Essential Pasta Buying Guide

Everything you need to know about buying high quality pasta.

Who doesn’t enjoy a bowl of freshly made pasta in a luxurious sauce? It truly is an exceptional gastronomical experience. But sometimes we just don’t have the time or the energy to make that glorious pasta from scratch.

Different shapes of pasta.

So how do we get the culinary experience of an amazing pasta dish and the convenience of reaching into the pantry for a package of dried pasta? The answer is to buy good quality pasta. This is what most Italian do!

As much as I would like to say that growing up in a first generation Italian home, we had fresh pasta every day. That was not the case. Homemade pasta was a treat and usually reserved for a special occasion. And when Nonna made it, it was the best!

Pasta was and still is an integral part of our Italian cuisine. We ate some kind of pasta dish every day and that is still the case in many Italian homes. But the pasta most Italians are eating is high quality, dried, commercially made and bought at the grocery store.

Quality Makes a Difference

Believe it or not, pasta is not all made the same. Pasta making is truly an art and how pasta is made impacts the taste and texture of your dish. It can be the difference between mediocre and amazing!

Of course with the better quality, comes the higher price tag as well. Supermarket brands may be much more economical, but they won’t have the same texture or taste as a better brand. Luckily even more expensive pasta still makes an affordable meal when compared to the price of meat, fish and other ingredients.

This is not to say that less expensive pasta will always be inferior or that more expensive brands will be better. But the indicators of quality in dried pasta do tend to make it more expensive to produce.

In the vast world of dried pasta, navigating the aisles can be daunting. I am going to break down the 3 things you need to look for to enjoy pasta like an Italian and price is not one of them.

1. Durum Wheat Semolina

In Italy, pasta is made with durum wheat semolina and water. There are 2 types of flour that come from hard durum wheat, semolina and durum wheat flour. The latter is finely milled and does not have the same amount of protein that semolina has.

Semolina is a coarsely ground high protein durum wheat flour. The higher protein level gives the pasta strength to hold its shape and results in a toothy texture when cooked.

So check the ingredient listing on your pasta box for durum wheat semolina.

A bronze extruder.

2. Surface Texture

Extruders are most often used in the production of commercially sold pastas. The extrusion process used will result in different surface textures and when it comes to texture, the rougher the better.

More modern production systems use Teflon extruders, which allow the dough to pass through much faster and with no friction. This results in pasta with a smooth surface which allows sauce to slide right off.

High quality pasta brands use bronze or ceramic dye extruders. When pasta is pressed through these types of dyes, there is just enough friction in the opening to cause the surface of the dough to get roughed up. The pasta has an almost sandy or powdery look. Perfect for holding on to sauces!

Dried egg noodles.

3. Drying Time and Color

For good cooks timing is everything! And drying time directly impacts the color and texture of pasta.

Ideally pasta should be dried slowly and at lower temperatures. Of course the longer that the pasta takes to dry the more expensive the final product will be. But let me tell you it is worth it!

Originally it took pasta makers in Naples up to a week to dry pasta in their natural environment. Today’s technology provides the opportunity to dry pasta at much higher temperatures cutting the the drying time to just a few hours.

Drying pasta at higher temperatures for shorter periods of time means a producer can make a lot more of it and sell it for much less. The problem is that it impacts the integrity of the product.

The higher temperature increases the yellowness of the pasta and makes the protein bind tighter. This means the pasta is going to be smoother and harder to digest.

A slow drying time of 24-72 hours at lower temperatures ranging from 40-70 degrees-C allows the pasta to maintain its original light yellow color. It also results in a less constricted gluten mesh so it absorbs water evenly, releases more starch into the cooking water and is much easier to digest.

Many brands will not disclose the drying time on their labels but the lighter yellow color will be a good indicator.

Penne and Spaghetti on a towel.

How to Properly Cook Dried Pasta

Now that you know the secrets to buying the best dried pasta, let’s concentrate on how to cook it. It isn’t enough to just boil a pot of water and through the pasta in. Even good pasta is unpleasant when it is overcooked and mushy.

For the best pasta experience:

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil – about 4-6 quarts for a pound of pasta. No need to be exact but there should be plenty of room in the pan for the pasta to move freely.
  2. Generously salt the water but only after it has come to a full boil. Salt will actually extend the amount of time it takes for the water reach it’s boiling point. Use about 3 tablespoons of salt. The water should not taste like to sea or your pasta will taste like the sea! It should taste salty like a broth.
  3. Add the pasta and stir immediately. This will aid in keeping the pasta from sticking together. There is no need to add any oil to the pasta water, it will only float on the top and it does nothing to keep the pasta from sticking. Just stir it occasionally as it cooks.
  4. Start tasting the pasta about 2 minutes before the recommended cooking time on the package.
  5. Pasta should be cooked to your liking, but I recommend taking it off when it is al’dente if you are going to continue to cook it in the sauce. This means that it should no longer be crunchy, but it should still be firm. You will notice that the white in the center is gone and the pasta is evenly colored throughout.

Delicious Pasta Recipes To Try

One of the best things about pasta is that it is so versatile. There are endless possibilities of shape and sauce combinations, so you can literally have a different dish every day. Knowing how to select the best pasta to go with your dish will make it that much better!

Put this to the test with some of our favorite recipes like Nonna’s Pasta al Forno loaded with zucchini and mushrooms in a cheesy meat sauce. Or my mother’s amazing Pasta with Creamy Broccoli sauce.

One of our go to recipes is Pasta alla Norma a Sicilian eggplant tomato pasta. It is easy to make and the eggplant, tomatoes, fresh basil and grated ricotta salata create a flavorful and satisfying dish.

When you are crunched for time, pasta is always a good option. Bucatini alla Carbonara, Pasta with Spinach and Sundried Tomatoes and Penne Pomadoro can all be made in under 30 minutes.

For a hearty meal you will want to try Malfadine with Short Rib Ragu or Rigatoni Bolognese.

I would love to hear what some of your favorite pasta brands are. Leave a comment and let me know!

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3 Comments

    1. Hi Carole! I am going to try to find your pasta recommendation. I love to try new brands. And thank you for taking the time to comment! I really appreciate it! I will definitely think about creating an E-book when I have more to share!

  1. I have really learned a lot about pasta through this post and can’t wait to start searching out the best pastas in the stores. Great information!!! ❤️

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