Italian pasta, in some ways, is simple. It’s also a marvel. What starts as a basic dough—often made with nothing more than flour and water—can be formed into hundreds of shapes, with more than 1,300 names. Although no supermarket stocks all of them, the options can still be staggering. Many product packages also tout special ingredients such as “durum wheat flour” or pasta-making terms such as “cut with bronze dies” and “slow dried,” which might not be familiar to every shopper. Once you get the pasta home, there are more questions. How do you cook perfect pasta? Which sauces pair best with which shapes? We’ve developed hundreds of pasta recipes and taste-tested all sorts of varieties and shapes, and we’re here to shed a bit more light on pasta’s history, its terminology, and how to prepare it perfectly.
An Ode to Italian Pasta
What Exactly Are Semolina and Durum Wheat Flours?
When shopping for pasta, you'll see "semolina" and possibly "durum wheat flour" on many packages. These two different flours are both made from durum wheat, a type of winter wheat with a particularly hard endosperm—"durum" is Latin for “hard.” Durum wheat contains a relatively large amount of the proteins glutenin and gliadin, which form springy gluten when combined with water and agitated. This gluten allows pasta dough to be worked and shaped; it also helps pasta hold its shape throughout the manufacturing and cooking processes. The difference between semolina and durum wheat flour is grind size: Semolina is coarsely ground durum wheat; its coarseness adds texture and body to pasta dough and a pleasant springiness to cooked pasta. More finely ground durum wheat is called “durum wheat flour” or “durum flour.” Traditional Italian pasta and most high-quality packaged pastas are made only with semolina. However, to save money, some pasta manufacturers may also add finer durum wheat flour, which is less expensive than semolina, to their pasta doughs. The smaller particles take less time to hydrate than semolina when mixed with water, so the addition of durum flour speeds up the production process and increases efficiency. But a finer grind can cause more damage to the pasta’s starch granules, which can become overhydrated and leach starch into the pasta water during cooking, leading to gummy pasta. In taste tests, we’ve found that we prefer all-semolina pasta, and we suggest seeking it out when you’re shopping.
Should I Look for Bronze Die–Cut Pasta?
Some commercially made pasta is shaped by being rolled and cut, but most dried pasta shapes are formed by being extruded through perforated metal plates, or dies. Most manufacturers use dies coated with nonstick materials such as Teflon to produce smooth, dense noodles that retain durum wheat’s signature yellow color. A smaller number of manufacturers use traditional bronze dies, which have rough perforations and produce pasta shapes with uneven, pockmarked surfaces that are ideal for holding onto sauces. Bronze dies also allow more air into the dough, turning it a paler yellow. Since bronze dies are more expensive to produce and maintain than nonstick dies, pasta extruded through bronze dies is often pricier. While a few larger companies such as De Cecco use bronze dies, most bronze die–cut pasta is made by small companies. If a pasta is shaped with a bronze die, it will generally say so on the packaging. Look for it if you want pasta that will cling to sauces a bit better.
Slow versus Fast Pasta Drying
Another term you’ll see on some pasta packaging is “slow dried.” It indicates when a pasta has been dried at a relatively low temperature (about 100 degrees) for as long as three days, compared with the much faster method of drying pasta at 180 degrees for 7 to 10 hours. Although slow-dried pastas are marketed as having better textures than faster-dried pastas, research has shown that there is not much textural difference between the two when cooked. Ingredients and extrusion methods contribute more to pasta quality than how it was dried, so we recommend concentrating on those factors when you’re shopping.
The Science Behind Cooking Pasta
We all know that pasta softens and expands as it cooks, but here’s what’s happening inside the pot. Pasta’s final texture depends on the relationship between its two main components: proteins and starch granules. As the pasta cooks, its proteins begin breaking down in a process called denaturation. The denatured proteins form a dense matrix around the starch granules, helping protect them from absorbing too much water during the cooking process and becoming gummy. If pasta does not have enough protein or if it’s cooked for too long, its matrix will not be strong enough to protect the starch granules from overhydration; the matrix bursts and releases starch into the pasta water, resulting in gummy, fragile pasta.