Pasta Makers 101: Manual or Automatic?

pasta maker box
My pasta machine

I spend all day using computers and gadgets, so when it’s time to make pasta in the kitchen, I like to go ‘old school’ with a manual pasta maker. There’s nothing wrong with using an automatic pasta maker though and a lot of the nicer models have tons of features.

Besides the difference in price, there are pros and cons either way you go. For example, manual pasta makers involve more work, but automatic ones can be a bit technical. If you’re choosing between a manual or automatic pasta maker, here are a few things to consider:

Manual Pasta Makers

Less expensive
More traditional pasta making machine
More tactile experience, you get a feel for the dough
Easy to use
Needs to be clamped to the counter for more stability
Involves manual labor
Leaves only one hand free to handle pasta, since the other one is turning the handle

Automatic or Electronic Pasta Makers

More convenient
Allows you to use two hands to handle pasta
Doesn’t need to be clamped down

Usually more expensive
Instructions and attachments can make it more technical & harder to use
Some are made of plastic, which is less durable
May be harder to clean

What about you? Where do you stand when it comes to manual vs. automatic? Pasta makers are getting more sophisticated and it’s nice to have lots of options, but I think I’ll stick to my luddite tendencies for now. I use something similar to the one shown above.

Fresh Tomato Pasta Sauce Recipe

It’s Time to Use those Fresh Tomatoes in Pasta Sauce

Last time I told you how to preserve fresh tomatoes for pasta sauce. Now here it is, a heavenly pasta sauce recipe with garden fresh organic tomatoes. It’s a quickly cooked light pasta sauce that celebrates the flavor of the tomatoes. If tomatoes aren’t in season use canned (or your own fresh frozen), because commercial hot-house tomatoes don’t cut it.


2 cups fresh tomatoes, seeded, peeled and chopped
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 small bunch flat-leaf Italian Parsley, washed and dried, chopped medium (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 teaspoon oregano, dried
1-2 dried hot peppers (optional)
salt & pepper
freshly grated Romano or Parmesean cheese (optional)


Chop the tomatoes and set aside. Wash and dry the parsley, so there are no drops of water clinging or it will pop and splatter in the oil, then chop; it’s fine to include the stems if they are tender. Set aside about 1-2 tablespoons of the chopped leaves to add near the end of cooking. Chop the garlic so it’s ready when the oil is just heated.

Heat a large frying pan on medium heat for a minute. Add the olive oil, heat it for a few seconds and then add the garlic. It should sizzle gently for half a minute and not color. Give it a shake or stir. Add the first batch of parsley stems and leaves (stand back if it wasn’t dry, it’ll pop and splatter) and saute for half a minute.

Add the chopped tomatoes and dried hot peppers. Fresh tomatoes will release their liquid and get juicy in a few minutes; adjust the heat so they simmer. Crush the dried oregano between the palms of your hands to release it’s fragrance before adding to the tomatoes. When the tomatoes are cooked and soft, in about 10 minutes, taste for seasoning. Add salt and pepper, but go easy because you’ll want to taste test again after the pasta and cheese are tossed in.

Tomato Heaven: Preserving Fresh Tomatoes for Sauce

San Marzano tomatoes from the farmers marketEvery year at this time, I submerge myself in tomato heaven. What or where is tomato heaven you ask? It’s in my own garden or at a farmer’s market where a local, organic farm sells San Marzano tomatoes—thousands of them. And as any sauce lover will tell you, San Marzanos are among the best tomatoes for sauce. When I’m surrounded by these beauties, I’m in tomato heaven.

And what’s better than using fresh tomatoes for sauce and pairing that sauce with homemade noodles?

I can’t grow enough so I buy these fresh, organic tomatoes by the peck and freeze them for pasta sauce. My sister comes over and we set up an assembly line to process them, similar to what my grandmother did years ago.

Processing Tomatoes for Future Pasta Sauce Goodness

To take advantage of fresh tomatoes during the season, you might want to try our method of processing and freezing. Here is is:

Skin Tomatoes
Have a deep pot of boiling water ready. Drop a half-dozen whole tomatoes into boiling water for 30 seconds, just enough time to loosen up the skin but not cook them mushy. If they float stir very gently to submerge all sides. Then fish them out and put them in ice water to stop the cooking.

Seed and Chop Tomatoes By Hand
We like our tomatoes chunky so we do this part by hand. Cut each tomato in half at the equator (not from stem end to blossom). Hold it over a bowl and squeeze gently to remove the seeds. The skin will slip right off too. Chop the tomatoes to the size you like.

Seed and Chop Tomatoes By Food Mill
My grandma used to make smooth sauce with a tomato strainer food mill. It separates the skin and seeds automatically so it’s a little less work too. If you have a lot of tomatoes to process a good tool is a real time saver.

Cook Tomatoes

Put the seeded, skinned, chopped tomatoes in an empty pot to simmer on low heat for one to one and a half hours. Don’t put water in the pot. The idea is to cook them down a bit before freezing them.

Let the tomatoes cool on the stove then refrigerate them until cold or overnight. Afterwards, measure out one and two-cup portions into sealable sandwich-sized plastic bags, try to get all the air out. Label the bags with the date and put them on a cookie tray to flatten them out. Once they’re frozen, you’ll end up with flat slabs of rich tomato goodness.

This process makes it easy to use great-tasting tomatoes for sauce. Just take out a portion and heat it up to kick start a fabulous sauce!

In the next post, you’ll get my favorite pasta sauce recipe.

Homegrown Tomatoes, the song by Guy Clark

And how about a little music to celebrate the tomato bounty? Guy Clark sings “all winter without ’em is a culinary bummer” and I couldn’t agree more. Hear it from him and other bands that cover the tune…

How to cook noodles perfectly

Three Keys to cook perfect noodles

1) Good tasting, fresh water, about a gallon per pound of noodles. Pasta needs lots of water to keep moving while it boils to prevent sticking and gumminess. Dry pasta absorbs water and swells as it cooks, so you need more water than you might think. Homemade pasta is more tender so it needs space. Noodles will absorb flavor from the water, so use filtered or bottled if your tap water has an off flavor.

2) A big pot. For a pound of pasta noodles you’ll need a 6-8 quart pot, preferably stainless steel, with sturdy handles and a lid. There must be several inches of space at the top to allow a full rolling boil and some foaming without running over.

3) High heat for boiling water — the water must be at a full rolling boil before the noodles go in and quickly returned to a boil after the noodles go in.

You’ll also need a tall spoon to stir the pot, tongs or a long-handled dipping strainer to remove the cooked noodles and something to place them in, or a colander set up to strain the noodles. Have your hot pads at hand to hold and move the pot.

And prepare the sauce before the pasta noodles are done so they can be added immediately. Don’t leave hot, drained noodles sitting or they’ll stick together.

How to cook noodles and pasta

1) Fill the pot with about 6 quarts of fresh water, leave several inches from the top. If you need to make more than two pounds of pasta, use two pots instead of a larger pot. If you’re making just a half-pound of noodles, you can use just 3 quarts of water.

2) Place the pot of water on a burner on high heat and put the cover on to help speed up the heating. Bring the water to a full rolling boil. Add 1-2 tablespoons of salt carefully as the water will boil furiously for a few seconds when the salt goes in. The water should taste slightly but distinctly salty.

3a) Fresh homemade noodles: 1 pound feeds 2-4
Have plenty of boiling water so the noodles aren’t crowded. Keep the water at a full rolling boil while you drop the noodles in as quickly as possible. Right away stir them gently so they don’t stick together and bring the water back to a full boil. Watch and regulate the heat so it doesn’t boil over — oil in the water doesn’t prevent it but may help reduce friction on tender pasta and keep it from breaking up — be prepared to stir or pull the pot off the heat for a moment if it boils up.

3b) Dry noodles: 1 pound feeds 4-6
To rapidly boiling water add 1-2 pounds of dry pasta noodles. If they’re too tall to fit there’s no need to break long pasta noodles like spaghetti; place them into the water long end first and carefully and gently push down. They will soften and bend almost at once. As soon as the noodles are in the water give them a stir to be sure they aren’t sticking together. Cover and bring the water back to a hard boil, stirring as necessary to prevent them from sticking together, then turn down the heat to just keep the water and noodles moving and leave the cover off. Watch and regulate the heat so it doesn’t boil over — oil in the water doesn’t prevent that — be prepared to pull the pot off the heat for a moment if it boils up.

How to tell when the noodles are done:

Just taste a noodle to test whether it’s done. If it’s difficult to judge one noodle, test a mouthful (don’t burn yourself — cool them first.) The longer they cook the softer they’ll get. And they will keep cooking after they come out of the water, so remove them when they feel a little under done or “al dente.” If you plan to finish cooking them in the sauce take them out of the water even sooner. Check the box of dry noodles for recommended cooking times, but only use that as a reference; thinner will cook faster. Fresh homemade noodles may take just a minute or two, unless they’re thick or filled.

Drain the noodles

As soon as the noodles are done they must be removed immediately from the cooking water. The standard method is pouring the whole potful through a colander set in a sink so the noodles are caught and the water drains away. Save a cupful of the cooking water first in case the sauce needs it or the strained noodles sit for a minute and need to be loosened up. If you have a small quantity of pasta in the pot, an alternative is to fish out filled pastas with a long-handled strainer, or tongs work well for a few long noodles.

Add them to your sauce right away and serve. If the noodles are for a cold dish, immediately plunge them in cold water and strain again before chilling or adding other cold ingredients.


Gluten-Free Pasta is a Top Food Trend

Gluten-free pasta has become quite trendy lately. In fact, Jacqueline Mallorca, author of “Gluten-Free Italian” says it’s one of the top five food trends of 2010.

It’s not surprising. A growing number of people are allergic to wheat and even those who aren’t enjoy this pasta, since it’s flavorful and has nutritious value. See my previous post about my first experience trying gluten-free pasta noodles. Overall, it tastes good and it’s good for you. What’s not to like?

Jacqueline Mallorca, who became allergic to wheat later in life, used her cooking and writing skills (she wrote about food for Williams Sonoma, the San Francisco Chronicle and others) to focus on gluten-free cooking. She obviously knows her stuff and offers several recipes on her site.

It’s not traditional pasta, but I am all for this rising trend. For a few gluten-free pasta recipes, visit Jacqueline Mallorca’s site or buy her book.