From Season 11: Simply Italian
Update: January 2012
Both of the Heartland whole-wheat pastas we tasted have since been discontinued.
Whole-wheat sandwich bread we get. But whole-wheat pasta? We’ve always found these tan-streaked noodles so mushy, gritty, and overbearingly wheaty that we questioned their place under a blanket of marinara—or most any other sauce. If we wanted to incorporate more fiber into our diets, we would simply bite into an apple.
That’s been our stance for years, and it went unchallenged the last time we tasted a healthy handful of whole-wheat spaghettis in 2005. But the market for alternative strands, spirals, and shells has blossomed since then. Now consumers can choose from a bumper crop of brands made from 100 percent whole durum wheat (the same high-protein variety that’s refined for use in the best white pastas) as well as blends that combine whole durum wheat with varying amounts of the refined stuff. Joining these choices are multigrain pastas engineered from wheat and a hodgepodge of alternatives, such as barley, flaxseed, oats, and spelt. As improbable as some of their ingredients sounded, the sheer number of new choices got us wondering: Would any boast enough complex, nutty flavor and firm, springy texture to actually make us glad we’d reached past the white pasta?
The first order of business was to narrow the playing field. Tasters sat down to an elimination round of 18 spaghettis tossed in olive oil, taking in enough carbs to fuel a marathon. We weren’t surprised when almost half of these pastas were declared inedible. Crimes included a “gummy” texture that was akin to eating “chewed bread” and “ weird” off-flavors that had more in common with “bran cereal” than traditional spaghetti.
That said, even the most diehard traditionalists among us were shocked to find that a few of these newfangled noodles were actually decent—even good. We held two more rounds of tastings, tossing our 10 finalists with marinara sauce, then pesto. Tasters still panned half the pastas, but others brought raves: “Good! Great texture—just like white pasta,” enthused one surprised taster. “Buttery, smooth, yummy,” said another. Several brands in particular triggered the same comment again and again: “Is this really whole wheat?” When we tallied the final scores, we had not just one spaghetti to recommend but three.
How had these three pastas managed to distinguish themselves, when so many of the others were flat-out awful, with textures like “shaggy carpet” or “finely ground sawdust” and “fishy” overtones reminiscent of “stale vitamins”? We turned over the boxes of our winners to inspect their ingredients. Therein lurked the discrepancy: Two out of the three champs were not fiber-rich at all. Despite a label trumpeting “good source of whole grain and fiber,” the fine print of our top-rated brand revealed that refined wheat is its main ingredient. In fact, when we checked with the manufacturer, we found that whole wheat constitutes just 21 percent of its makeup. Our third-place strand was even more of an impostor. Made from refined wheat and a “grain and legume flour blend” that includes ground lentils, chickpeas, and oats, this pasta has plenty of protein—but zero whole grains. No wonder tasters were prompted to ask if these contenders were “really” whole wheat.
Then came the ringer. While most of its 100 percent whole-grain brethren landed toward the bottom of the rankings for “sour” taste and “gritty” texture, one spaghetti boasted the same “chewy,” “firm” bite as the pastas with little or no whole grains. Plus, its particularly pleasing “nutty” flavor was not only compatible with marinara sauce but so “hearty” and “complex” that it enhanced the rustic herb-and-garlic flavors of the pesto. Our tasters ranked it a close second, some even declaring it “more flavorful than white pasta.”
How had this manufacturer succeeded where the majority had failed? To understand, we educated ourselves about processing. For white pasta, the whole-wheat kernel is stripped of its bran and germ, leaving only the neutral-tasting endosperm. Whole-wheat pasta retains all three of these components, typically to the detriment of texture and taste; the fiber-rich bran has the potential to give noodles a sandpapery quality, while the nutrients and oils in the germ are prone to oxidation, leading to fishy flavors. Bran also inhibits the gluten development essential to a strong internal structure, which keeps the pasta firm and chewy when cooked. The bran literally wedges itself between strands of gluten as they form, preventing them from connecting. The result? Mushy pasta.
The manufacturer of our winning pasta seems to have found ways around these obstacles. First, the company claims to ensure good flavor by custom-milling its flour for each production run, so the oil in the germ never has a chance to oxidize and turn rancid. Second, they’ve resisted the trend to replace old-fashioned bronze-lined metal dies with slick Teflon-lined dies that more quickly extrude the pasta paste into different shapes (much like pushing cookie dough through a press). Bronze dies subject the paste to more friction, generating pressure and heat—both of which boost gluten development.
Finally, while most pasta manufacturers quick-dry pasta at high temperatures to speed production, this company opts for a low-and-slow drying method, which it credits with developing complex wheaty flavor. More likely, the benefit of slow-drying lies in the texture of the finished pasta, according to Kansas State University pasta processing expert Sajid Alavi, an associate professor of grain science and industry. Slow-drying at a controlled temperature, he said, will result in pasta strands that resist microscopic cracking and remain more intact during cooking.
At the end of the day, one brand’s superior taste and texture—and the fact that among the top three strands, it alone was the only true whole-grain pasta—convinced us to bump it from second to first place. Will we abandon white pasta altogether? No, but the next time we want robust wheat taste, we’ll know which brand to choose.
Columela Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its big olive aroma, big olive taste with a buttery flavor that is sweet and full, with a peppery finish. One taster said: Its very green and freshlike a squeezed olive. Another simply wrote: Fantastic.
|$19 for 17 oz|
Lucini Italia Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Tasters noted this oils flavor was much deeper than the other samples, describing it as fruity, with a slight peppery finish, buttery undertones, and a clean, green taste that was aromatic, with a good balance. It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have, said one admiring taster.
|$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed round and buttery, with a light body and flavor that was briny and fruity, very fine and smooth, and almost herbal, with great balance. Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it, approved one taster. In a word, pleasant.
|$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
Bertolli Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted overall mild flavor and very little aroma, with only a hint of green olive and a hint of spiciness at the end. In pasta, it was initially not complex, but gradually bloomed in your mouth. Overall, it was worthy of a second bite.
|$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
Filippo Berio Extra Virgin Olive Oil
While some tasters found this oil sweet and buttery with medium body and slight spice at the end, others complained that it had zero olive flavor and was so floral its almost like eating perfume; still others noted a bitter aftertaste. In pasta, it was extremely mild to the point of being boring.
|$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Goya Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were mild and neutral. Some liked it on pasta (though one called it Snoozeville), but complaints were myriad: metallic, soapy, briny, hints of dirt. Carped one taster, I cant imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.
|$13.99 for 1 liter|
Pompeian Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Comments: While some tasters called this oil mild and smooth, others found it thin, greasy and not very interesting. I bet the cooking water had more olive flavor, speculated one taster; could be canolait is so bland, mused another. A few noted an objectionable aftertaste that was soapy, chemical or mentholthink
|$9.99 for 473 ml ($21.12 per liter)|
Botticelli Extra Virgin Olive Oil
While a few tasters liked this potent oil, others said they detected mushroom, rotten walnuts, a Band-Aid wrapped in a cherry blossom, and a quality that was downright medicinalTriaminic, anyone? Several deemed it overpowering and musky, with a rank, off-flavor. Tastes not like olives but like the armpits of olive laborers, shuddered one.
|$10.99 for 1 liter|
Carapelli Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Italy, Greece, Spain, Tunisia, Turkey, Cyprus, Morocco, and Syria Comments: Nothing remarkable herejust greasy, no flavor, summarized one taster. Where did the olive go? said another. This oil was judged to have a kind of rancid aftertaste that was reminiscent of not only soil, tree resin, and ammonia and grass, but even kitty litter smells and a set of sweaty hockey pads.
|$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
DaVinci Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Although this oil won top place in a previous tasting, because olive oil is an agricultural product, it can differ from year to year. This time, tasters found it washed out and muted, if nice, in a totally bland and unremarkable way. Tasted plain, objections ranged from insipid, with no real complexity to tastes like EVOO mixed with vegetable oil.
|$17.99 for 1 liter|
Star Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Origin: Spain, Italy, Greece, and Tunisia Comments: Boring and not very complex, this oil came across as plastic-y and industrial; some hint of olives, but it fades quickly. Tasters identified off-flavors that were unpleasant, dirty, like rubber and metal, with a sour aftertaste, or at least a bit funky, with a strange taste that was spicy, but in a motor oil kind of way. One simply wrote, Blech.
|$11.99 for 750 ml ($15.99 per liter)|