Pasta on Point

pasta-single

Food Trends and Playing Favorites

Sometimes our push for traditional and full flavored actually means we’re going against the commercial current. Which is, obviously, both emotionally and economically harder to do. Writing about pasta right now fits that bill. Pasta in the moment is anything but on “trend-point.” Between the current belief that carbs are cause for great concern and the very important focus for many on a gluten-free diet, traditional pasta, which twenty years ago was viewed as a cornerstone of healthy Mediterranean eating, has now, at best, taken a backseat in the food world and at worst, is almost in the culinary closet. Pasta’s taken so much flak in the last few years that I’m almost afraid to put this piece in print. But, trends or no trends, I still love it.


Past Pasta Perfect?

Traditionalist though I am, even I will admit that, thanks to technology, many products actually can be made much better than they were back in our early days. Olive oil, for instance, can be made more quickly and carefully with fewer defects all of which improve both flavor and shelf life. (Please note that that doesn’t mean that all of today’s olive oil is well made. Technology, combined with the trend to traditional food, has also made it even easier to bottle and ship low quality oil marketed as “artisan.”) Wine clearly has been drastically improved by modern technology. Coffee is another product that’s been improved a great deal—the roasting and brewing technology on the market today is far more fine-tuned than what was out there thirty years ago. Chocolate, thanks for more scientific fermentation methods, closer connections to the growers and more carefully monitored production is another for this list.

Other culinary categories, by contrast, really haven’t been helped significantly by modernization. Bread and pastry baking have remained pretty much what they were. Vinegar making is mostly done as it was hundreds of years ago. Fresh fish is harder to find, but the best fish, caught in the wild, are what they were in our grandparents era.

Artisan pasta is in the latter category. While availability of top quality pasta in the US is clearly higher, the actual quality of artisan spaghetti, machheroni, linguine and the like is pretty much the same as it was in 1982, or for that matter, 1928.

The best news of all that is that great pasta is probably more accessible than ever—top grade dried pasta remains, in my opinion, one of the most affordable of the world’s finest foods. If you like really good food and you like to eat really well, take a chance and try some for dinner this month—the risk is very small.


Buying the Best Dried Pasta

Pasta, as you can probably tell by now, makes very regular appearances on my dinner table. Last night it was the Cavalieri family’s new whole wheat pasta, cooked very al dente, then tossed quickly with chopped Piquillo roasted peppers, some arugula, a good dose of extra virgin olive oil, freshly grated pecorino cheese and a lot of black pepper. I eat pasta at least twice, if not three or four times a week, and I love it every time. I feel as Frederico Fellini did: “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.”

“Taste and texture make all the difference in pasta, but judging by what most American restaurants and home cooks serve, they are unknown attributes of pasta in this country.” – Corby Kummer, The Atlantic Monthly

Why are the best artisan pastas so far superior to the mid-range stuff? The basic process for producing dried pasta is fairly simple, and likely familiar, to many folks. Flour and water are mixed into a dough; the dough is extruded through metal dies to create a multitude of shapes and sizes; the freshly pressed pasta is then dried to preserve it. Finally the pasta is packed and shipped for sale.

But while the basic process is consistent, how can you tell which ones are at the top of the market, and which are only at entry level?
From an end user’s perspective, there are three key indicators of dried pasta quality:

1) Better Pasta Tastes Better

Americans often approach pasta as little more than a convenient way to convey large quantities of sauce from plate to palate. But for serious Italian eaters the point is the pasta as much as it is the sauce. Guess what guys? Although few Americans know it, good pasta actually tastes good. Yes, the pasta itself is supposed to have a flavor and integrity of its own to offer. I’m not talking about the finished dish here. Just the noodles.

2) The Importance of Texture

The other key piece of the pasta puzzle is texture; the integrity of the noodle after it’s been cooked is critical. Poor quality pastas can literally fall apart in the pot; turn your back and they turn soft and mushy in just a matter of minutes. With well-made maccheroni, on the other hand, when you take a bite you should know you’re eating something significant, not gumming your way through an overcooked tuna casserole.

How can you tell if a particular pasta meets the above qualifications? Firstly you can feel it in its dry state. Without knowing a thing about the technicalities of pasta making, you’ll find the difference starts to show up as soon as you open the box or bag and lay your hands on it.

Never really stopped to feel a handful of uncooked pasta? Well, now’s the time. You really can feel the difference. Pick up a fistful of commercial spaghetti. It’s shiny, slick, straight as a set of plastic Pick-Up Sticks. The stuff feels as if it’s ready to shatter like an old, worn out, piece of plastic. There’s no way around it. The factory made product lacks substance.

Now heft a handful of top grade pasta, say the maccheroni from Martelli (more about them in a bit). It’s solid. Heavier. More substantial. Two inch-long, curved tubes of ridged pasta, both smooth and rough at the same time. It feels good in your hand.

To test the validity of this thesis, simply cook some up and eat it on its own. At most, add a drop or two of extra virgin olive oil or a tad bit of butter. Though nearly naked, good pasta will still taste plenty good because the flavor of the wheat will come through. Sound strange? It may be, but it works.

3. Better Pasta Smells Better

The aroma of pasta? Most people would probably laugh at the thought of it. What kind of smell can unscented noodles bring to your nose? My guess is that if you’re laughing, you’ve yet to experience the flavor of the best possible pasta. Why? Because when you drop a handful of top notch noodles into boiling water, they release an enticing aroma of wheat. No, it’s not overpowering. But it’s definitely there. Try it with any of the pasta on my list of favorites. Stick your nose over the pot when you put the pasta in. You’ll catch a whiff of the wheat right off.


Less Sauce, More Flavor

To fully grasp why Italians put so much more emphasis on the flavor and texture of the pasta they put on their plates, it’s important to understand that in Italy the serving ratio of sauce to pasta is far lower than is considered “standard” in most of North America. Italians generally offer smaller servings, lightly tossed with a sauce, or simply served with a dollop of sauce sitting atop the noodles. By Italian standards, the sauce should accent, never overwhelm; no upstanding Italian chef would ever drown a pasta dish in sauce. With this in mind, it only makes sense that the pasta itself has to have flavor and character of its own.


Keys To Pasta Quality

So how does a producer go about making a better grade of pasta? Well,

1. It Starts with the Grain

If you go into a small pasta plant, the first thing you’re likely to notice is the smell of the grain. It’s much like the scent of a good bakery—warm humid air, perfumed with the aroma of milled wheat. If you’re serious about pasta, don’t ever take the role of the grain lightly. In his classic The Unprejudiced Palate, written in 1948, Angelo Pellegrini puts it pretty bluntly: “Pasta made with ordinary wheat flour is a phony, and no Italian will use it.”

What’s the alternative to “ordinary wheat flour?”
All the best Italian dried pastas start with semola di grano duro, (durum semolina), the coarsest grade of milled endosperm from hard wheat (triticum durum). In fact, since 1967 Italian law has actually required it. Unlike flour that is very finely milled to a powder, semolina is granular in structure, almost like sugar crystals or medium ground cornmeal in texture. Durum semolina makes superior pasta primarily because of its high gluten content—when properly developed in the dough by the maker, these glutens trap the starch inside the pasta and keep it from flowing out into the cooking water. Additionally, the glutens help to insure the firmness of texture that is such an essential element in great pasta. Because of its harder nature, durum semolina requires longer kneading, adding time and cost, but contributing mightily to the flavor and texture of the finished pasta. It also gives the glowing golden appearance that is so typical of Italian pasta (as opposed to the whiter look of low end product. Early in the 20th century unscrupulous pasta makers used to add colorings to give their inferior product the look of semolina.)

Unfortunately, only Italy imposes such a requirement for the use of semolina. In other countries it’s perfectly permissible for a pasta maker to start with soft wheat (triticum vulgarum), which is far less costly, but produces inferior pasta. Angelo Pellegrini writes that, soft wheat pasta “’mushes’ up, falls apart and sticks to the teeth.” You can usually spot soft wheat pastas as soon as you drop them into boiling water; the paste breaks down and leaves the cooking liquid looking cloudy.

Unfortunately, buying the best pasta isn’t just a function of finding a label that lists “semolina” in its ingredients. In his excellent 1986 essay in the Atlantic Monthly, Corby Kummer reported that, “Italian manufacturers are known for their skill at blending many durums to achieve the color and texture they seek.” Just as coffee roasters work with an array of green beans, the best pasta makers are masters at buying and blending durum semolina from various sources. Each producer has his own recipe, his own sources, his own mix; long before the grain ever gets into the pasta machines, the pasta maker adjusts his or her sources annually to take into account alterations in crop yields and flavor. The variety of the wheat is important; as with other agricultural products, older varieties of wheat often yield the most flavorful grain, but also have lower yields and higher risk of disease which keep more cost conscious producers at arms length. Carlo and Carla Latini, wheat growers and pasta makers from the Marché, have done a great deal to develop specific wheat varieties which will yield particularly flavorful pasta. And, of course, the soil in which the grain is grown plays its part as well. Some pasta makers prefer wheat from the various regions of Italy; others won’t buy anything but Canadian durum.

2. The Water

Although few people think about it, the flavor of the water with which the grain is mixed is a matter of great concern to quality-oriented pasta makers. Since the water in any given area has its own chemical and mineral makeup, it will alter the flavor of any item it’s blended with; it’s the same story with brewing coffee or tea. A bag of the same grain, mixed in California instead of Campania, is likely to yield different flavors in the finished pasta.

3. The Mixing

As it would with bread dough, excessive heat during mixing is the enemy of the quality-conscious producer. Instead, slow, gentle, low-temperature mixing helps to preserve the natural character and flavor of the wheat. Gentler kneading also allows the pastaii (the pasta maker) to mix for a longer period of time, enhancing the glutens in the dough which are so essential to creating a vital, vibrant texture. Finally, the traditional pasta maker must be ready and able to adjust her mixing to changes in weather and humidity, just as her counterpart, the artisan baker, would do with bread baking.

4. The Extrusion

Once the dough has been mixed, it’s then extruded through variously shaped dies. The early forms were developed at the end of the 19th century allowing pasta makers to expand the variety of their offerings significantly. Previously noodles had to be hand cut. But now, for the (not insignificant) cost of designing and making a new form, a pastaficio (pasta factory) could produce an additional pasta shape.

Strands of spaghetti or other long pastas are pushed through small holes, then cut at the appropriate length by rotating blades. Short tubular pastas like penne start out by winding their way around a rod suspended from the top of the die, then exit by a smaller hole at the bottom. This narrowing forces the dough to come back to form the hollow tubes and twists we’re all accustomed to. Notches in the holes can force the exiting dough to curve or curl, conjuring shapes like “elbow” maccheroni.

More modern operations now extrude through smooth-surfaced, Teflon-coated dies. The Teflon lasts longer, and allows for more rapid (and hence cost-reducing) extrusion. But it yields a pasta so slick it almost seems as to have been shined. When you dress it, your sauce is almost certain to run right off; instead of the well-integrated combo of sauce and pasta Italians prefer, you’ll end up with a bunch of nearly naked noodles laying atop a unappealing pool of sauce.

The best dried pastas, on the other hand, are those that are extruded through old-style bronze dies, what Italians refer to astrafile di bronze. An essential component of artisan pasta making, the bronze dies are themselves an artisan product. Although the first phases of their production are now done by machine, the dies must still be checked, adjusted and finished by hand to get them to produce near-perfect pasta. Bronze is a softer metal, meaning the life of the dies is shorter, the extrusion is slower, and replacement costs higher. But the beauty of these old-fashioned forms is that they produces a pasta with a coarser, more porous, surface—the seemingly sea-washed roughness you feel when you hold it in your hand. This isn’t just an issue of aesthetics. The little pits embrace the sauce with open arms. As you eat you get effective integration; the flavor of the pasta is intertwined with the flavor of the sauce.

Take note, too, that the speed of extrusion can also impact quality. In pasta making, as on the highway, speed kills; it can cause unwanted heat, and hence, damage to both texture and flavor. Those who take the extrusion process at a more leisurely pace protect the natural glutens in the dough, which in turn insures that the pasta’s all important texture is preserved during cooking.

5. The Drying

The drying takes the moisture content of the fresh dough down to less that half of its original 25 percent, giving packaged pasta its long shelf life, and arguably making it mankind’s ultimate convenience food. Seemingly simple. But as Harold McGee says in On Food and Cooking, “Drying is the trickiest step in pasta manufacture.”

Up until earlier in this century, all Italian pasta was dried in the sun, often for up to a week, to reach the desired level of desiccation. Pasta makers, it was said, had to be as good at reading the weather as fisherman or farmers. Sadly, in these days of air pollution and depleted ozone layers, sun-drying noodles is no longer an option. But fortunately for food lovers, pasta drying machines were invented around the turn of the last century.

Each pasta maker has a “recipe” for drying, and each seems certain that his or her technique is the best. Faster moving, more cost-conscious factories use high heat to dry the pasta in a mere matter of hours. The problem with this speed-dried stuff is that the excessive heat essentially “bakes” the pasta; the finished noodles are often brittle and easily broken, and many of the subtleties of the grain may be lost.

Smaller, artisan pastaii work at much lower temperatures than their industrial counterparts, taking as long as twenty four, thirty six, forty eight, even fifty-plus hours to dry their pasta. This type of drying takes place in very warm (but never high heat) humid environments in which moisture can be reduced slowly, without damaging the texture of the finished product.
While the production of artisan dried pasta may seem straightforward in theory, it is difficult to do well. Machines may do the actual extrusion, but the human element remains essential. Watching the pasta production at Martelli in Lari, I noticed that every so often, Dino Martelli would grab a piece and pop it—raw—into his mouth. “Are you checking the pasta?” I inquire with a bit of uncertainty. Who eats raw pasta after all? “Absolutely!” he answers adamantly, as if I should have known that from the beginning. “We check the pasta by taste and by feel all the time.” Like cheesemaking or bread baking, traditional pasta production remains a craft, not a science.