Malik Francis is a biochemist and a chef. He explains the science and magic of noodles.  Malik Francis
Malik Francis is a biochemist and a chef. He explains the science and magic of noodles.  (Malik Francis)

The Science (and Magic) of Egg Noodles

The Science (and Magic) of Egg Noodles

I was a biochemist before becoming a chef. So I write this as a skeptical scientist: A bowl of pasta has an almost magical quality. Hidden in plain sight are layers of flavor, technique, thoughtfulness, science, exploration and love that reveal who we are as cooks.

Making fresh pasta can feel like an intimidating task. Most of us (including this pro) have experienced the awful frustration of fresh pasta gone awry. In fact, the worst night of my culinary career was punctuated by a failed pasta course ruined by a dried, cracked and unsalvageable egg pasta dough. As a result of that public failure, I realized that I had to learn more about the science of pasta1.

So, I share my knowledge and experience from a place of great humility.

Eggs and flour
There's a science behind mixing eggs and flour together to create the perfect pasta. (Malik Francis)

The transformation of flour2 and eggs into a noodle begins with the thoughtful development of gluten. What we think of gluten is a mixture of two protein groups, gliadins and glutenins. Each contribute different but complementary chemical properties to the strength of the pasta dough.

Gliadins provide viscosity and increased extensibility (the stretch of the dough). Glutenins gives the dough elasticity (the ability to return to its original shape after stretching).

fork whisking eggs and flour
Using a fork to whisk eggs can offer some precision and keep eggs within their flour well. (Malik Francis)

To fully exploit the properties of the gluten proteins and the egg’s chemistry, slowly incorporate the flour into the eggs3. I use a fork and pretend I am making a French omelet. After the dough takes on a “Play-Doh” appearance, knead it. The natural rhythm of folding and pushing the dough increases the probability that the gluten proteins will interact with each other and with the ovalbumin protein from the egg. When exposed to the oxidative environment of ambient air, the sulfur containing cysteine amino acids in the gluten and egg ovalbumin protein form disulfide bonds with each other4. These interactions are the basis of the gluten network characteristic of pasta.

fork mixing pasta dough
This is what the dough will look like when all the flour has been incorporated. (Malik Francis)
Ball of pasta dough
The dough should eventually form into a ball like this. (Malik Francis)

As the dough forms a stable but slight dry looking ball, vacuum seal it in a large bag5. This step may seem, unnecessary especially when you consider people have crafted amazing handmade noodle for hundreds of years, but vacuum sealing enhances many of the dough’s chemical and physical characteristics. First, by decreasing the surface tension associated with air, vacuum sealing promotes even and more efficient hydration of the flour granules than kneading alone.

pasta dough ball
When the dough looks like this, it's ready to vacuum seal. (Malik Francis)

Second, the dough’s strength is increased by removing the small air bubbles trapped in the dough. Third, the oxidation of egg yolk’s carotenoids (lycopene, β‐carotene, lutein and vitamin A) is slowed thereby maintaining the dough’s deep golden hue for a longer period of time. And lastly, I really love the additional layers of sheen and silkiness vacuum sealing adds to the final pasta noodle.

Vaccum sealed pasta dough ball
It might seem excessive, but vacuum sealing pasta dough has its scientific and culinary benefits, says Francis. (Malik Francis)

At this point the interlocked gluten and ovalbumin proteins are distributed randomly throughout dough. Rolling out the dough, folding and gradual thinning gives order and direction to the egg-fortified gluten network. If done properly, you can see and feel the rows of gluten form on a smooth silky elastic sheet of dough as it glides over your hands. The science behind an egg noodle is beautiful.

sheeting pasta dough
Malik Francis sheets his pasta dough. (Malik Francis)

When I make this pasta dish at the Materials+Methods pop-up, I start by giving a demonstration on how to make fresh pasta. The demonstration is prelude to sharing my story of how transitioned from away my research science career towards becoming a chef. This dish explores my connection6 with eggs and cheese7 and is a platform to stack additional layers of depth.

bowl of pasta with cheese
A good bowl of pasta comes down to ingredients. (Malik Francis)

Fettuccinii hits a nice sweet spot: Thin enough to twirl, but wide enough to carry the eggy sauce along for the ride. Woven throughout the dish is smoke flavor layered in the form of smoked egg yolks9, slow rendered bacon10, and charcoal-activated Cyprus flake salt. When grated over the pasta, the egg yolks and bacon supply a subtle umami-rich smoke flavor that enhances the pasta’s egg flavor.

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A fruity arbequina olive oil not only prevents the fettuccini from sticking to each other, but also elevates the smoky notes with a subtle fruity heat that cuts through the richness of the egg. A custardy slow-cooked egg adorns the pasta. But it’s the salinity, texture and flavor of the charcoal-activated Cyprus sea salt that unlocks the egg’s rich beauty and unifies the whole dish. The pasta and eggs are covered in a snow of the deliciously nutty Esquirrou, a life-affirming sheep milk cheese from the French Basque region.

Bowl of pasta with a fork
Malik Francis

This egg pasta dish evokes a playfulness. The joy of cutting into the slow cooked egg, and watching the yolk ooze out of it, is paired with the fun of tossing the pasta with runny egg and cheese until it becomes a cohesive slurp.

Beyond the playfulness is an overarching truth: I can passionately pursue my true love of cooking while retaining my identity as a scientist. And as a skeptical scientist, even I would say that’s a pretty sweet magic trick!


1 There are so many “perfect” egg pasta recipes, it can be overwhelming to know where to start. Most all of them are awesome. What I want to stress is that no matter what recipe you choose, focus on developing good technique. Learning how a proper dough should feel and taste. It sounds trite, but there is no substitution for practicing.

 

2 You can make an awesome pasta with any of these flours durum (semolina), AP, and “00”. Durum flour has the highest protein content, and “00” has the lowest. The dough will be enriched and fortified by proteins in the eggs, so obsessing about one over the other is not time well spent. The higher protein content of semolina, does however, allows for hydration with only water.

 

>3 At most restaurants I have worked in, we used a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment, but at home I always employ the well method. Also I find using a scale and the metric measurements gives more consistent results and the are easier to scale or down. A decent scale is affordable, and even if it was not how much would you pay not divide a 1/8 of a tsp in half?

 

>The majority of the protein in the egg white is ovalbumin at about 54% of total egg-white

 

5 Almost any pasta dough can be made better by vacuum sealing. Knead dough until it forms a stable ball then vacuum seal in a large bag. I typically let the dough rest for 4-12 hours before rolling out into sheets. 6 One of the first haute recipes I mastered during grad school was a wonderful gruyere soufflé. It was just me, a whisk, and an amazing community who lovingly ate many of my disasters. And once I started to reproducibly craft successful soufflés, I started hosting dinner parties. Those dinner parties ultimately gave me the confidence to start working in professional

 

6 One of the first haute recipes I mastered during grad school was a wonderful gruyere soufflé. It was just me, a whisk, and an amazing community who lovingly ate many of my disasters. And once I started to reproducibly craft successful soufflés, I started hosting dinner parties. Those dinner parties ultimately gave me the confidence to start working in professional kitchens.

 

7  Alpine cheeses, like schallenberg, hornbacher or chällerhocker, are some of my cherished flavors. They are wonderful on their own, and glorious in a French omelet (I was OCD about mastering those as well).

 

8   I am not an absolutist about the rules of governing pasta and sauce

 

9  Cure egg yolks (find recipes here or here) and cold smoke with cherry or pear wood smoke for 2 hours. It’s important to cold smoke as to not cook the yolks. I will say they are pretty tasty over charred asparagus.

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10  Take a small slab (think like “credit card cut in half” size) from the meaty portion of smoky bacon and slow render it in the oven on low heat until it takes on a caramelized jerky appearance. Cool on a lint-free towel or over a wire rack. When finely grated, this will give you a clean, smoky, umami rich bacon flavor with eating tons of fat, but save the bacon fat anyway.