Our tests proved that once pasta is topped with sauce, flavor differences from brand to brand are very subtle. But texture is a whole different story.
Published Jan. 1, 2012. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 22: Quick Fish Dinners
Given its impressive sales figures, you’d never guess that spaghetti (and all dried semolina pasta) was once an obscure ingredient made almost exclusively in Italy. Last year Americans spent $1.5 billion on these strands, using them as a quick base for everything from hearty ragu, to grassy pesto, to plain old butter and cheese. Besides convenience, the other draw of dried spaghetti is that it’s inexpensive—or at least it used to be. When we recently browsed the options at the supermarket, we discovered that while you can still pick up a 1-pound package for as little as a dollar and change, you can also spend more than three times that amount. For a product that typically lists just durum semolina (coarsely ground durum wheat, the universal choice for dried pasta) and maybe added vitamins, the difference in price is astonishing. How much better could a pound of pasta costing more than $4 really be?
To answer that question, we rounded up eight nationally available brands ranging in price from $1.39 to $4.17 per pound. Two were domestically made bestsellers, and the remaining six were Italian imports. (New World Pasta, the producer of one of the domestic samples, is a conglomerate that also bought out several other regional American brands, and it uses the same formula to make them all.) We cooked the strands until al dente and tasted them two ways: glossed with mild-flavored olive oil and coated with a simple tomato sauce. We knew what we were looking for: Good pasta tastes clean, wheaty, and faintly nutty and boasts a firm, springy chew, with nary a hint of starchiness or gumminess.
The Spaghetti Breakdown
We’ll level with you. When it came to taste, there wasn’t a truly bad noodle in the bunch. With a few exceptions, the oil-dressed samples tasted pretty darn similar, garnering at least a few compliments like “buttery,’’ “nutty,” or “toasty.” Flavor differences were even harder to tease out once the tomato sauce came into play, and all of the spaghettis grasped the marinara relatively well.
Texture, however, was another matter. We cooked the spaghetti according to the times suggested on their packages (8 to 13 minutes, depending on the strands’ thickness) and removed them from the boiling water early if they tasted “done.’’ None of the samples were unacceptable, but regardless of how vigilantly we tracked their doneness, some noodles cooked up sticky and gummy, while the best spaghettis were springy and firm.
Just to weed out any possibility of operator error, we sent a package of each spaghetti to an independent lab, Northern Crops Institute, at North Dakota State University. The lab cooked and then evaluated the samples ba...
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