It’s no secret that the pasta aisle at your local supermarket can be a bit overwhelming. Seemingly thousands of packages are there for your perusal, containing different brands, varieties, and shapes of pasta, which are developed using different ingredients and manufacturing techniques in all sorts of places.
It’s a lot to navigate.
This is especially true in specialty stores or even places like TJ Maxx, where the brands may not be easily recognizable. The labels use a variety of words and phrases about these factors that are meant to entice you, but they can be confusing and even contradictory.
You’re just looking for a box of good pasta. What should you concentrate on?
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I did some pasta research (yes, that involved some yummy tastings), and after consulting with pasta experts and food scientists, I compiled a list of factors to pay attention to during your next journey down the pasta aisle.
Here are three common phrases you'll see on the label (no matter the brand!) and how to tell what's important.
"100% Durum Wheat Semolina": Results in Better Texture
Most of the pasta you’ll find on the shelves is made using durum wheat, a hard winter wheat with a relatively high protein content. You’ll encounter two ingredients made from ground durum wheat: semolina and durum wheat flour. The difference is grind size: Semolina is ground somewhat coarsely, and durum wheat flour is more finely ground. Some pasta makers include durum wheat flour because it’s cheaper to use, but it can cause cooked pasta to have a gummy texture. We suggest sticking to pasta made with 100% durum wheat semolina.
Italian pasta is made from durum wheat. When the wheat is coarsely ground, it's called semolina (left). When it's ground to a finer consistency, it's called durum wheat flour (right).
"Bronze Die-Cut": Makes for Better Saucing
Many pasta shapes are extruded using perforated metal plates called dies. Most pasta producers use dies coated in teflon, which are durable and easy to maintain. The more traditional—and more expensive—method is to use bronze dies, which have rougher perforations that produce pockmarked, textured pastas. Pasta sauces cling more readily to bronze die-cut pasta’s rough surfaces, so we suggest springing for it when you see it.
“Slow-Dried”: Doesn't Really Make a Difference
Hundreds of years ago in old Sicily and Sardinia, pasta makers dried freshly cut noodles on giant racks, letting the clear salty breeze slowly harden the pasta. These days, most manufacturers use higher indoor temperatures to dry their pastas within a few hours. Some makers will advertise “slow-dried” pasta on their labels as superior, but we found that drying time affected pasta quality less than other factors. Concentrate on ingredients first.