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What makes pasta great?

Contrary to macaroni myth, Marco Polo did not introduce pasta to Europe from China. As a bas relief of pasta-making tools in a 4th century Etruscan tomb clearly shows, Europeans had known about the stuff for centuries. 

Italians in particular are pazzo for pasta. On average, every Italian man, woman and child eats 62 pounds of macaroni a year (Americans eat only 14). It’s possible they like it even better than sex. According to one study, 33 percent of Italians cited pasta as their chief pleasure in life; sex only rated 22 percent. They love pasta with a religious zeal, evidenced in pasta shapes with names like ave maria, paternoster (“Our Father” in Latin), angel hair and the darkly disturbing Strozzapreti (priest strangler). In the 13th century, the Pope himself—while looking after a little thing called the Crusades, mind you—somehow found the time to set the quality standards for macaroni.

The Amalfi coast around Naples was once the center for serious pasta production; there it was easy to import wheat, and warm breezes from Mt. Vesuvius dried the dough. Up until the 17th century, macaroni was expensive and exotic, even in The Boot. Industrialization revolutionized production, making pasta affordable. Thomas Jefferson enjoyed it so much while in Italy that he brought a case of pasta back to Monticello—and machine to make it. But it wasn’t until 1848 that Antoine Zergega opened America’s first commercial pasta factory in Brooklyn, New York, where (in fair weather) he dried his product up on the roof.

Ironically, Italy grows very little wheat to produce its most beloved food. In fact, that box of dried Italian pasta on your shelf probably got its start not in Naples but in the fertile fields of North Dakota. That’s where most of America’s durum wheat, prized for pasta making, is farmed. And Italy is the world’s No. 1 importer of American durum semolina.

Go figure.

So, what exactly makes a good quality dried pasta? And what separates the merely good from the great? Great pasta starts with great wheat, a particularly hard variety called durum—from the Latin, meaning “hard.”

“Durum is hardest of the six classes of wheat and the highest in protein, which makes for the best quality pasta,” says Marcia Scheideman, president of the Wheat Foods Council.

Pasta can be made from other, softer wheats. Cheaper pasta often is. But the end product tends to break during cooking and is pale in color. The best pasta is made from 100 percent durum wheat.

A so-called “spring wheat,” durum is planted in April or May and harvested in early fall. Although durum is grown in many countries, including Canada, Europe (including Southern Italy), Russia and China, very specific soil and climate conditions create wheat with the best qualities for pasta production.

North Dakota and Arizona produce some of the finest durum in the world—and for that reason the product stands in great demand around the globe. A full third of North Dakota’s 1.7 million ton annual harvest (which amounts to 68 percent of total U.S. production) is exported.

“North Dakota has a short, hot growing season,” explains the North Dakota Wheat Commission’s Sandy McMerty, “which makes the endosperm [the heart of the kernel] really hard and a strong yellow color—which is what pasta lovers look for.”

Milling the durum kernels separates the bran and germ from the protein-rich endosperm. The end product, a golden, coarsely ground grist, is semolina, the main component of prime pasta.

Turning semolina into pasta is a deceptively simple process: the flour is mixed with water, the paste is extruded or otherwise shaped, and the pasta is dried and packaged. However, there are several key points in the process that separate the poor pasta from the great.

First, semolina is mixed with water. Care is taken in mixing the semolina and water to produce a thoroughly homogenous dough, otherwise the pasta may suffer from discoloration or spots. The amount of water depends upon the flour’s initial moisture content, temperature and the type of pasta being made. Just the right amount of moisture during mixing is critical to ultimate quality. If too little water is added, the dough is difficult to force out of the die, and the final product may have cracks; too wet and the pasta might not retain its shape during drying.

Eggs or flavorings can be added during mixing. By USDA regulations, egg pasta must contain 5.5 percent egg solids by weight. To color the pasta, dehydrated vegetables or other ingredients may be blended in.

The next step is forming. Consistency in shape is a hallmark of great pasta. For some forms, the dough is rolled into sheets and stamped out. Bow ties are made this way, with the added step of crimping the center of each piece—which is why this pasta is the most difficult and most expensive to make, according to the National Pasta Association. Other shapes, such as spaghetti, penne and ziti, are produced by extrusion. A screw forces the dough through a die, sort of like a Playdoh Fun Factory. Small round holes form spaghetti, for example, and a pin inside the die hole makes hollow shapes such as bucatini. For shapes like elbows, a notch on the side of the die slows one side of the dough, causing it to curve as it’s extruded. A revolving knife cuts the pasta to size.

Pasta dies, which typically weigh over 300 pounds, used to be made of bronze. Now most manufacturers use Teflon-coated dies, explains McMerty, which greatly speeds up production. There is a lot of debate about which types of dies produce the best pasta. Some artisanal producers still use bronze dies, claiming that the metal makes for a rougher-surfaced pasta that picks up sauce better. But Kamal Dagher, once a vice president of R&D for Parma, Italy-headquartered Barilla, one of the largest pasta producers in the world (and the largest in America), says such claims are mostly marketing. He contends that the rougher surface allows cooking water to penetrate too quickly, making for less-than-ideal quality.

More important than what the die is made of is how it shapes the noodles. Taking a penne die as an example, Dagher explains that for this ribbed pasta shape extensive calculations go into how thick the ridges and valleys of the ribs should be. “When properly cooked, the valley should be slightly overdone so it is easy to chew with a good mouthfeel, while the ridge of the pasta will still be al dente. If the differential is not right, you won’t have a quality finished product.”

One of the most critical steps, experts agree, is drying. This can make or break pasta—literally. Dry too fast and pasta develops stress cracks and will fall apart when cooked; dry too slow and the dough will spoil. Commercial drying ovens are the size of a football field, with constantly circulating hot air. It’s more than a matter of turning on the heat; drying is a two-step process with a complex curve of heat and humidity. Drying times vary according to thickness and type. When leaving the die, the dough contains about 32 percent moisture; pasta is considered dry at or below 12.5 percent moisture content. Care, too, must be taken to prevent pasta shapes from deforming while the dough is still soft and malleable.

After drying is complete and the pasta is cool and stable, it is packed in boxes or packaged by form-fill-seal machines. Delicate shapes may be packed by hand.

Great pasta has a luscious amber color, no deformities of shape, and no black specks, white spots or visible cracks. Quality pasta doesn’t cloud cooking water with excess starch, doesn’t clump or stick in the pot and retains its shape, says Barilla’s executive chef Lorenzo Boni. It doesn’t need rinsing or tossing with oil to keep from sticking. With great pasta, penne that calls for 12 minutes cooking will still be good at 15 minutes; average pasta will start falling apart at 13 minutes.

The wider the window, says Dagher, the better the product. 


Did you know…

  • The world’s Pasta Museum is located near the Trevi Fountain in the heart of Rome.
  • In 18th century England, macaroni was slang, meaning fashionable—like the feather in Yankee Doodle Dandy’s cap.
  • Roman goddess Ceres, protectress of grains, gave us the name cereal.
  • Throwing pasta on the wall to see if it sticks is not a test for doneness.
  • World durum production in 2005-06 was 27 million tons.
  • Don’t add oil to pasta cooking water; it’s a waste of oil.
  • Every bushel of wheat contains 1 million kernels.
  • Each 60-lb. bushel can make 42 lb. of spaghetti, or 210 servings.
  • Tripolini (bow shaped) pasta celebrated the Italian conquest of Tripoli in Libya.
  • October is National Pasta Month.

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