|Making a Better Pasta
So how does a producer go about making a better grade of pasta?
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. (Up until
recently, you couldn't sell soft wheat pasta in Italy, but European Union
codes have forced the Italians to open their market to imports from other EU
countries.) Unlike flour that is very finely milled to a powder, semolina is
granular, almost like sugar or finely ground cornmeal. 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 ensure the firmness 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 typical of Italian pasta, as opposed to the whiter look of a
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 an inferior product. You can usually spot soft wheat pastas as soon
as you drop them into boiling water; the pasta breaks down and clouds the
Buying the best pasta isn't just a function of finding a label that
lists 'semolina' among its ingredients. 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
suppliers, his own mix; long before the grain ever gets into the pasta
machines, the pasta maker adjusts his recipe 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 are often the most
flavorful, but they also have lower yields and higher risk of disease, which
keep more cost-conscious producers at arm's length. Some pasta makers
prefer wheat from the various regions of Italy; others won't buy anything but
The point is merely that the best dried pasta should taste of the
grain; if you already know a noodle with flavor and character, it's likely that
the maker has managed to buy grain from better sources.
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, as it would in brewing coffee or
tea. The same grain mixed in California instead o Campania is likely to yield
a different flavor in the finished pasta.
As with bread dough, excessive heat during mixing is the enemy of the
quality-conscious producer. Slow, gentle, low-temperature mixing helps to
preserve the natural character and flavor of the wheat. Gentler kneading also
allows the pasta maker to mix for a longer period of time, enhancing the
glutens that are so essential to creating a vital, vibrant texture. Finally, the
traditional pasta maker must be ready and able to adjust his mixing to
changes in weather and humidity, just as the artisan baker would do with
Once the dough has been mixed, it's then extruded through variously shaped
dies. The early versions were developed at the end of the nineteenth century,
allowing pasta makers to expand their offerings significantly. (Before that,
noodles had to be hand-cut.) The dies are not unlike the cover plate on an old-
fashioned meat grinder, but with a differently shaped die for each of the
dozens of types of pasta being produced. 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 through 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'
Most modern commercial operations now extrude pasta dough
through smooth Teflon-coated dies. The Teflon lasts a long time and allows
for more rapid (and hence cost-reducing) extrusion, but it yields a pasta so
slick that it seems to shine. When you dress it, your sauce is certain to run
right off, leaving a bunch of nearly naked noodles lying atop an unappealing
pool of liquid.
The best dried pastas are those that are extruded through old-
style dies made of bronze, what Italians refer to as trafile 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 be checked, adjusted, and finished
by hand in order to produce near-perfect pasta. Bronze is a soft metal,
meaning the life of the dies is shorter, the extrusion is slower, and
replacement costs are higher compared with commercial equipment. But the
beauty of these old-fashioned forms is that they produce pasta with a
coarser, more porous surface —the seemingly sea-washed roughness you
feel when you hold it in your hand. Yet aesthetics is not the only issue. The
little pits in the pasta embrace the sauce with open arms.
Take note, too, that the speed of extrusion can also affect quality.
In pasta making, as on the highway, speed kills; in this case, 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 ensures that the pasta's all-important
texture is preserved during cooking.
The drying takes the moistur of the fresh dough down to less than
half of its original 25 percent, giving packaged pasta its long shelf life and
arguably making it one of mankind's ultimate convenience foods. Up until the
beginning of the twentieth 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 are fishermen 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 1900.
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 hot), humid environments in which moisture can be
reduced slowly, without damaging the texture of the finished product. This
slow, gentle drying preserves the noodle's natural moisture, wrapping it inside
its rough exterior surface.
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. Each pasta maker has for drying, and each seems certain that his technique is the best.
Watching the pasta production at Martelli, an artisan pasta producer in
Tuscany, 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 inquired uncertainly.
'Absolutely!' he answered adamantly, as if I should have known
that. 'We check the pasta by taste and by feel all the time.' Like cheese-
making or bread baking, traditional pasta production remains a craft, not a
Calphalon Stainless Pasta Fork Calphalon Nylon Utensils feature a unique "grip-anywhere handle" that lets you decide where to hold it. Crafted from 18/10 stainless steel with heat-resistant soft-touch silicone accents, these utensils give you a perfect balance of durability and comfort. Innovative head designs make dozens of cooking tasks easier. This is the perfect tool for draining and serving pasta. One large weep hole in the bottom of the fork drains water away quickly, and the extra-long handle keeps your hands clear from steaming pasta. The long tines of Calphalon's nylon and stainless steel pasta forks grip pasta securely. Your noodles never had it so good. Nylon is heat resistant to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (204 degrees Celsius). Lifetime warranty.
VillaWare Pasta Machine Motor Save prep time and elbow grease with this powerful, quiet, 2-speed Motor. Instantly automates your hand-crank pasta machine, freeing your hands to guide pasta dough through the rollers and cutters. Pasta Machine Motor works with VillaWare's Imperial and Al Dente pasta machines. Made in Italy. Pasta machine not included.
VillaWare Al Dente Al Dente Pasta Machine, Chrome This Pasta Machine is constructed out of chrome-plated stainless steel, a handsome, durable machine for making fresh pasta at home! Use it to roll out your dough, then use the cutters to make strands of spaghetti and fettuccine. Features include an easy-turn plastic handle on one side and a dough roller dial on the other, plus a stainless steel with plastic clamp so it can be attached to your countertop. Other cutting heads are available.
VillaWare 5x12.5 Ravioli Pasta Plaque Make delicious, fresh, homemade ravioli easily and quickly using this specially designed Plaque. Simply place a sheet of pasta on the plaque, add your favorite filling, cover with another pasta sheet, then cut. Makes 10 large 2.5" squares.