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Pasta vs. Noodles: Here's How to Tell the Difference

September 29, 2020 4 min read

Pasta vs. Noodles: Here's How to Tell the Difference

Pasta vs. noodles. In reality, is there much of a distinction between these two staple foods? There sure is, but still, there are a lot of similarities!

If you've just discovered the joy of hand-making your own noodles or pasta with a pasta maker at home, then you probably have realized that the preparation technique is very similar. In fact, we often call 'noodles' and 'pasta' and 'pasta' 'noodles,' even though there are quite specific criteria for each.

Both noodles and pasta have different origins, different histories, and different uses in the culinary world. They differ in shape, size, and ingredients, but are still often used interchangeably ( to confuse things further).

Welcome to the world of pasta vs. noodles to discover the differences and similarities between these two staple pantry items!

What is the difference between noodles and pasta?

Are noodles actually pasta? Is pasta a type of noodle? Are the distinctions even significant? These are all questions we've asked ourselves when we're looking at recipes and deciding if we can use the spaghetti in the cupboard instead of going out to buy egg noodles.

We often think of noodles when we think of Asian cuisine and pasta when we think of Italian cooking. It's not quite so simple, however, because we also use the word 'noodle' to describe types of pasta such as 'spaghetti noodles.' The word 'noodle' isn't even of Asian origin; it's thought to derive from an old German word!

Yes, while we will often use egg noodles for stir-fry and spaghetti for a bolognese, there are more fundamental differences that make noodles, noodles and pasta, pasta.

So what, then, is the real difference? It all comes down to the ingredients, rather than whether you're cooking a ragu or ramen!

Egg content is the primary distinction between noodles and pasta. In fact, there are precise criteria that have to be met for a product to be labeled as pasta or noodles in the USA officially. The National Pasta Association (and these guys, if anyone, should know what they are talking about!) defines a noodle as containing at least 5.5 percent egg content.

Pasta, on the other hand, has no minimum egg content. The Italian government, though, will only allow products to be labeled as pasta if they are made from durum wheat, the traditional ingredient of choice for Italian pasta. It's still not so simple, however, because fresh pasta often contains egg. 

How do you make noodles?

Let's take a look at how noodles are made to see what distinguishes them from pasta.

Your typical noodles are long, contain egg, and descended from the original noodles of eastern China. Archeological evidence has shown those noodles date back as far as 4000 BC. Noodles are traditionally hand-pulled, but can also be made using machines, including a pasta maker.

You take a base of flour and add eggs to make a dough. The dough is then flattened out and cut into long, thin strips. Noodles are incredibly varied, though, because the type of flour you use can be milled from a vast range of ingredients. The type of flour that's used will often depend on the geographical location from where the noodle originates.

No definition of noodles is complete without mentioning that there are many different types of noodles. There are as many types of noodles as there are types of pasta! For example, you can make rice noodles from rice flour, buckwheat noodles from buckwheat, or you can make egg noodles from wheat flour and egg.

Noodles can be handmade and cooked fresh or store-bought, dried, or dehydrated. You can fry or boil noodles. You'll find that noodles are the essential ingredient for stir-fries, ramen, noodle soups, and many more delicious dishes!

How do you make pasta?

Pasta is made using a similar process to noodles, though the ingredients differ. The ingredients are perhaps more specific, as pasta should traditionally be produced only from durum wheat.

The durum wheat is ground into a flour and turned into a dough using water and eggs (although modern dried pasta doesn't contain any eggs). The dough is then flattened and cut up into the desired pasta shape.

While noodles are generally long, pasta has many varieties of shapes. The most common variant is the length. Short pasta would be penne or fusilli, while long pasta includes spaghetti and fettuccine. Pasta is often thought to have originated in Italy, as this is the home of many the classic pasta dishes that we enjoy. But, pasta is actually much older than dishes like bolognese or ragu and can be traced back to the Arab world.

We often boil pasta or bake it in the oven (lasagna, for instance). It's rare ever to fry pasta like you would stir-fry noodles, and pasta is more commonly covered in a sauce than part of a soup.

Want to make delicious pasta at home like a pro? Check out this simple step-by-step guide on making homemade pasta from scratch: 

Can I use pasta instead of noodles?

Because they are very similar, it's relatively easy to substitute noodles for pasta. The definition of pasta rather loose, so don't be afraid to get creative. Go crazy and use spaghetti instead of noodles in your stir-fry!

Occasionally, certain dishes will require specific noodles or types of pasta. If you want thick noodles for your ramen, you need to use udon for authenticity, as no pasta is quite that thick. If preparing a cheesy macaroni, then you'll probably pick macaroni for the shape and texture for the sake of tradition.

Ultimately, it's really down to personal taste and choice. Which types of noodles or styles of pasta do you prefer best?

Pasta vs. noodles: is there a winner?

Pasta & noodles have so many subtle similarities and differences that it takes a true connoisseur to tell the difference between certain types when you're preparing dishes at home. Aside from the required egg content of noodles, both pasta and noodles can come in an almost endless variety of shapes and sizes!

There's no real 'winner' as such because both pasta and noodles have their specific uses (and you can often quite easily substitute pasta for noodles). Why not start making your own pasta and noodles at home, to find out if you have a preference?

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