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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Friday, May 31, 2013

Buying Quality Dried Pasta – There IS a Difference

One of the more egregious falsehoods ever foisted off on unsuspecting cooks is this: “pasta is pasta.” Nothing could be further from the truth. To clarify, I'm talking about dried pasta, or pasta secca, as opposed to pasta fresca, or fresh pasta. There is a world of difference between fresh pasta and dried, but that's a discussion for another time.

I was once called upon by a friend to help prepare a “spaghetti dinner.” Everything was provided; all I had to do was cook. So I started about five quarts of water boiling. “You sure use a lot more water than I do.” Then I added a couple of tablespoons of salt to the water. “Oh, my God! That's too much salt!” My hostess/helper questioned the fact that I did not add oil to the pasta water (“It's gonna stick!”) and was rather shocked when I yelled at her just as she was about to break the pasta in half. Okay, so now I understood the source of half of her cooking problems. Then I got a look at the pasta itself; it was the best two-for-a-dollar, no-name-brand spaghetti money could buy. “That's what we always use. Spaghetti is spaghetti.” There was the other half.

I knew what was going to happen and it did. I put the spaghetti in the gallon-plus of well-salted, unoiled water, gave it a quick stir, and let it cook for about eight minutes. I tested it. Not even close. So I let it go another two minutes. Still not al dente. I checked it every minute for four or five minutes more, and suddenly it turned to mush. I was upset with myself for overcooking the spaghetti, but my friend was nonplussed by my frustration. “That's the way we always have it. What's wrong with it?” Uffa!

When it comes to taste, pasta is pretty much pasta. Only a really refined palate can detect an appreciable difference in the taste of properly prepared pastas. And even that subtle difference disappears when sauce is applied. No, the real differences in pasta are related to body and texture.

Good quality dried pasta is made from two ingredients; water and durum semolina. Durum is a type of hard wheat and semolina refers to a milling process that produces a texture like very fine sand rather than soft powder. Producers of cheap, off-brand dried pastas often add regular flour to the mix as an extender. Some cheap pastas are made entirely of common wheat flour, a manufacturing practice that is actually illegal in Italy, although a sub-class of lower grade pasta made there may contain up to three percent soft-wheat flour, but must be labeled accordingly.

Unlike the fresh pasta you whip up at home, producing quality dry pasta is a fairly painstaking process. Semolina flour is piped into a mixing machine. Water is added. The standard moisture content in the dough stage is about thirty percent. The mixture is mechanically kneaded until firm and somewhat dry, then it is pressed into sheets. It then goes to a vacuum machine that removes any air bubbles and further reduces the moisture content to a target level of about eleven or twelve percent. The pasta is steamed to kill any potential bacteria that may have accumulated, then it is sent off to be cut or extruded. Finally, the finished product is dried under very specific conditions related to the type of pasta.

Here's what to look for in a good quality dried pasta:

Ingredients – The only ingredient should be durum semolina (or sometimes semolina durum) wheat. The label will also display the mandatory enriching ingredients niacin, iron, thiamine, riboflavin, and folic acid. There should be no other chemicals or preservatives or additives.

Color – Good pasta should be a uniform amber yellow to rich cream color. Pale, pasty pasta probably contains additives and extenders.

Appearance and texture – High quality dried pasta will have a slightly rough surface texture. This helps sauces adhere to the cooked noodles. When held up to the light, there should be no dark or light spots evident. Some pastas will have slight ridges caused by extrusion and that's okay, as long as the ridges are uniform. Uneven, bumpy, spotty pasta is a sign of either adulteration or poor manufacturing – or both.

Taste and aroma – Good pasta should not have an aroma or odor of any kind. If it does, it's probably rancid due to the age and quality of the ingredients and/or to unhygienic manufacturing or drying processes. And although there should be no obvious taste for the same reasons, good pasta will have a slight sweetness when raw.

Clean fracture – Good pasta will break cleanly with a distinct, crisp snap. Cheaply made pasta will fracture unevenly with a lot of bits and slivers and may also exhibit air bubbles when examined closely.

If you have fallen for the “pasta is pasta” line, here's where you're going wrong. Quality pasta made from premium ingredients is manufactured to maintain a certain consistency when cooked. There is a complicated chemical balance of starch and gluten that must be maintained in order for the cooked pasta to come out soft and spongy but still firm and well-formed. As I said, the dance between the starches that absorb water and swell up and the proteins or glutens that coagulate and hold the pasta together is very complex. But it's the reason that good quality pasta is so far superior to the cheap stuff.

Pasta made with cheap ingredients and inferior techniques often contains uneven particles in the dough. Particles that are too small make for soggy dough while particles that are too large absorb too much water and compromise the structure. Pasta made with soft flour and extenders tends to shed too much starch, turning the cooking water a milky white and making that desired soft-but-firm texture almost impossible to achieve. Because the starch component overwhelms the protein element in the cooking process, the pasta remains rigid until it turns to mush.

So what's a good pasta to buy? Open question. There are hundreds of brands on store shelves at varying price points. As a rule, I prefer De Cecco or Barilla. While Barilla is Italy's largest producer of pasta, the Barilla pasta you buy at your neighborhood store is actually produced in the United States. Nothing wrong with that, but De Cecco products are all manufactured in Italy. Other Italian sounding names like “Ronzoni” are also made in America, although Ronzoni holds up fairly well by comparison. Same goes for Da Vinci products, most of which are produced in Italy with a few lines (lasagne and jumbo shells, for instance) coming out of American factories. Generally speaking, you can rely on the name brands for consistent quality. That said, specialty shops and Italian markets are overflowing with “product of Italy” labels that you've probably never heard of. Just keep in mind the five quality points outlined above and you'll be fine.

The owner of a little Italian place I used to frequent was amazed the first time I complimented him on the beautifully textured quality of his pasta. Turns out it was custom made and I was the only one who had ever commented on it. Conversely, the waiter at an Olive Garden was not surprised when I told him that the pasta was bland and overcooked and had probably come prepackaged. “Yeah,” he admitted, “People like you can always tell.”

“Pasta is pasta?” Don't you believe it.

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