Penne is the Italian word for quill, which describes the pointed, tubular shape of penne pasta. The word "rigate" means "ridges" in Italian, and describes penne with a grooved surface. Macaroni, usually elbow macaroni, is a smaller, tubular pasta best known as the star of macaroni and cheese.
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Penne and penne rigate are part of the macaroni, or maccheroni, pasta family. While related to long pastas, such as spaghetti and fettuccine noodles, macaroni and penne are classified as tubular, because they are cut from long, hollow sections of pasta. Pastas from this family can be used interchangeably in any dish calling for shaped or tubular pasta.
Know Your Shapes
Elbow macaroni is curved, as its name implies, and the ends are cut bluntly and straight across. Whether smooth or grooved, the ends of penne rigate noodles are cut diagonally, creating small, curved points at each end. A piece of elbow macaroni measures roughly 3/4 inch long, while a piece of penne pasta is about 1 1/2 inches long. Elbow macaroni takes eight to 10 minutes to cook, while penne and penne rigate take nine to 13 minutes. Use the shorter cooking times to cook these pastas to the al dente, or still chewy, stage. Remember also the pastas will be cooked more if you're making a soup or baked pasta dish.
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You can substitute elbow macaroni for penne rigate without affecting the flavor. A cup of elbow macaroni contains more individual noodles than a cup of penne rigate, so a single serving of a dish made with penne rigate may appear to contain less pasta and more sauce, as it will be composed of fewer noodles. Based on volume, the ratio of pasta to sauce is relatively the same whether you use penne rigate or macaroni elbows.
Keeping It in the Family
Any tube-shaped pasta can be used instead of penne rigate, as they're all types of macaroni. These include mostaccioli, 2-inch-long, smooth or ridged tubes that resemble penne; rigatoni, which are broader than penne and cut straight rather than diagonally; and ziti, long thin smooth or ridged tubes with blunt ends. Like penne, these different macaroni take well to many kinds of sauces or thick salad dressings and can also be used in casseroles and soups.