Do you ever wonder if that more expensive pasta is worth the money? If you haven’t given it a try yet, you may be surprised to find out that it actually can be!
By “more expensive,” I mean the Italy-imported boxed pasta at the grocery store that’s priced no more than a few dollars higher than the store brands on the bottom shelves.
Is it worth the extra money?
Dried pasta from the best Italian pasta brands is worth the higher price. It’s made from semolina flour and slow-dried, making it more aromatic, flavorful, and holds on to its shape better. It’s also extruded through bronze dies, so it has a rougher texture for the sauce to cling to.
To break this down into a simple and actionable pre-pasta checklist, more expensive pasta has three traits that make it marginally better than its cheaper counterparts:
- It’s made from semolina flour;
- It’s extruded through bronze dies;
- It’s slow-dried to perfection.
I’m going to spend the rest of this post telling you exactly what these mean and why, at the end of the day (or at least over dinner), they matter.
Durum-Wheat Semolina Flour
Semolina flour is a flour made from durum wheat, which Italians traditionally use mostly for pasta. It has a coarse texture, golden color, nutty flavor, and earthy aroma, which yields pasta shapes that professional chefs and home cooks tend to swear by.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, durum wheat is the hardest of all kinds of grain. Larger, amber-colored, and with a relatively high protein content of 13-14%, durum wheat has strength and elasticity that make it perfect for making pasta and rustic bread.
So, how much of a difference does this make, exactly?
Compared to the cheap pasta shapes made from all-purpose flour, the difference can be as big as that of night and day.
The pleasures of durum-wheat semolina pasta start as early as on your stove. As soon as you add it to a boiling pot of generously salted water, the air in your kitchen gets perfumed with a potent and earthy smell of wheat.
The pasta holds on soundly to its shape as it gets tossed from one torrent to another in the rapidly boiling water and, as long as you cook it to al dente, will come out still firm to the bite, with a slight crunch to it.
When you bite into it, the difference in taste is rich and immediately recognizable. It’s comparable to eating an aromatic and flavorful loaf of bread made from wheat flour locally sourced from the countryside… only better.
Simply said, when you see the words “semolina flour” and/or “durum wheat” written somewhere on the front or back of the package, don’t look away; you’re on the right track.
But the flour isn’t the only trait that makes up good pasta.
Extrusion Through Bronze Dies
To produce pasta at a commercial scale, pasta factories use machines that mix flour, water, and occasionally eggs into a dough. They push out that dough into the correct shape and thickness through perforated plates called “dies” and cut it into the desired length with blades.
That process is called “extrusion,” and the technical term for the product that comes out of it is “extruded pasta.”
Until the first half of the 20th century, all pasta factories extruded their pasta shapes through bronze dies. These dies were costly to buy and took their fair share of maintenance.
At the same time, the pasta that came out of them was incredible. It had a rough and porous texture that absorbed some of the sauce and made it easier for the sauce to cling to the surface, turning every bite of pasta into a burst of flavor.
In the 1940s, an American scientist invented non-stick. A decade or two after, non-stick-coated dies were introduced as alternatives to bronze dies and, for economic reasons, become widely popular with pasta makers.
Non-stick-coated dies were cheaper and could be operated for longer periods of time. But the pasta that came out of them was smooth and overly slippery. So much that cookbook author Nancy Harmon Jenkins described it as “slimy” for The New York Times.
Happily, some pasta makers have stuck to tradition—and their production methods have resisted the test of time.
For tastier pasta, look for shapes extruded through bronze dies (also known as bronze-cut pasta). Their coarse and absorbent texture soaks up the deliciousness of the sauce and allows it to hold on to their surface, packing more aroma and flavor in every bite than you could imagine.
Slow-Dried to Perfection
So far, so good.
We’ve established that the highest-grade dried pasta is made from semolina and not all-purpose flour. And that it’s extruded through bronze-coated instead of non-stick-coated dies, which gives it a better texture.
Once the pasta shapes come out of the machine, they need to be dried. This is the last and final step before it’s packaged and shipped to the retail chain until it ultimately ends up on your plate.
Traditionally, pasta was made by hand and left to dry for days on end on pasta drying racks out in the open air:
As the demand for pasta grew nationwide, then internationally, and its production shifted to factories, sun-drying was no longer a viable method.
So pasta makers started to dry their shapes and noodles in dedicated drying rooms, where modern heating and ventilation systems replicated the conditions outside their doors (without the pollution in the air or the lack of predictability of the weather).
Cheap pasta, as you’ve already seen, is made by cutting corners every step of the way—and drying is no exception.
Store-brand pasta at the grocery store is usually dried at an excessively high heat, which most pasta experts claim is any temperature above 167°F (75°C). This takes away the natural aromas and flavors otherwise present in the flour and degrades its nutritional value.
Once again, only a tiny number of pasta makers stick to their artisanal roots and continue to slow-dry their pasta shapes at a low temperature. This not only preserves the aromas and flavors of the durum-wheat semolina flour but retains its high protein and amino acid content.
Some brands sell more expensive pasta for a reason. They’ve stuck to tradition and kept the steps and aspects of their production process that result in the highest-quality product.
As long as you shop for the right brands, that price difference of a few dollars is totally worth it. Remember to look for bronze-cut and slow-dried pasta made from semolina flour.
Trust me on this; you’ll never go back to buying the cheap stuff again. At least that’s what happened to me.