How to Use Leftover Pasta
How much pasta is enough pasta? All of the pasta!
There are eight portions of pasta in a one-pound package — the typical retail unit. Although I am usually feeding just my family of four I always boil up the whole thing. Not because we are gluttons (although, I have to admit, we often go through a bit more than our share) but because I know that there are so many ways to use up those left over noodles that cooking that little extra will give me a running start on the next round of meal prep.
To make sure that I leave my options open, I’m always careful to keep some of the drained pasta in reserve. I don’t toss it all with the sauce that I am making. Naked noodles are the most versatile. They can be used in all kinds of dishes from a satisfying breakfast to an Asian inspired dinner. They might even wind up in my dessert.
Storing Leftover Pasta
How you store your leftover pasta greatly impacts its quality. Before you pack it away, be sure to rinse the noodles under cold running water to wash away the free starch that coats cooked pasta. This will help it from becoming gooey or clumpy. Just stick your colander under the faucet and give the pasta a good swish. Then set it aside to drain. After that, it’s a good idea to coat the pasta with a thin veil of oil as a further clumping inhibitor and to keep it from absorbing any excess moisture which will make it soft. Just add a tablespoon or two of neutral flavored oil, such as organic canola, and give your drained pasta a toss. Transfer to an air-tight container or a covered bowl and refrigerate for one to two days.
Although I have seen tips for freezing cooked pasta, I have not had success with it. The noodles take on a gummy, starchy quality that I do not find appealing. And the large amount of freezer space and energy required to store pasta this way does not seem worth it to me. I would much rather use some of the recipes below to enjoy my pasta sooner rather than later.
Upcycling Extra Pasta
Some eaters are fine with reheating their pasta and enjoying it simply, perhaps with a little cheese. There are a couple ways to accomplish this. You can douse the pasta in hot water and drain. Or you can sauté it lightly in butter or olive oil until it is heated through. Toss with a little butter, if you haven’t used it in the reheating, and top with a grating of cheese for an easy side dish or after-school snack.
I prefer to camouflage my second day noodles a bit. Here are a few ideas for upcycling an often-tossed ingredient into a whole new meal.
Go Soft or Add Crunch
Pasta that has been refrigerated is softer than freshly cooked but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. You can use it in recipes that favor appealingly tender pasta, such as baked casseroles. A simple recipe might be to stir together any leftover sauce, a few scoops of ricotta or a splash of cream, add any other little leftover tidbits you have (cooked vegetables or meat, a handful of sliced olives or cherry tomatoes, for example) toss it with your noodles, top with cheese and bake until brown and bubbly. Individual mac and cheese casseroles would be another idea.
Or, you can go in the opposite direction and crisp up the texture of your pasta. St. Louis-style Fried Ravioli are dipped in egg wash, dusted with bread crumbs and deep fried — the crunchy coating would certainly compensate for a softer bite. You can also add your noodles to a frittata, where a pleasingly crunchy crust will emerge after its turn in the oven.
Frying up a bowl of lo mein-esque noodles, recipe below, is a great way to add a lot of flavor to the dish. Like fried rice, stir-fried pasta is not only a great receptacle for leftovers, it works better with starch that doesn’t come straight off the flame. Chilling the starchy noodles helps them maintain their shape and texture in the dish so they don’t become a gummy lump.
A big bowl of warm, comforting Pasta e Fagioli — literally pasta and bean soup — will put your extra noodles to work. But any soup can be made hardier (and more economical) by adding in a few handfuls of belly-filling, portion stretching leftover pasta. Everything from simple Tomato Soup to simmering Sausage and Escarole would be made better with a few noodles bobbing in it. And, of course, you can’t make Chicken Noodle without them.
You can use any pasta shape in soup. Just chop strand pasta, such as spaghetti, so that it doesn’t get unwieldy in the eating. Ravioli and tortellini are winners here, too. In fact, if you have some nice homemade chicken broth in your freezer, you can turn out a simple, elegant bowl of Tortellini en Brodo in no time at all. Just sweat an onion in a little oil until translucent, add your stock and a pinch of salt and pepper and bring to a simmer, add any leftover tortellini and reheat for about a minute, divide between bowls and top with shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Done.
The key to adding cooked noodles to soup is to do so right at the end. They only take a minute or so to reheat in the broth. Any more than that and they will be over-cooked. So don’t let them linger.
Leave it Cold
The easiest way to enjoy leftover pasta is to toss it into cold dishes. Strand pasta, such as spaghetti or fettuccine, make great cold sesame noodles. Just puree some peanut butter, soy sauce, a nob of ginger, maybe a little garlic with some neutral flavored oil, such as organic canola, and toss with your noodles. Add a little hot sauce, some minced cilantro or a sprinkle of sesame seeds if you like.
Salad bar pasta salads are rarely a treat, but that doesn’t mean this dish is doomed. Update your pasta salad with modern flavor. First, lose the mayonnaise. There’s something about even the sound of noodles in mayo that’s unsettling. Instead, make a fresh vinaigrette and be sure to punch up the ratio of oil to vinegar from 4:1 to one third vinegar to two thirds oil so the bland noodles take on a lot of flavor. Next, add some super tasty additions — again working against pasta’s blank slate — perhaps some sliced olives, capers, slivers of sun-dried tomatoes in oil, smoked cheese, lemon zest, minced garlic, handfuls of fresh herbs, nuts for crunch. Throw in some protein — maybe some cooked chicken, sustainable seafood, or beans and add whatever vegetables you have on hand cut into a small dice. Toss, season and serve.
Go All Out
Or you can bake your pasta into a giant Timpano, the show-stopping dish featured in the movie “Big Night.” Make a party of it! You’ll impress your friends, fill your belly and enjoy every last bite!
Save it for Dessert
You can also turn your leftover pasta into dessert. Noodle Kugel is a traditional Jewish dish made from a creamy egg custard, often flavored with cinnamon and studded with raisins. It most often features egg noodles but you could substitute other shapes as well.
Recipe: Upcycled Asian Noodles
Strand pasta, such as fettuccine or linguine, would be more typical here but you can use any shape — even orzo — in this quick dish. You can also use it to put to use any leftovers you have on hand — extra vegetables, cooked meat or fish, a few squares of firm tofu would all work really well here. Don’t be shy with flavors here — cold pasta can be bland and a good amount of heat and flavor will wake it up.
2 tablespoons soy sauce, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil (optional)
2 tablespoons water or stock
1 teaspoon corn starch
2 tablespoons neutral flavored oil, such as organic canola
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced ginger (about a 1-inch piece)
1-2 cups assorted leftovers such as cooked vegetables, meat, fish or tofu
1-2 cups cold cooked pasta, any shape
In a small bowl, whisk together soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil (if using), water or stock and corn starch and set aside.
Heat 1 tablespoon oil a medium sauté pan until nearly smoking. Add the egg and quickly scramble. Remove the egg from the pan and set aside. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil and sauté onion over medium-high heat until edges begin to brown, about 2-3 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds to one minute. Add leftovers and sauté until heated through and beginning to brown. Stir reserved soy sauce mixture and add to the pan, stirring constantly. The sauce will thicken as it comes to a boil. Add the pasta and stir until all noodles are coated with the sauce and the pasta is heated through, about 1-2 minutes. Adjust seasoning, adding more soy to taste, and serve.
Sherri Brooks Vinton wants you to have a more delicious life. Her writing, talks and hands-on workshops teach fellow eaters how to find, cook and preserve local, seasonal, farm friendly food. To find out more, visit www.sherribrooksvinton.com.