Kitchen Tips

How to know which sauce to serve with different types of pasta

Transform your Italian cooking with this guide to pairing the right sauce with the right type of pasta. We break down what makes a pasta dish authentic and delicious, plus how you should really be making spag bol (hint: you shouldn't).

By Alex Blackwood
There are over 350 different pasta shapes in the world, and though Kiwis are very happy with their spaghetti Bolognese, spaghetti isn't actually the best pasta to go with a Bolognese sauce.
If you love your spaghetti, or your penne or your spirals, and would rather stick to your go-to, that's fine. But if you'd really like to enhance your pasta experience and try each pasta shape with the sauce it was made for, read on.
For the rest of you, the spag bol fans, look closely when you next sit down to a plate of it. Look at the way that your Bolognese sauce doesn't quite cling to the noodles. Notice how you find yourself eating alternate mouthfuls of sauce and pasta and that there is never quite an equal amount of meat and noodle in a bite, and how the texture of spaghetti's rounded tube shape doesn't work that well with the meat…
Then come back to this article and give fettuccine or pappardelle a go with your favourite sauce. I promise you, you'll notice the difference.

Matching types of noodles to different sauces

Fettucine can be up to six millimetres wide. Think of them as medium thickness noodles that go well with medium-thickness sauces. Though fettuccine is made with egg and flour like most pasta, you can often find fettuccine made with spinach or squid ink in the dough which can lend flavour and colour to your dishes.
Linguine is very similar to fettuccine but is slightly thinner, at four millimetres across, making it slightly wider than spaghetti. And while fettuccine is flat, and spaghetti is round, the cross section of a linguine noodle is elliptical, which makes for an interesting texture and elegant presentation. In Italian, the word linguine means little tongues, referencing the fact that the noodle's unusual shape helps thinner sauces cling to it, working well with creamy, buttery or seafood-based sauces.
Not for the faint-hearted, this octopus dish works best with the thin and elliptical shape of linguine.
Pappardelle and tagliatelle are flat and thick egg noodle pastas that look like fettuccine, but much wider. Tagliatelle is up to a centimetre wide while strands of pappardelle are two to three centimetres across, so there is plenty of pasta to sink your teeth into. The width of these wider strands means they go well with thicker, heavier, chunkier sauces. The wider the noodle, the chunkier the sauce it should be matched with, so try tagliatelle with Bolognese and pappardelle with ragù. It works because the wider noodles catch the sauce, while the spaghetti noodles would just allow the sauce to slide past and onto the plate.
Spaghetti is the most famous of the thin, round noodles, with spaghettoni being a thicker version and capellini, or vermicelli, a thinner version. They all serve the same purpose, but the variations can be an exciting twist on the classic. Spaghettoni takes longer to cook and capellini shorter, but all are traditionally served with simple, thin and sticky sauces like Amatriciana or carbonara that don't have much chunkiness to them.
Bucatini is similar to spaghetti but is thicker and hollow in the centre. This is genius because it allows thin sauces and broths to get right inside the noodle, infusing the pasta with flavour.
Mafaldine are wide noodles with ruffled edges on both sides that present beautifully on a plate and are suited for delicate sauces. Their shape creates an interesting texture and allows them to sit well with larger foods like prawns.
Carbonara matches beautifully with spaghetti or other thin, round noodles.

Different tube pastas and how to serve them

Penne are a common tube shaped pasta with ridges on their exterior and diagonally cut ends that make them ideal for catching most sauces. They are large enough that a thicker sauce can get through them so they work well in pasta bakes, while their bite-sized scale also makes them a great addition to salads. Mostaccioli is similar to penne but an un-ridged version, while rigatoni has straight-cut ends where penne ends are diagonally cut.
Ziti and tubini are the non-diagonally cut, smooth cousins of penne. Their smoothness offers an alternative feel to the ridged tube pasta varieties, working well in casseroles but not holding on to sauce as effectively in traditional pasta dishes.
Cannelloni are very large tubes that are often stuffed and used in casseroles, or even-layered and used as sheets in a lasagne-style dish. Using stuffed tubes instead of sheets makes for neat serving and presentation.
Calamarata tubes are large and narrow like squid rings. That's no coincidence, as they are designed to be served with seafood and go well with light, thin sauces that go with fish, squid and prawns. Calamarata are often dyed black with squid ink for an extra interesting look and flavour.
Penne is perfect for pasta bakes, as their hollow shape holds well to thicker sauces.

How to cook different types of tiny pasta

Ditalini is the tiniest variety of tube pasta. They combine the way that tubes incorporate flavour all the way through with tiny pastas' ability to absorb flavour and act as rice or a grain-like part of a soup.
Acini di Pepe are small grain-like balls of pasta – the name translates to "peppercorn" and looking at them, you can see why. Their texture makes them great for salads or soups.
Stellini, or pastina, is a tiny star-shaped pasta that works well as a way to incorporate pasta into soups and broths. They add texture and a pretty visual element.
Orzo is pasta's answer to rice, with longer, flatter, grain-like pieces of pasta whose name literally means 'barley'. Unsurprisingly, orzo goes well in dishes that would suit a grain. The pieces absorb flavour well and lend themselves to being sautéed in butter or mixed with peas then topped with cheese.
Orzo is a filling, flavour-absorbing addition to this pork, silverbeet and feta dish.

Cooking different pasta shapes with different sauces

Conchiglie translates literally to 'shells,' and they are in fact shell-shaped pasta. Like real shells, they come in all shapes and sizes, from very tiny to generous, cup-like sizes. They add a theatrical element to seafood dishes. Their shape allows them to cup sauce and the ridges on their exterior allows sauces to stick to them.
Orecchiette means little ears, which they do indeed look like. They are cuplike, but thicker than shells and their sturdier structure means they are balanced against thicker, chunkier sauces or salads.
Fusilli and rotini are both tightly-wound, corkscrew-shaped pastas, with rotini being a tighter wound shape. They hold medium-thickness sauces well in dishes with an equal ratio of sauce to pasta pieces.
Farfalle are the ones you might know as bow ties. Their fancy looking shape makes them great for pasta salads but also makes them perfect for holding onto a wide variety of sauces. There is also a smaller, round-ended version called farfalline and an even smaller version called corbata that is small and dainty enough to be a great pasta for soups.
Conchiglie makes serving easy and presentation beautiful in this spinach and ricotta pasta bake.

The best ways to serve pasta dumplings

Tortellini are a pasta dumpling folded in half to hold in their filling, then around into a ring. These dumplings are fantastic for holding a bigger, chunkier sauce as their round shapes hug the sauce and cling to it.
Ravioli are flat pasta dumplings made by pressing two flat squares, or occasionally circles, of pasta together around a filling. Their flat shape means they go better with simpler, thinner sauces - coating the ravioli pasta without needing to cling to the slippery bundle.
Gnocchi is an interesting addition to this list because they aren't necessarily made of pasta. They can be made of egg, potato, cheese, breadcrumbs and more, and are often flavoured with herbs and vegetables, or even prunes or cocoa for a sweet twist on a savoury dish. Think of them as a delicious compromise between pasta and something else, because although they are in the pasta family, they are quite different to the tooth.
Pair this homemade chicken and pesto ravioli with a delicious thin and simple sauce.