & Noodles

Most of us meet pasta once it has been dried and packaged in a box, waiting to be boiled and transformed into decadent dishes. This type of pasta is usually referred to as “refined” since the wheat has been enriched by removing bran and germ from the grain. Whole-wheat pasta is also derived of wheat, but most of the bran and germ stay in the grain to retain more vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Most Italian pastas are prepared with semolina flour, water, and salt when dried and flour and eggs when fresh.

For those who can’t enjoy traditional pastas due to Celiac disease or other dietary restrictions, a variety of alternatives are quickly gaining popularity. Rice noodles, a combination of rice flour and water, are a great gluten-free option. Lentils are another noodle alternative; they are prepared exactly like traditional pasta but have almost four times the amount of fiber. Shirataki noodles are made of glucomannan (also known as konjac) flour, water, and lime water, being virtually almost all water with hardly any carbohydrates. Of course, we can’t forget about zoodles, a trendy low-carb noodle alternative. While zoodles are made of spiralized zucchini, a variety of vegetables can be spiralized for a noodle substitute, including carrots, spaghetti squash, and sweet potatoes.

Pasta Shapes

There are over 600 pasta shapes, but you’ll find information about the most commonly seen shapes below.

Ribbons

Ribbon-shaped pasta could be considered a subcategory of strands. They are usually flat and vary in width.

Types of pasta- ribbons

Fettuccine
Name: Translates to “little ribbons”
Cook Time: 10-12 minutes
Best Use: Tossed in sauce
Pair It With: Meat, cream, or cheese

Lasagna
Name: Indicates the pasta or the dish; originally referred to a pot being used to cook food
Cook Time: 8-10 minutes
Best Use: Baking
Pair It With: Tomato or cream with meat and vegetables

Linguine
Name: Translates to “little tongues”
Cook Time: 10-12 minutes
Best Use: Tossed in sauce
Pair It With: Tomato, pesto, olive oil, and seafood

Shapes

Shape pastas are short and typically retain their structure, making them perfect for salads, soups, and sides.

Types of pasta - shapes

Conchiglie
Name: AKA shells
Size Variety: Small and jumbo
Cook Time: 10-12 minutes for small; 11-13 minutes for jumbo
Best Use: Stuffing, baked dishes, and salads
Pair It With: Tomato, cream, meat, vegetables, and cheese

Farfalle
Name: Italian word for “butterfly;” AKA bow ties
Cook Time: 10-12 minutes
Best Use: Salads and tossed in sauce
Pair It With: Cheese, olive oil, and butter

Rotini
Name: Translates to “twists” or “spirals”
Cook Time: 8-10 minutes
Best Use: Baked dishes and salads
Pair It With: Tomato, pesto, and seafood

Strands

Strand pasta is also referred to as long form pasta due to its length. These are round with varying diameters.

Types of pasta - strands

Capellini
Name: AKA angel hair pasta
Cook Time: 3-5 minutes
Best Use: Tossed in sauce
Pair It With: Olive oil, cream, light tomato, butter, and seafood

Spaghetti
Name: Derives from the word “spago,” which means “string”
Cook Time: 9-11 minutes
Best Use: Tossed in sauce
Pair It With: Tomato, pesto, meat, and seafood

Vermicelli
Name: Translates to “little worms”
Cook Time: 8-10 minutes
Best Use: Tossed in sauce
Pair It With: Cream, tomato, and olive oil

Stuffed

This category obviously received its name since the pasta is stuffed, traditionally with cheese, meat, vegetables, or seafood.

Types of pasta - stuffed

Ravioli
Name: Derives from “riavvolgere,” which means “to wrap”
Cook Time: 5-7 minutes
Best Use: Tossed in sauce and soups
Stuff It With: Cheese, meat, vegetables, and seafood
Pair It With: Butter, cream, and tomato

Rigatoni
Name: Means “large grooves/large stripes”
Cook Time: 11-13 minutes
Best Use: Tossed in sauce and baked dishes
Stuff It With: Cheese
Pair It With: Chunky meat or vegetable, cream, and cheese

Tortellini
Name: Derives from “torta,” meaning it resembles a cake
Best Use: Tossed in sauce and soup
Stuff It With: Cheese and meat
Pair It With: Cream, pesto, and tomato

Tubular

While similar to strand, this short form pasta is hollow, hence being called tubular.

Types of pasta - tubular

Macaroni
Name: AKA elbows
Cook Time: 6-8 minutes
Best Use: Baked dishes, soup, and salad
Pair It With: Cheese and butter

Penne
Name: Means “quills” or “feathers”
Cook Time: 10-12 minutes
Best Use: Tossed in sauce
Pair It With: Chunky tomato, meat, vegetable, and cream

Ziti
Name: Derives from “bride/bridegroom”
Cook Time: 10-12 minutes
Best Use: Baked dishes
Pair It With: Light tomato, olive oil, cream, and cheese

Asian Noodles

Now that we know pasta is divergent from noodles, we have a category dedicated to Asian noodles. As previously stated, noodles tend to be bouncy when cooked and can range in texture.

Types of noodles - Asian noodles

Lo Mein
Name: “Lo” implies boiling; also called lao mian or lo mi
Cook Time: 3-5 minutes
Best Use: Tossed in sauce with chunky ingredients

Chow Mein
Name: “Chow” means frying; also called jau mein or chu mian
Cook Time: 2-4 minutes
Best Use: Stir fry, pan fry, and use as a base of crunchy noodles in Cantonese dishes

Udon
Cook Time: 3-12 minutes, depending if it is fresh or dried
Best Use: Soups, broths, and base of bowls with meat and vegetables toppings in a light sauce

Ramen
Name: Also called oil noodles or yi mien
Cook Time: 2-4 minutes
Best Use: Soups, broths, and broken up into salad raw

Soba
Cook Time: 5-8 minutes
Best Use: Cold broths, hot soup, and stir fry

Shirataki
Name: Also called yam noodle
Cook Time: 2-3 minutes
Best Use: Soups and stir fry

Rice Vermicelli
Cook Time: Soaks in hot water 5-10 minutes
Best Use: Stir fry, soup, chilled in salads, and deep fried into “nests”

Courtney Dyke
Courtney Dyke

After graduating from the University of Tennessee with a degree in English, Courtney Dyke married the love of her life, Mitchell. Soon after their nuptials, they adopted their miniature black-and-tan dachshund, Hazel. Rarely spotted without a cup of tea, she spends her time reading novels, crocheting up a storm, belting numbers from her favorite musicals, and watching Disney movies. Like a true Hufflepuff, if she's not doing these things, you can probably find her at Chick-Fil-A.