Pasta is typically made from an unleavened dough of wheat flour mixed with water or eggs and formed into sheets or other shapes, then cooked by boiling or baking. Rice flour, or legumes such as beans or lentils, is sometimes used in wheat flour to yield a different taste and texture or as a gluten-free alternative. Pasta is a staple food of Italian cuisine.
Pasta is divided into two broad categories: dried (pasta secca) and fresh (pasta fresca). Most dried pasta is produced commercially via an extrusion process, although it can be produced at home. Fresh pasta is traditionally produced by hand, sometimes with the aid of simple machines. Fresh pasta available in grocery stores is produced commercially by large-scale machines.
Both dried and fresh pasta come in several shapes and varieties, with 310 specific forms known by over 1300 documented names. In Italy, the names of specific pasta shapes or types often vary by locale. For example, the pasta form cavatelli is known by 28 different names depending upon the town and region. Common forms of pasta include long and short shapes, tubes, flat shapes or sheets, miniature shapes for soup, those meant to be filled or stuffed, and specialty or decorative shapes.
As a category in Italian cuisine, both fresh and dried pasta are classically used in one of three kinds of prepared dishes: as pasta asciutta (or pastasciutta), cooked pasta is plated and served with a complementary sauce or condiment; the second classification of pasta dishes is pasta in brodo, in which the pasta is part of a soup-type dish. A third category is pasta al forno, in which the pasta is incorporated into a dish that is subsequently baked in the oven. Pasta dishes are generally simple, but individual dishes vary in preparation. Some pasta dishes are served as a small first course or for light lunches, such as pasta salads. Other dishes may be portioned larger and used for dinner. Pasta sauces similarly may vary in taste, color, and texture.
In terms of nutrition, cooked plain pasta is 31% carbohydrates (mostly starch), 6% protein, and low in fat, with moderate amounts of manganese, but pasta generally has low micronutrient content. Pasta may be enriched or fortified or made from whole grains.