Semolina pasta is made from an eggless pasta dough used to make hand-rolled cavatelli, orecchiette, and many more shapes traditional to Southern and Central Italy. Here's how to make it.
In 2020, I spent week after week learning a new handmade pasta shape, from chewy cavatelli to delicate farfalle. Along the way, I picked up many tips, techniques, and learnings about traditional homemade pasta that I'm very excited to share with you.
Semolina pasta is easy and delicious, plus you DON'T need a pasta maker or any other special equipment!
Why This Recipe Works
Most eggless* semolina doughs have a short list of ingredients (flour and water; sometimes salt and olive oil) and the ratio tends to stay the same (a 1:2 ratio of water to flour). What really separates great pasta is the technique.
I've spent lots of time making homemade pasta dough, teaching workshops, and even recipe testing for an upcoming pasta cookbook. I've made tons of mistakes along the way, and I've learned so much.
If this is your first time making pasta, don't be afraid! I'll guide you as smoothly as possible through every step of the way, from perfecting the dough to hand-forming shapes and storing the pasta. And I'll answer all of the most common troubleshooting questions. The best part? Semolina doughs do NOT require a pasta machine or special equipment - let's do this!
* This recipe focuses specifically on traditional semolina dough from Southern Italy made only from semolina flour and water. While some egg pasta shapes, such as fettuccine or tagliatelle, include semolina flour for added chew, I won't be covering that style of pasta here!
Notes & Caveats
- There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of pasta shapes. I spent 3 months on this project, but others have spent decades doing so! Where possible, I provide additional links to resources if you’d like to learn from the masters.
- This guide is for fresh pasta dough – for a guide on cooking dried pasta and/or inspiration for sauces to pair with your pasta, see my How to Cook Pasta Properly: A Guide.
A Quick History
As I said, there are SO many unique pasta shapes across Italy. And what's interesting to me is how much each pasta shape can tell us about the history and culture of the country during the time it was created.
Semolina dough likely originated from Southern and some areas of Central Italy. In my research, I came across a few interesting facts I'd love to share sourced from the Encyclopedia of Pasta, which outlines the history of every known pasta shape:
- Over many centuries, pasta shapes spread from one region to another for various reasons. One such reason was from seasonal migrant farmworkers, who "carried knowledge of new foods back and forth" (Encyclopedia of Pasta). Additionally, specialty artisans, who moved from one person to another, spread wisdom to each new person they worked under.
- Some areas, however, were so insular that a particular shape became localized to that specific region.
- Cavatelli, a popular semolina-based pasta shape, was originally from Italy's Molise and Puglia regions. Now you can find it across Southern Italy, albeit with different names. Cavatelli likely originated from the simplest form of pasta dough known as "gnocco", a simple dough made from flour and water. Historically, it was made with many different types of flour, including fava beans, whole wheat flour, and grano arso (burnt wheat).
- Pasta making started in the family kitchens, then eventually moved to workshops in the mills. Large batches of dough were kneaded by the men, by foot. The women would hand-knead and shape the dough into individual pieces. The process was very labor intensive (and expensive) until relatively recent technology allowed for automation.
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Perfecting the Dough
Orecchiette, gnocchetti sardi, and cavatelli are all examples of pasta shapes made with simple ingredients, namely semolina flour and water. Traditionally, these doughs use a 1:2 ratio of water to flour; very few versions require eggs, though some include olive oil.
Doughs must be kneaded for at least 5 minutes, often up to 20 minutes, to form enough gluten and yield a toothsome, al dente product. As a result of a longer kneading process, you'll also want to rest your dough for at least 30 minutes, ideally an hour. The rest time helps the gluten relax, so the dough is easier to work with (otherwise, it can spring back and resist stretching).
Flour: Flour is a vital component in pasta making. Kneading flour with a liquid (eggs or water) allows the gluten to form from the proteins in the flour. This gluten formation creates the characteristic slightly stretchy, elastic texture in pasta.
- Semolina Flour: Semolina flour is made by milling hard durum wheat flour with higher protein and a characteristic pale yellow color. Because of its coarse nature, it's most often used for dusting (to keep pasta from sticking to itself) or for adding a chewy bite to the pasta. Some pasta recipes call for semolina flour, but most will call for a finer ground (labeled as 'semola' or 'durum wheat flour') for a smoother dough.
- Semola Rimacinata Flour: Semola rimacinata is made by grinding semolina even further into a finer ground. In addition to being higher in protein and adding a bit of chew, its rougher texture allows sauces to get trapped and cling to the noodles. This is the flour I recommend for eggless doughs, and my favorite brands are Antimo Caputo and Molino Grassi.
tl;dr: The type of flour you use matters. While you can make semolina-based shapes (ex: cavatelli) with 00 flour or even all-purpose flour, the texture will be significantly different. For best results, use semolina/semola, which adds bite, chew, and strength to the dough, while all-purpose will be softer and gummier.
Water: I recommend lukewarm or warm water for making the dough, which makes semolina dough easier to knead, especially because of its slightly coarser nature.
Salt (optional): Optionally, you can add a pinch of salt to the dry ingredients to season the pasta. I don't find this is strictly necessary, as long as you generously season your pasta water, but it's easy enough to do!
How to Make Semolina Pasta Dough
Note: I'm using strawberry-dyed water for this pasta dough, but the process and ratio are the same if you use regular water!
Step 1: Measure out your flour(s) into a large mixing bowl. Water has a thinner consistency than eggs, so I like to use a bowl instead of a cutting board to prevent leakage. Make a well with your fist (or a glass) in the center of the flour. Add the water (or liquid) into the well. In a circular motion, mix the flour into the center of the well with your hands or a fork.
Step 2: Begin incorporating more and more of the flour into the well, whisking with the fork until the liquid in the well starts thickening. Once thick and pasty, place the fork down and start hand-kneading.
Alternate between incorporating more of the remaining flour and kneading until a shaggy dough forms. A bench scraper is a helpful tool for picking up any scraggly bits from the work surface and your hands.
Step 3: Once in a solid mass, transfer the dough to a clean work surface. Now you're going to start kneading. Dig the heel of your hand into the dough, stretching it outwards, then rotate the dough counterclockwise at 45 degrees. Continue kneading until the dough is soft and smooth, about 15 to 20 minutes. Yes, that long. This dough is much higher in protein than egg dough, and it needs a lot more kneading time to build enough gluten and yield a chewy, toothsome texture.
In the past, when I've kneaded the dough for less than 20 minutes, I've found the pasta takes much longer to cook and doesn't have the right chewiness. You can see the difference visually in the grid below.
Step 4: Let the dough rest, covered, for at least one hour, up to 2 hours, at room temperature to allow the gluten to relax and the dough to hydrate. You can keep it in the fridge, wrapped tightly, for 1-2 days but I prefer to roll it out the same day.
Step 5: Cut and shape the dough according to your desired shape.
How to Make Colored Dough
As you can see in the example above, I used a pink juice, made from strawberries instead of water. You can experiment with different colored liquids by replacing the water 1:1 with the colored liquid (assuming it has the same consistency as water; if it's a puree, you'll need to add more water to adjust).
Spices: Sometimes, I’ll add spices to my dough adding a “speckled” look. Add any spices you’d like to the flour before making the well, such as black pepper or paprika.
Examples of Natural Dyes for Pasta Dough
- Red: cranberries, beets, pomegranate, tomato
- Orange: carrots, sweet potato, paprika, tomato powder
- Yellow: pasta dough will naturally be yellow from the semolina and/or egg yolks, but for more yellow color, you can use turmeric or yellow beets
- Green: spinach/kale/collards
- Blue: red cabbage, butterfly pea
- Purple: blueberries, blackberries
- Pink/Magenta: strawberries, raspberries, red beets
- Black: squid ink, black sesame
- Brown: cocoa powder, coffee
How to Make Colored Water
There are numerous methods online to make colored water/juices for pasta, but here are my favorite tips:
- If you have a juicer, it's the fastest way to get a colored liquid. I've juiced fruits like strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, etc. Beets or spinach also work.
- An alternative way to make juice is to submerge a vegetable like cabbage or spinach in a pan with water and then boil it until it releases a bit of coloring. Then blend the water and vegetables until smooth. Strain through a fine mesh sieve and store in an airtight container or Ziploc bag.
Storage: You can freeze these liquids for up to 3 months and thaw them in the fridge (or quickly defrost in the microwave) whenever you want to add them to the dough.
How to Make Pasta Shapes
Most semolina-based cuts follow a similar process, outlined below:
- Cut off a 2-inch wide chunk of the dough, keeping the rest wrapped tightly in plastic wrap.
- Roll the chunk into a thin rope (between ¼-inch to ½-inch in diameter).
- Cut the rope into ¼-inch to 1-inch pieces.
- Hand roll and shape each piece according to the shape you're looking to make.
- Store on a semolina-dusted baking sheet and repeat with the remaining sections of dough.
Looking for shape inspiration? I have a recipe for handmade orecchiette and gnocchetti sardi (malloreddus). I also recommend Pasta Social Club's recipe collection, which has a variety of shape tutorials.
Storing Pasta Dough:
I generally prefer not to store pasta dough, as the color/texture can change slightly, but if necessary, you can refrigerate it for up to 24 hours after wrapping tightly in plastic wrap.
Storing Handmade Shapes:
Fridge: Keep shapes on a baking sheet generously dusted with semolina flour. Make sure none of the pasta sticks to one another. Cover with plastic wrap and keep in the refrigerator for 1-2 days max.
Freezer: Freeze on a semolina-dusted baking sheet until hardened, at least one hour. Then transfer the pasta shapes to an airtight container or sealed bag for up to one month.
- If you don't have space to do the initial freeze on a baking sheet, you can freeze them in an airtight container/bag but make sure they're generously dusted, or they'll stick to one another.
For both of these methods, there is no need to thaw before cooking. Instead, you can add them straight into the boiling water.
While kneading: Sprinkle a small amount of additional flour (about 1 teaspoon) over the dough; continue kneading, and adding extra flour as needed until the dough becomes more manageable.
After resting: For semolina dough, if it’s a little bit sticky, it’s okay — this dough dries out somewhat quickly as you’re making shapes, so it may still be workable. If very sticky, sprinkle a bit of flour on the dough, and knead for a couple of minutes. Allow the dough to rest for 10 minutes, then try working with it again.
While kneading: Sprinkle a little water (about 1 teaspoon) at a time while kneading until the dough becomes more manageable. If you have a spray bottle, that works well. And note, dry bits are different from your overall dough being too dry. If you have small dry bits, and you’re at the beginning of the kneading phase, they may very well get incorporated. If you’ve been kneading for a while, you can scrape those bits off and set them aside.
After resting: Always make sure you’re wrapping any unworked dough tightly in plastic wrap. That said, the dough can dry out easily. To moisten the dough, spray with a spray bottle or run your hands under water.
You will be able to get the hang of this the more you practice. The dough ball will generally be quite smooth — there shouldn’t be any dry bits on the surface. It should feel tacky, but not sticky.
Did you try this recipe? I would love to hear your feedback! Be sure to rate the recipe and leave a comment below.
For even more cozy recipes, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter.Happy eating! Love, Karishma
Homemade Semolina Pasta Dough (Eggless Recipe)
- Large Mixing Bowl
- Wooden Cutting Board or Large Work Surface
- Spray Bottle, optional
- Plastic Wrap
- 320 g semola rimacinata flour
- 160 ml water, plus more as needed
- To a large mixing bowl, add flour. Using your fist or a small glass, form a well in the center of the flour. Add the water into the well.320 g semola rimacinata flour, 160 ml water
- Using a fork, begin incorporating some of the flour into the liquid, stirring to combine. Begin incorporating more and more of the flour into the well, whisking until the liquid in the well starts thickening.
- With your hands or a bench scraper, alternate between incorporating more of the remaining flour and kneading the dough in the bowl.
- Knead the dough until it comes together into a rough, shaggy mass, then transfer the dough to a wooden surface or countertop, about 2 to 3 minutes.
- Continue kneading, for about 15 to 18 minutes, until the dough feels soft, tacky (but not sticky or dry), and almost perfectly smooth. As you knead, there may be a few small, dry bits that won't incorporate into the dough; you can discard them.Note: The key here is ensuring the dough is soft, but not dry or sticky at all. As you continue kneading, the flour will continue to hydrate and come together into a smoother ball.
- If the dough still feels sticky after several minutes of kneading, add a teaspoon of flour at a time until it’s become more smooth and soft. Conversely, if the dough feels slightly dry (which can happen in drier climates), you can gently mist it or lightly wet your hands.
- Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and allow it to rest at room temperature for one hour (up to 2 hours). This resting time will relax the gluten and smooth out the dough further.
- Roll out the dough as needed according to your desired shape.