This simple semolina dough is probably the most basic pasta dough that there is, consisting of nothing more than flour, water, and salt. Its simplicity derives largely from the fact that it does not include eggs, and it isn’t passed through a pasta machine. I find it to be far easier to work with than egg dough, and the pasta it ultimately produces is hearty and rustic but less refined than pasta made from its eggy counterpart. For more on the characteristics of different types of pasta dough, check out this primer.
Semolina is made from a type of wheat called durum. Durum wheat is the hardest wheat of all—not surprising given that its name is the Latin word for “hard.” Because of its hardness, durum is more expensive to grind into a fine flour than other types of grains, hence the coarse, almost-but-not-quite-flour quality of semolina (I use the words ‘semolina’ and ‘flour’ interchangeably here and elsewhere but in the most technical sense this is not correct). It can sometimes be hard to find, but a good quality grocery store with an extensive bulk section will likely carry it. If you can’t find it for a reasonable price locally, there’s usually a good deal or two to be found for semolina on Amazon.
You can substitute all-purpose flour in a pinch, but the dough will be a bit more stubborn to handle, and not quite as supple to shape into pasta. For something like cavatelli or orecchiette, this amps up the difficulty quite a bit, although it can actually make life easier with other, more rigid shapes like strozzapreti.
Knowing a few rules-of-thumb about quantities makes the dough-making process a breeze. In terms of portioning, use about 100g of flour per person if the pasta course is the main dish; if it’s a first course or you’re after a smaller portion, about 50g of flour per person will do.
For moisture content, you’ll want about half as much water as flour by weight. The operative word is ‘about;’ in practice, I find that this produces a dough that’s a tad too wet, so I use a ratio of 105g flour to 50g water as a starting point instead. Various factors—the humidity in the air, the hardness of the water, and the “mood” of the semolina—affect how much water is necessary. It’s fairly easy to get the hang of how much moisture is ideal, so long as you’re careful to add water or semolina in small increments. A few drops of water or a pinch of semolina go a long way.
I start with the following master recipe, and adjust as needed:
- 365g Semolina
- 175g Water
- 1 tsp salt
- Fresh ground nutmeg (optional)
1. Measure out all of the dry ingredients into a small-ish bowl, give it a quick stir with your fingers to start to combine it, and sift it onto a (preferably big, wooden) work surface. Sifting will make the dough come together with a lot less sweat, and if you sift with a wire mesh strainer, you can make a beautiful, flour-bottomed well as you go.
2. Pour the water into the well and, using a finger or two, start swirling little pinches of semolina into the water. I usually make a few gentle passes around the outside of the well, being careful not to “break the damn.”
As you work your way around the rim of the well, gradually work in more and more flour until the wet middle thickens into a paste.
3. Once the water has all been soaked up, it’s time to get all of the muck on the board together into a cohesive ball of dough. Start folding in the rest of the semolina, massaging the wet chunks of proto-dough into the dryer ones. I find it helpful at this point to pick up my trusty board scraper and work with that in my left hand while I handle the dough directly with my right, although the more traditional way is certainly to get both of your hands dirty.
As the dough starts to come together, start to hint at the beginnings of a kneading motion as you pull in the last straggling bits of goo. Once everything has mostly come together into a ball of dough, transition into a full-on knead and keep it going.
4. Open up your can of elbow grease and start to knead that bad boy! You’ll want to knead for about ten minutes in total. At first, the dough will be tight and grainy—don’t overreact and add more water here! Instead, just keep kneading and eventually that residual semolina texture will fade and the dough will smooth. Then, it goes through a phase where it might actually feel too wet. At this point, it’ll have a pockmarked sort-of texture, like so:
Again, don’t over-correct by adding more semolina. Just keep kneading, and it’ll smooth out. From time to time, you may encounter a ball of dough that’s so moist at this point that it starts to stick to the board as you knead. In this situation, go ahead and add a sprinkle more semolina onto the board and knead it into the dough. Conversely, if the dough is still too dry to fully come together even after several minutes of kneading, then go ahead and add a few drops more water. If you’re sticking to the ratios I recommend, however, needing to add more semolina or water as you knead will be the exception rather than the rule.
So keep kneading. Having a good album on as you do this will help with both timing and tempo, and after about two to three songs, the dough should have outgrown both it’s grainy youth and its pockmarked adolescence. At this point it should be smooth to the touch, soft, and pliable. If your arm hasn’t fallen off yet, you might want to knead another minute or two just for good measure—unlike bread dough, you really can’t over-knead pasta dough, so when in doubt keep going. The kneading process takes somewhere around ten minutes in total, give or take a few minutes depending upon how quickly you work.
5. Let the dough rest. This is the easiest step, but it’s also the most time consuming, so make sure you plan for it. The dough needs to rest for a bare minimum of half an hour before you can realistically work with it, although an hour or so is much, much better. This is a great time to prep whatever sauce or sides you’re serving with the pasta.
I cover this dough with an inverted bowl while it rests; most sources say that plastic wrap is the only way to go here, but I think that makes semolina dough in particular a little too gooey. However, if you’re going to let it rest for much more than, say, 90 minutes (and ), you better go ahead and use the plastic wrap—the bowl will let too much moisture out.
Once the dough is finished resting, it’s ready to be shaped. Cavatelli, orecchiette, pici, and even trofie are some of the many possibilities that we’ll explore on this blog in time…