That’s because, depending on how it’s manufactured, dried pasta will have a slick, slippery exterior or a craggy, grippier one.
Dried pasta is extruded into different shapes and strands by forcing dough through metal plates called dies, the construction of which helps determine the texture of the pasta’s surface.
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What Is Bronze-Cut Pasta?
Traditional dies are made of uncoated bronze. When pasta is extruded through a die, friction and heat are created. Bronze is the classic metal for a die, in part for its ability to dissipate heat. When dough is pressed through the bare metal, it winds up with a coarser exterior and better grip.
That’s why fancier pastas often tout their use of uncoated bronze dies.
Teflon-Die Pasta = Shiny and Slick
However, many modern pastas use dies whose metal is coated with Teflon. These produce more slippery pasta. The nonstick plastic coating makes the process faster and cheaper, since they reduce friction and heat, significantly extending the life of the machinery.
When dough is passed through the slick material, it ends up with a smooth texture.
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An Observable Difference in Surface Texture
Discerning between a smooth or a more porous exterior can be challenging just by peering at the pasta in its packaging, but bronze-cut brands will often say that or “bronze-die” on the label.
But, it's not hard to tell under a microscope. I took a look at two brands of fettuccine—Ronzoni and De Cecco—to compare their textures. Sure enough, the bronze-cut De Cecco had a distinctly scaly texture when magnified and Ronzoni, which is made with Teflon dies, a smooth sheen.
De Cecco versus Ronzoni, under a microscope
Can Sandpaper Rough Up Smooth Pasta and Improve It?
So I wondered. Could I just take my rotary sander to some smooth pasta and turn it into the rough stuff? I made sure I had a nontoxic type of sandpaper (garnet, not aluminum), laid out a row of fettuccine (the least challenging pasta shape to sand), and fired up the tool.
Here’s what the Ronzoni looked like after just 10 seconds on the sander’s medium setting.
But would that texturizing change the way the surface absorbs and holds liquid?
In a pot of blue-dyed water (the test kitchen goes through gallons of this stuff each week), I boiled several marked strands of each of my fettuccines: bronze-extruded De Cecco, Teflon-extruded Ronzoni, and my artisanally hand-sanded Ronzoni sample. After 9 minutes, I removed them with tongs, spread them to cool, and then examined them.
The De Cecco’s rough surface turned a rich, appetizing blue.
The less absorbent Ronzoni shed dye like a sleek duck sheds water:
But the sandpaper-roughened Ronzoni looked much bluer, although still not quite as blue as the bronze-die stuff.
The results indicate that, yes, prepping dry pasta with sandpaper makes the surface texture more ready to absorb and hold whatever it’s doused in.
Now, are we going to start sanding our pasta for that reason? I suspect not.