We eat a lot of pasta at Serious Eats. In good times and in bad; when we're feeling bummed or we're celebrating; when the sun is shining or when it's pouring out; winter, summer, fall, and spring; 24/7/365; if the day ends in "y"...you get the idea, right? We eat it all the time! Why? It's relatively simple to cook, it’s affordable, it doesn’t demand a lot of headspace to prepare, and it's always delicious (especially if you're following one of our recipes).
Of course, you don't need a recipe to make delicious pasta. What you need are the ingredients that bring balance to every bowl: salinity, umami, acidity, warmth, crunch, and silkiness. With the right ingredients, you can always have a comforting bowl of pasta in no time at all.
Most of the ingredients we've identified below are probably available at your local grocery store. And if you prefer to buy them online, we've provided specialty sellers where you can find them as well. But check your kitchen first! You may be surprised about how many are already lurking (unused and forgotten!) in your cabinets.
You’re going to have a hard time throwing together a delicious pasta dinner if you don’t have any pasta. We find it best to keep a variety of pasta shapes on hand, so you have options. Is it a spaghetti night, or do you want to get crazy with some fusilli? We are also advocates of buying pasta produced by good brands, and some of our favorites include specialty ones that you can buy online, like Faella, Martelli, Gentile, and Mancini, along with supermarket varieties from De Cecco and Di Martino.
Canned and Jarred Tomato Products
It’s easy enough to ensure you always have some dried pasta around, but if you want to pull off a full dinner without having to shop first, you’ll also have to keep some sauce-making staples in your pantry. For that you'll need tomato products, including canned tomatoes, passata, tomato paste, and, if you're feeling fancy, maybe even some Sicilian tomato estratto.
We prefer to keep cans of whole, peeled tomatoes, like Gustarosso San Marzano tomatoes from Gustiamo, on our shelves—they're the most versatile in that you can use the tomatoes whole, roughly crushed, lightly chunky, or puréed; plus, they don't have firming agents added to help them keep their shape, unlike many diced canned tomato products. Whole canned tomatoes star in this tomato sauce that’ll go from pot to plate in 40 minutes.
As for tomato paste, there is no better recipe for letting it shine than Daniel's pasta alla vodka, which calls for a whopping six ounces. For an even richer tomato flavor, make it with estratto (a sun-dried tomato paste from Sicily).
Sasha introduced most of the Serious Eats team to passata last year. While the label just says "tomato purée," it's actually quite different than the other canned tomato purées on the shelves, since passata is made in the late summer from fresh, in-season tomatoes. Consider it a perfect sauce-builder—use it in place of canned whole tomatoes in recipes that require milling or blending for a smooth consistency, like bucatini all'amatriciana.
Good, Inexpensive Olive Oil
It’s important to stock a solid extra-virgin olive oil for all sorts of cooking projects—not just for making pasta sauce (like olive oil cake, say). There’s a lot to take into consideration when you’re choosing an olive oil, but you don’t necessarily have to go for a top-shelf brand, especially if you're primarily going to be using it for cooking. Our favorite everyday bottles are in the $20 per liter range and will serve you well.
If pretty much all you have is dried spaghetti and olive oil, you’ve already got more or less everything it takes to make spaghetti aglio e olio, for instance. Have some basil, pine nuts, and Parmigiano, too? Try this easy pesto alla Genovese.
Plenty of Butter
Olive oil isn’t the only fat in town, and butter and noodles are a delicious combination. Infused with sage and allowed to turn nutty and brown, butter makes an easy and quick sauce for gnocchi. Or mix some melted butter vigorously with pasta and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano to make a true Roman alfredo sauce for fettuccine.Continue to 5 of 15 below.
Cured Pork Products
There’s more to making delicious pasta than tossing it with butter and oil in a pan. Sometimes you need some salty, funky, flavor-packed meat (and its attendant fat). And that’s when we call on guanciale, pancetta, and a host of other cured pork products. It’s worth familiarizing yourself with the differences between various cured pork products, so you know what to look for at the grocery store or specialty market.
Sliced into batons and rendered slowly over low heat, pancetta or guanciale will imbue your pasta with tons of rich, deep flavor. These fatty cuts release plenty of delicious fat as they cook, which gets emulsified into a sauce in recipes like pasta alla gricia.
While we’re on the subject of meats, we'd be remiss not to mention ‘nduja. We love this spicy, slightly funky salume. It's cut with Calabrian chiles and takes on a glorious reddish hue, and an unusually high ratio of fat to lean meat means that while other salumi will harden as they hang and age, ‘nduja remains spreadable and meltingly soft, which makes it a perfect addition to all sorts of pasta sauces.
Aromatics and Spices
Aromatics and dried spices are crucial to building up layers of flavor, and there's no better example of that than la Genovese, a braised beef ragù from Naples, where onions are the unexpected star. Similarly, shallots and garlic provide a sweet, caramelized base for our pasta with burst cherry tomatoes and XO sauce; thinly sliced garlic delivers a gentle heat to spaghetti aglio e olio; and good, freshly cracked black peppercorns balance the salty bite of cacio e pepe. Keep an abundance of all of them in your pantry and you'll never have boring, lifeless pasta dishes again.
A Few Hard Cheeses
The great thing about hard cheeses like Parmesan is that they last for a really, really long time. We’re big fans of Parmigiano-Reggiano, which has a sweet and nutty flavor; Grana Padano is another good option that can be substituted for Parmigiano in just about any recipe (just avoid the domestic knockoffs).
One of our very favorite ways to use the Italian superstar cheese is also the simplest. In a classic Roman-Style fettuccine alfredo, Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of only three ingredients, which lets its inimitable nutty-sweet-saltiness shine.
If you want to make a pasta with a little more heft, make some spaghetti carbonara. A mixture of Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano delivers all the flavor you’ll need, without making the pasta overly salty or sharp. Little bits of crisped guanciale provide texture in every bite.
If you don't eat dairy or for some reason aren't that into amazing, salty, nutty cheeses, try toasted breadcrumbs instead, which are often used in place of cheese in Southern Italian pasta dishes, like orecchiette con le cime di rapa.
Canned, Jarred, and Dried Fish
Either you love them or you hate them. But you should give good anchovies a chance—or a second chance. Much like ‘nduja, anchovies have a way of melting into the background of a dish, giving a boost of flavor that can’t always be identified. While you might think of anchovies as very fishy fish, we love the way they bring saltiness and savoriness to our food without taking over completely. A perfect example of this is our recipe for spaghetti puttanesca, where the anchovies complement the brininess of olives and capers.
If you want to diversify your anchovy consumption (and you should!), there's colatura, Italy's aged fish sauce. You can use colatura in the same way you might anchovies, like in Caesar salad. Or you could go all out and make Sasha's spaghetti con la colatura.
Of course, anchovies aren't the only fish that should be swimming in your pasta. Olive oil–packed tuna comes in handy for making spaghetti alla carrettiera. You can likely find good tuna at your local grocery store or online at this Italian market.
And then there's bottarga—which we lovingly call Parmesan of the sea. It is a specialty product, with a specialty product's price tag, and one of the best ways to experience it is as spaghetti con la bottarga. Not sure where to find it? You can pick some up at Gustiamo.Continue to 9 of 15 below.
Beans and pasta are a classic combination: Al dente pasta, smooth and creamy beans, and a hit of salty Parmesan is incredibly comforting on a cold night. (Just try this hearty beans and greens pasta recipe or this velvety chickpea pasta sauce and you'll understand.)
For any of these recipes you can use canned beans in a pinch, but there's nothing quite like dried beans cooked low and slow with aromatics. While time-consuming, it's not difficult to cook dried beans of any kind. Once you start, you'll never go back.
Nuts and Dried Fruit
Nuts and dried fruits aren't just for trail mix: They can add texture, flavor, and fat to a variety of pasta dishes. For example, there's the pine nuts or walnuts in a classic pesto pasta, but then there's also the almonds used in Sicilian pesto alla trapanese.
Dried, Preserved, and Fresh Chiles
When you want to bring the heat to any pasta dish, you have way more options than just pizza joint red pepper flakes. There's a whole world of dried and preserved chiles out there, from Calabrian chiles and dried peperonicini to Aleppo pepper flakes—each offering varying levels of heat to whatever you're cooking, whether it's a basic spaghetti aglio e olio or an amatriciana.Continue to 13 of 15 below.
Dried Porcini Mushrooms
Dried porcini mushrooms bring a woodsy, umami flavor to any dish. When it comes to Italian cuisine, you'll find them in recipes like hearty penne boscaiola and mushroom risotto. While you may struggle to find dried porcini mushrooms at your local grocery, they're widely available online. And you don't need to be intimidated. Once you give them a nice soak, they'll add their rich and meaty flavor to just about any dish you can think of.
Lots of Lemons
Now that we’ve worked our way through many of the ingredients that bring depth, richness, and flavor to a simple pasta, it’s time to talk about the brighter, lighter side: fresh citrus! A squeeze of lemon or a little zest can make all the difference between a flat, underwhelming sauce and one that sings. Isn't it comforting to know that even when all you have in the fridge is a single lemon and a nub of Parmigiano-Reggiano, you can make a delectable pasta al limone?
Bundles of Fresh Herbs
We’ve reached the final destination. You did it. With just some pantry staples, you put a beautiful, steaming bowl of pasta on the table. All that’s left to do is garnish it. If you store herbs correctly, they can last for up to three weeks before you have to replenish your bouquets. We suggest keeping basil, parsley, mint, and cilantro around. A bowl of spaghetti alle vongole, for instance, doesn’t taste quite right until you’ve finished it with a generous heap of freshly chopped parsley, the leaves’ grassy green flavor working to balance out the salty clams and the acidity of the white wine.
In addition to the tender herbs, stock up on woodsy herbs (the ones with thicker leaves and stems) like fresh rosemary, sage, and thyme, and fresh or dried oregano. They usually require a lighter hand than their finer-leafed counterparts, but used judiciously (and especially when allowed to infuse into the cooking fat first), they add an earthy, herbal musk that's hard not to love.
What are some tips for making great pasta dishes?
First off, salt the pasta water; the dissolved salt permeates the pasta while it cooks, ensuring it's perfectly seasoned. Second, toss and briefly cook your pasta in your sauce of choice (with a splash of reserved pasta water) to finish the dish; we love using the Winco Aluminum Stir Fry Pan for this task. Another important tip when cooking pasta is to not overcook it; if you're finishing it in a sauce, it will continue to cook, so keeping it just a little less than al dente to prevent mushiness.
What are common mistakes when cooking pasta?
Some common mistakes include overcooking the pasta (no one wants spaghetti that's dissolving into the sauce), not using enough water to boil the pasta, and ditching the pasta water. Making a pasta dish is a delicate act, and messing up any of these steps can result in overcooked, flavorless, runny mush instead of pasta.
Are pasta shapes interchangeable?
We've written an article about different pasta shapes, which gives a comprehensive answer to this common question. But, in short, yes and no; it all depends on the preparation and dish. For example, you wouldn't use orzo with bolognese, since the orzo won't catch the meaty crumbles as nicely as, say, ridged rigate. Read more about pasta shapes and what shapes our editors' love here.