Whole-wheat pasta used to be awful, with mushy texture and a cardboard taste. Have manufacturers finally figured out how to make it rival white pasta?
Published Jan. 1, 2010. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 11: Simply Italian
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 trum...
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