Sometimes I just have to admit it: My wife is right.
My wife Claudia is right about a lot of things more often than I would like to admit.
One of the areas where I think I am usually right, and she thinks I am usually wrong, is our disagreement regarding her religious devotion to certain big-name brands being better than others, or being superior to the ‘generic’ brands. Honestly, in a side-by-side comparison of, say, King Arthur flour vs Gold Medal flour vs Safeway flour – I’ve never noticed much of a difference (but I’m not a baker like Claudia, I’m a cook); my experience has been that people are just willing to pay (unnecessarily) more for name brands.
For years, I insisted this was true about pasta also. But I was wrong and she was right. How pasta is manufactured is critical to a successful pasta dish, and, as it turns out, different pasta companies make their pasta in different ways – and that really does make all the difference.
When it comes down to pasta, there are basically three choices available:
Homemade Pasta. Arguably, fresh, homemade pasta is the way to go. It only requires a minute or two in boiling water and it is the silkiest, stickiest, sauciest thing that your sauce – or your pallet – will ever stick to. It’s also an all day project that makes a huge mess, takes a lot of time, and requires a minimum of $100 worth of special equipment that takes up a lot of counter space and likely will never be used for anything else. Ain’t nobody got time (or money) for that. Not unless you’re running your own high-end Italian restaurant.
Pre-made Fresh Pasta. This pasta is 99% as good as the homemade pasta. Unless your a pasta sommelier you’re probably not going to notice the difference. It’s available in the refrigerated section of well stocked grocery stores as well as at many specialty food stores. It’s generally going to run you around $10.00/lb – approximately the same price as filet mignon, when it’s on sale. A great choice, but not particularly economical. Also, it requires refrigeration and has a quick expiration, so it can’t be kept on hand as a pantry staple. Delicious, but not nearly delicious enough to justify the price or the fact that it’s not practical to keep on hand.
Dried Pasta. For the rest of us mortals, dried pasta is the way to go. It cooks through in 5 – 15 minutes (depending on the cut), lasts nearly forever in the pantry, and properly treated is 99% as good as the other two types of pasta listed above. The trick, as my wife will tell you, is selecting the right brand…
So why does brand matter so much when it comes to selecting dried pasta? The answer lies in how the pasta is produced; more specifically, the type of die used to extrude the pasta (i.e., squish it into the shape that it’s supposed to be). I picked up this helpful tidbit of information through chatting with one of the purveyors at my local Italian specialty market. He explained that the best pasta was extruded through dies made of bronze; that the next best pasta was extruded through dies made of stainless steel, and that the cheapest pasta was extruded through dies made of Teflon. Further research in both various cookbooks and online confirmed this, at least in a general sense.
As it turns out, bronze dies are the slowest extruders, stainless steel is in the middle, and Teflon dies are the fastest. It stands to reason, therefore, that pasta extruded through Teflon will be the cheapest, because the increased production rate translates directly to increased productivity, and thus passes the savings garnished by higher efficiency on to the consumer.
Savings, yes, if all that matters to you is dollars. But there is a trade-off, as it turns out, and a pretty big one at that. You see, when pasta is extruded through bronze dies, it leaves the finished surface of the pasta somewhat rough. This does two things: First, it keeps the pasta from sticking to itself during the cooking and draining process, requiring less attention and also being a bit more forgiving if your sauce isn’t done at the same time your pasta is or your guests are taking their sweet time coming to the table. Second, and more importantly, it makes it easier for whatever sauce you’re using to stick to your pasta creating a more delicious and cohesive dish.
Smoother pasta, extruded through Teflon or stainless steel dies, as it turns out, requires constant stirring while cooking, and once drained will probably require a dash of olive oil to keep it from sticking to itself once it has been drained. The problem with this is that, aside from requiring constant attention, now your pasta is all slippery with oil and your sauce won’t stick to it properly. Ever made a beautiful pasta dish, only to have all the sauce slide off the pasta leaving you with flavorless pasta and a watery mess at the bottom of your plate? That’s why. Using pasta that’s been extruded through Teflon makes this tragic situation an inevitability. Pasta extruded through stainless is noticeably better, but still not nearly as good as pasta extruded through bronze.
So which brands use which method? Near as I can tell, De Cecco is the only pasta brand readily available in the United States that uses bronze dies for the extruding process. If you can get your hands on imported Barilla Pasta (branded as “Academia Barilla”) they too use bronze dies, although I haven’t seen this too much in regular grocery stores. The American Barilla (the one in the blue box that we all know and love) as well as the ALDI brand pasta use stainless steel dies. Most generic pasta sold in major grocery stores uses Teflon.
In terms of cost, De Cecco and Academia Barilla will cost you around $3.00/lb, unless you can find it on sale (which with De Cecco is pretty easy to do). American Barilla will cost you around $2.00/lb and pasta from ALDI will cost about $0.89/lb. Most generic grocery stores pastas are around $1.00/lb.
Bottom line? For 2 or 3 bucks a pound, buy De Cecco. If you’re counting every penny and have an ALDI near you, buy ALDI pasta. Don’t waste your money on generic pasta, unless you have to; Barilla, even though it is extruded using stainless steel, is light years ahead of most generic pasta brands. Also worthy of note: Trader Joe’s, which is notoriously secretive about how and where they source their products, has no information about how their pasta is extruded (big surprise). However, having cooked with Trader Joe’s pasta, it does all the things you want it to do – doesn’t require a lot of attention during the cooking process, doesn’t need oil to keep it from sticking together when drained, sauce clings to it well. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s sourced from a manufacturer that uses bronze dies. At $1.49/lb, that’s not a bad price.
In any case, even the cheapest, Teflon-extruded pasta isn’t that bad. Pasta is like making love – When it’s good, it’s really good; when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. So don’t let all this information scare you off from making pasta at least once a week.
Up next? The Four Italian Mother Sauces: Aglio E Olio, Alfredo, Marinara, and Pesto. Pretty much all pasta dishes use one of these as a base and the possibilities are endless. Stay tuned for Round 2 of “All About Pasta.”