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Using Pastas in Soup

Use the right size, add it near the end of cooking, and you’ll have perfectly cooked pasta that gives delicious body to soup

by Clifford Wright

fromFine Cooking
Issue 32

My first encounter with pasta in soup was alphabets from a can. Even at age seven, I found them mushy and tasteless, appealing only because I could spell my name. But a few decades later, several trips to Italy and some experiments in the kitchen changed my mind about pasta in soup and showed me how delightful it can be if a few simple rules are followed.

 By choosing pasta that’s the right size for the thickness of the finished soup, by cutting ingredients about the same size as the pasta, and by adding the pasta when the soup is just about done, pasta will stay firm and delicious in soup, adding heft and texture to the finished dish.

The lighter the soup, the smaller the pasta

Although there are no strict rules, a good guideline is that the clearer the soup broth and the fewer the ingredients in the soup, the smaller the pasta shape should be. The exception here is stuffed pasta, which is best shown off in simple broths. Because the pasta actually cooks in the broth, it’s a good idea to start with extra broth. Alternatively, if you’re anxious about losing precious broth, cook the pasta separately and add it right before serving.

Tiny pastas, such as stelline, acini di pepe, orzo, and tubettini, are best for brothy soups where the ingredients are diced small, as in the Minestra di Pasta e Piselli. These tiny pastas continue to soak up liquid as the pot sits on the stove, so it’s important to serve the soup as soon as the pasta is cooked. If you don’t want to serve it immediately, turn off the heat and add the pasta later. One more thing about tiny soup pastas: they expand considerably in broth, so you’ll be using a little less pasta than you think you’ll need. Because soup pasta is small, packs densely, and loves to hog all the broth, it makes sense to follow the cup measurements in the recipes starting on rather than eyeballing the quantity and using, say, a quarter of a box. 

Slightly bigger pasta, such as ditalini, macaroni, and tubetti, are good for heftier soups, such as the Pasta e Fagioli. Bigger pasta soaks up broth readily, too, but not quite as quickly as tiny soup pasta does. 

Stuffed pastas, such as ravioli or tortellini, are more delicate and apt to break apart, so they’re best in brothy soups that aren’t chock full of competing ingredients that might poke or tear them. Dice the ingredients to about the same size as the pasta you’re using. Again, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but I think that each spoonful of soup is most pleasing when all the constituents are about the same size.

Points to remember to make pasta taste its best in soup
  • Cut ingredients to about the same size as the pasta for a pleasing spoonful of soup.
  • Time the addition of the pasta so it will be cooked to al dente just as the other ingredients have finished cooking. Photo: Martha Homberg
  • Cook delicate filled pasta like tortellini separately and then add it to the finished soup.
Adding the pasta last means it won't get mushy

For the best-tasting soup, it’s crucial that the pasta stay firm and doesn’t get mushy. But pasta naturally soaks up water, and it will continue to soak up whatever broth it’s sitting in, even after the soup is done. There are a few ways to minimize this.

Before you add the pasta, make sure the soup is almost done. Everything else in the soup should finish cooking in about the same short time that the pasta needs to cook. The best way to check is by tasting. If there are beans in the broth, be sure that they’re almost completely tender before adding the pasta. Then, once the pasta is cooked, take the soup off the heat and serve it right away.

When freezing the soup to eat another time, cook the pasta only halfway. Or, omit the pasta until you’re ready to reheat the soup, which you should do gently to cook the pasta. These recipes are already quite flavorful, so if you need to thin the soup, just add a little water until it’s the consistency you like.

 I like to make my own broth for most soups (including these, where the broth gets full play), preparing a double batch of the chicken-beef broth and freezing some for future use. If you don’t have any homemade broth around, you’ll get good results with College Inn low-sodium canned broth.

Photos, except where noted: Grey Crawford


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