How to Perfectly Pair Pasta and Sauces

Are you curious about how to pair the right pasta sauce with different pasta shapes? This guide explains everything you need to know.

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May 2, 2022 6 min read

With hundreds of pasta shapes available, it can be difficult to keep track of them all or know when to use them. And remembering which type of sauce to pair with each shape brings a whole other level of attention!

While there’s no hard and fast rule on what specific sauce to pair with each pasta shape, following some pairing guidelines can help you create a flavorful and cohesive dish.

Long and Thin Noodles: Spaghetti, Cappellini, Angel Hair

A man smiling and eating pasta from a black bowl

Angel hair with lemon, basil oil-based sauce

Pair with: Marinara, brown butter, and oil-based sauces

Before you reach for a box of spaghetti to pair with your ragú, take note of one of the foundational rules for pasta-sauce pairings – thin pastas pair best with light sauces.

That means pasta shapes like spaghetti, angel hair, and capellini shouldn’t be served with heavy sauces like ragú or creamy mushroom or you risk noodle breakage. Instead, they go well with thin tomato-based sauces like marinara, simple cacio e pepe, or oil and brown butter sauces.

Long and Thick Noodles: Linguine, Fettuccine, Bucatini

Fresh fettuccine alfredo pasta dish in a white bowl

Fettuccine with Alfredo

Pair with: Alfredo or amatriciana

While they still don’t hold up well to heavy meat sauces, thicker pasta shapes such as linguine, fettuccine, and bucatini can handle sauces with a bit more heft.

Try pairing them with a rich, creamy Alfredo or a spicy amatriciana pasta sauce.

Ribboned Pasta: Tagliatelle, Pappardelle

Pasta with meat Sauce and cheese on white plate

Pappardelle with Bolognese

Pair with: Bolognese or ragú

Thanks to their larger surface area, flat noodles like tagliatelle and pappardelle can handle thicker pasta sauces as well as those studded with meats and vegetables.

The wide shape of pappardelle will carry a chunky Bolognese or ragú, and the noodles’ folds will envelop the hearty meat morsels.

Short and Tubular Pasta: Rigatoni, Ziti, Penne

Fresh rigatoni pasta with vodka sauce in a grey bowl on a table

Rigatoni with vodka sauce

Pair with: Ragú, vodka sauce, arrabbiata

Rigatoni, ziti, and penne serve as wonderful vessels for thicker pasta sauce, both chunky and smooth.

Try pairing them with sauces like Sugo alla Norma and ragú, and watch as diners delight in small pieces of meat and vegetables nestled inside of the pasta, rather than slipping off the sides.

Alternatively, these shapes pair well with smooth yet hefty pasta sauces including vodka sauce and spicy arrabbiata.

Miles Mitchell, Escoffier Chief Academic Officer“Your palate and understanding of flavor profiles is something that develops over time. It ties in with learning menu development and recipe development, understanding the seasonality of ingredients and what’s available during a certain time of year.”*
Miles Mitchell, Chief Academic Officer at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts

Twisted Pasta: Rotini, Fusilli, Gemelli

Tan plate with basil pesto pasta

Rotini with basil pesto

Pair with: Pesto, marinara, carbonara

Twisted noodles like rotini and fusilli possess little nooks and crannies that capture and hold the sauce. Therefore, these shapes work well with sauces that contain small bits of meat, cheese, or vegetables – such as pesto, chunky marinara, and carbonara.

They can also serve as a base ingredient in pasta salad and soups, where they mingle with thin dressings or broths and other additions like fresh vegetables or bits of meat.

Shell Pasta: Conchiglie, Orecchiette, Cavatelli

A Glass Bowl Filled with Shell Pasta with Tomato Sauce

Conchiglie with marinara

Pair with: Pesto, marinara, Alfredo

Shell-shaped pasta meshes well with a wide variety of sauces, as long as you consider the size of the shells. Try pairing them with creamy sauces like Alfredo, chunky sauces like Puttanesca, or a smooth marinara. You can also pair them with sauces like pesto or olive oil and garlic sauce, especially if you want to add large pieces of vegetables.

Large and Wide Pasta: Lasagne, Manicotti, Large Shells

Lasagna with beef bolognese sauce

Lasagne with bolognese and béchamel

Pair with: Bolognese, béchamel, marinara

If you’re aiming to load your pasta with not only a heavy sauce, but also layers of cheese, vegetables, and meat, wide pasta is your best choice. The biggest decision is figuring out whether you’d prefer stuffed or stacked.

Lasagne noodles let you opt for the stacked method, with alternating layers of pasta, sauce, and filling. One option is to take inspiration from the Emilia Romanga region of Italy and combine sheets of pasta with layers of meaty Bolognese and creamy béchamel sauce. Another possibility involves keeping the béchamel sauce but swapping the meat sauce for layers of sautéed spinach and fresh mozzarella.

For a stuffed option, you can turn to large shells or manicotti. Try filling them with a blend of ricotta, mozzarella, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses and then topping them with marinara sauce.

Stuffed Pasta: Ravioli, Tortellini, Tortelloni

 Tortellini covered in tomato sauce

Tortellini with marinara sauce

Pair with: Marinara or brown butter sauce

When you’re pairing most types of pasta and sauce, your main concern is aligning the texture of the two ingredients. However, stuffed pasta brings another element: flavor.

Not only do filled pastas like tortellini, ravioli, tortelloni provide a chewy pasta texture, but they also carry a unique flavor that varies depending on their specific fillings.

When it comes time to pair these pasta shapes with a sauce, an understanding of flavor is key. Culinary students at Escoffier dive into flavor profiles by exploring components including taste, mouthfeel, and aroma. Even if you’re not a culinary professional yourself, it’s helpful to keep these details in mind when pairing stuffed pasta with sauces.

Some tried-and-true combinations include mushroom-filled ravioli with a brown butter sauce and spinach, or a ricotta tortellini in a simple yet bright marinara.

Explore the Balance of Flavor and Texture

Understanding pasta sauce and shape pairings is just one example of the work that goes into creating balanced, aesthetically pleasing dishes.

If you’d like to further explore the world of taste, texture, and aroma, you may enjoy an advanced culinary education. Learn more about our Culinary Arts programs and online cooking classes to see if they could be for you.

To learn more about culinary arts, check out these articles next:

This article was originally published on April 6, 2015, and has since been updated.

*Information may not reflect every student’s experience. Results and outcomes may be based on several factors, such as geographical region or previous experience.

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