Pasta Buying Guide – Italian Pasta

Have you ever had one of those weeks where you just seem to be off your cooking mojo?  Well, this is my week!  I tried a new recipe the other night and it just didn’t turn out like I had hoped. While it highlighted our wonderful summer vegetables; heirloom tomatoes, summer squash, lemon, and green beans the fettuccine was left tasting flat, as if it were an afterthought. I can picture a room full of chefs standing around the island in the test kitchen, enjoying the amazing bounty the summer garden has to offer. One chef realizes that, basically, they have a summer salad or side dish, but are supposed to be coming up with the main meal. They exchange glances, “What are we going to do?” It’s finally decided, just add pasta! Except, just adding pasta did not work in this scenario. So, I’m going to tweak it a little and see if I can come up with something that will meet my Serves4 expectations. This flop, however, motivated me to do a little research on pasta and cooking it. This is a breakdown of buying the right type of pasta. The next installment will be about cooking it. Salud!

When doing your weekly shopping at the local market, you will notice two basic pasta choices: dried (such as Barilla) or fresh (such as Buitoni). As these two type of pasta are made differently, they also handle sauces differently. Dried is made from high-protein durum wheat flour. This allows it to cook up springy and firm. Dried pasta is best suited for thick tomato and meat sauces and concentrated oil based sauces. Fresh pasta is generally made from a softer all-purpose flour and is more delicate than dried. Fresh pasta is well suited with dairy-based sauces.

Pasta has come a long way in the last several years. You will find that dried pasta is no longer gummy and bland. Cooking to al dente allows dried pasta to retain some chew, but is not gummy or hard at the center.

Fresh pasta is made from pasteurized egg and can be found packaged to avoid spoilage in the refrigerator section. It’s very easy to over cook fresh pasta, so be sure to keep an eye on it. Drain the pasta a few minutes before al dente and return it to the pot with sauce for a few minutes to continue cooking. Fresh pasta being slightly underdone allows it to absorb the flavor from the sauce and the pastas starchiness will help sauce thicken.

Whole wheat and and grain pastas have not come as far. Generally, wheat pasta cooks up gummy, grainy, or lacking the rich wheat flavor you’d expect. While pasta made from spelt has a pleasant earthy flavor, pastas made from corn, rice, and quinoa tends to have a shaggy, mushy texture and strange flavors. If you are brave enough to still try one of these pastas, cook as you would dried pasta.

I always thought cooking pasta was one of the easiest tasks in the kitchen. Just boil water, dump it in, and wait. Perfect pasta, though, takes a little more attention than that. Stay tuned, we’re going to go over finessing pasta next.

PS – This is the recipe that didn’t turn out.  Looks good.  Tastes kind of bland.


*Derived from Cook’s Illustrated

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