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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.
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What You Need To Know
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...
Everything We Tested
This Italian import boasted “clean wheat flavor” and a “firm, ropy quality”; in fact, the lab confirmed these strands as the strongest of all the samples, with the lowest percentage of “cook loss.” The texture was just as good when we added sauce—“firm,” with “good chew.”
Even though these noodles were dried at a low 95 degrees (higher drying temperatures can produce stronger strands), they retained a delightfully “firm” bite and chew that tasters raved about. We also appreciated this pricey Italian brand’s “nutty,” “toasty” taste, which came through even under a coating of marinara.
Tossed with olive oil, this Italian pasta ranked highest for flavor that was “buttery” and “rich-tasting” and had a “roughness” to the exterior that numerous tasters appreciated. However, that pleasant coarseness was obscured by the sauce, under which the noodles became slightly “gummy.”
In general, tasters found this spaghetti to be “middle-of-the-road.” It didn’t stand out for having major flaws, and it didn’t elicit rave compliments. Its taste was “light” but still “wheaty,” while its texture was deemed “fine,” with “nice elasticity” and “fair chew.”
Overall, this brand passed muster. But perhaps due in part to ultra-high-temperature drying, which cooks out flavor, some tasters thought this mass-market American spaghetti “lacked nuttiness.” The inclusion of fine-ground durum flour may have accounted for why some tasters found the texture “mealy.”
"There is something a little flat about the flavor of this," said one taster about this American bestseller, which we speculated must have been dried at a temperature high enough to make it taste less wheaty than some. Others agreed, some also noting the noodles’ “gummy” consistency. Overall, though, tasters found the strands “OK” but “unremarkable.”
Recommended with reservations
It wasn’t flavor criticisms that sank this imported spaghetti to the lower rungs of the chart; most tasters praised the “clean,” “bright,” “almost nutty” taste. These strands lost the most starch during cooking, for a “mushy,” “crumbly” texture.
This Italian brand was “sticky” and “soft” and offered “no spring in the bite,” possibly due to a weaker gluten structure resulting from a low drying temperature. But the low temperature didn’t seem to preserve a good wheaty taste; most tasters homed in on one particular adjective: “bland.”
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.