The secret to irresistible pasta starts with the choices you make at the store. Here’s how to select the finest pasta for your home cooking.
Head on over to the pasta aisle at the grocery store, and you’re sure to be confronted with a dozen or so options for every shape. Even if you’ve nailed down the brand and you know what shape to look for, the best brands often offer multiple sizes or different collections for the same shape, making it even harder for you to choose.
Today, I’m about to show you how to decode the terms on the front and the back of every pasta package so that you know exactly what to look for when selecting boxed pasta at the supermarket.
To pick the best pasta at the store, look for pasta that’s made from 100% semolina flour (for an earthy aroma and wheaty flavor), extruded through bronze dies (for a rough surface that sauce clings to), and slow-dried (for a rich, golden color).
Good, family-owned, Italy-imported brands to look out for include Barilla, De Cecco, and La Molisana. Check out my guide to the best Italian pasta brands to find out why, and to see a few. of my other, harder-to-find picks.
For the purposes of this article, though, we care not about the brands but about the traits that make a box of pasta worth your time and money in the first place.
So let’s get into it.
There are well over 350 pasta varieties out there, and a handful of new ones get added to the list every decade. Certain varieties go well with certain types of sauces, and they can’t necessarily be used interchangeably.
Learning how to select the right kind of pasta for each type of sauce can, therefore, elevate your home cooking to new heights.
Thin and long pastas, including Angel Hair (Capellini), Spaghettini, and Spaghetti pair nicely with extra virgin olive oil and garlic sauces (Aglio e Olio). They’re also a good choice for light, meat-free tomato sauces, whether they’re made from cherries, in-season tomatoes, or plum tomatoes in a can.
(Spaghetti, the most classic shape of them all, are also the best choice for seafood pasta, be it Spaghetti alle Vongole, Spaghetti allo Scoglio, or Frutto di Mare.)
Thick and long pastas, such as Spaghettoni, Bucatini (round, with a hole), and Spaghetti alla Chitarra (square, with a hole) are best for thicker tomato sauces cooked with the rendered fat from guanciale, pancetta, or bacon, as well as for hearty Alfredo, Cacio e Pepe, and Pasta alla Carbonara dishes.
Flat pastas, whether Fettuccine, Tagliatelle, and Pappardelle are most suitable for meat-based Bolognese sauces. They also go great with pesto, red or green, as their thickness is a good match for the strong, herby flavor of chopped basil and crushed nuts.
Last but not least, I’ve found flat pasta, especially egg tagliatelle, to be the perfect tomato-sauce pairing for pasta with anchovies. The creaminess of the noodles effortlessly balances out the savoriness of the anchovies.
Tubed pastas, for instance Penne, Elicoidali, Cannelloni, Rigatoni, Manicotti, and Ziti, go as good on thick tomato sauces with grated parmesan or pecorino cheese on top as they do on meat-based ragùs and melty-mozzarella baked pasta dishes.
(Ragù sauce is thicker than Bolognese, which is why the former is better accompanied by tubed pasta, which it coats on the inside and out, and the latter by flat pasta. Flat pasta holds its shape well, but would nevertheless be challenged by ragù’s thickness.)
Short pastas, such as Anchellini, Farfalle, Fusilli, Risi, and Orzo, are ideal for soups (think Pasta e Fagioli) and salads.
Stuffed pastas, from Tortellini, Tortelli, and Tortelloni to Mezzelune, Cappelletti, Ravioli, and Ravioli Gigante, should be enjoyed on their own. But you can just as well boil them in beef broth for a rustic, Italian-countryhouse serving of Pasta in Brodo.
Fresh or Dried Pasta?
Whether to buy fresh pasta or dried pasta comes down to the recipe. If you’re the recipe’s developer, then it boils down to cooking time—and your preferences.
Fresh pasta must be kept in the fridge, where it will last for 2-3 days. It’s usually made of flour, water, and eggs and cooks quickly, in a matter of 1-2 minutes in boiling water.
Dried pasta must be stored in a cool and dark place, such as your pantry or in a cabinet, and is good for 2-3 years. It’s typically made from flour and water, and sometimes eggs. It takes time to cook, 5-10 minutes depending on the shape, in boiling water.
Fresh pasta is gummy and delicate, making it perfect for recipes with dairy-, cheese-, and cream-based sauces. All other times, you’re better off reaching for dried pasta.
Originally, all pasta was made fresh and had to be eaten straight away. In the 12th century, Italians on the island of Sicily started drying pasta on racks out on the streets to extend its shelf life.
Dried pasta, when cooked correctly, is tender on the inside, firm on the outside, and holds on to its shape. When paired with dried pasta, hearty sauces with olive oil, tomatoes, and ground meat are a match made in heaven, if it was a place on the Italian peninsula.
Cook your pasta al dente
The correct way to cook pasta is al dente, which translates as “to the tooth.” To make al dente pasta, bring a pot of generously salted water to a full boil, then cook the shapes for 2-3 minutes less than the time stated in the cooking instructions on the back of the label.
This not only keeps the pasta from getting mushy and breaking apart but makes it slower for your body to digest. That way, you won’t feel slouchy as soon as you’re done eating the plate (the faster your body digests a plate of pasta, the quicker and greater the spike in your blood sugar levels).
The Types of Flour And Why They Matter
As far as flour, pasta’s most indispensable ingredient, is concerned, pasta can be made from all-purpose flour, durum-wheat flour, or semolina flour. If you abide by tradition, and you should, semolina flour is the only way to go—not without reason.
All-purpose-flour pasta is the cheapest, which is why you’ll see this type of flour on the ingredients lists of store-brand boxes on the shelves. Avoid it; an inferior product at a bargain price is never a good deal. The one or two dollars you save come at the expense of your pasta tasting bland.
Durum-wheat-flour pasta is good, but not great. Durum, which means “hard” in Latin, is a species of wheat with a high protein content (gluten) and a tough, starchy shell (endosperm). Since it needs more milling to be ground into flour, the flour itself is finer, and the doughs made from it are uniform and malleable.
Semolina-flour pasta is the best kind of pasta at the store, and the variety I always look for. Like durum-wheat flour, semolina is made from durum wheat. However, it’s coarser, giving the pasta a golden-yellow color, a rough, porous texture for sauces to cling to, and a rich, earthy flavor.
When shopping for pasta, read the front and the back of the label. The best kinds of pasta are imported from Italy and made of 100% semolina flour. To cut costs, some producers mix semolina with durum-wheat flour. Such pasta is okay, yet still inferior to the original.
Regular Pasta vs. Egg Pasta
Regular pasta is made out of only flour and water. Egg pasta, as its name suggests, is made with flour, water, and eggs. (Depending on the brand and variety, that can be either fresh eggs or powdered eggs.)
Regular pasta, especially when it’s made from durum-wheat flour and/or semolina flour, has a captivatingly earthy aroma and an intense wheaty flavor. Egg pasta, on the other hand, tastes rich and decadent, to an extent creamy and wholesome.
Use regular pasta when you want your sauce to stand out, which is usually the case with fresh tomato, canned tomato, or Bolognese sauces. Flour-only pasta is also a good choice for plain, peasant dishes like Spaghetti Aglio e Olio or Spaghetti Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino.
Go for egg pasta when you want the taste of the pasta itself to stand out or complement the sauce, such as in Spaghetti Carbonara or Fettuccine Alfredo. Or use it for your baked pasta dishes and pasta soups, where decadence is almost always welcomed and sought after.
Is Pasta Cut in Bronze Dies Better?
Commercially made pasta is mixed in machines that knead flour and water (and sometimes eggs or egg powder) into dough. These machines then push the dough out through perforated metal plates, called “dies,” and cut it into the pasta shapes we all eat.
That process, which heavily resembles encasing sausages with a meat grinder, is known among pasta makers and pasta connoisseurs as “extrusion.” The pasta that comes out of it is eponymously called “extruded pasta.”
Present-day producers use non-stick dies with a PTFE surface that produces smooth, fine pasta. They’re cheap to buy, easy to operate, and inexpensive to replace. A small number of producers have stuck to bronze dies, the traditional coating from the 20th century.
Bronze dies, considerably more porous than their non-stick counterparts, produce pasta with a coarser, more poriferous surface that absorbs and holds on to sauces.
When in doubt, grab a box of bronze-cut pasta and put it in your shopping cart. Your tastebuds will thank you later, after you’ve boiled the shapes al-dente and mixed them with the sauce.
Does Slow-Drying Make a Difference?
Freshly-made pasta contains roughly 30% moisture. Before it’s packaged, it must be commercially dried down to a moisture content of 12.5%, which is what makes it shelf-stable and why it lasts so long.
Some packages tout that the pasta inside them has been “slow-dried,” meaning that it was dried at a relatively low temperature for 1-2 days instead of at a relatively high temperature for a few hours.
Slow-drying preserves the golden-yellow color of the semolina flour and is said by pasta experts to retain more of its nutritional properties. Heating pasta to a high temperature essentially pre-cooks it.
A gentler temperature does retain more of the natural aromas and flavors of the flour, and slow-dried pasta is superior to fast-dried pasta, that’s for sure. But what truly makes a difference is the flour and the extrusion process, so don’t give drying more weight than it needs to.