The Key to a Perfect Pasta Marriage

by Eliza Ward


In almost every region of Italy, pasta is considered more than just food; pasta is art, ritual, culture, and history all rolled into one. The popular myth that Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant, brought pasta back to Italy from his travels to China is not true. There is now evidence which shows that pasta existed in Italy as early as 1279, long before Marco Polo returned from his travels along the Silk Road.

Although “fresh” pasta was where it all started, by the early 1300’s Italians started making dried pasta, and it quickly became the preferred form; commercially-produced, “factory” dried pasta was favored for its longer shelf life, easy storage and transport. Soon after dried pasta made its début, it began traveling around the world as traders and explorers brought pasta along on their ships as they set-forth to discover the New World. In fact, today you will often hear famous chefs and cookbook authors, like Marcella Hazan, say that when you cook dried pasta, you must make sure your cooking water is “as salty as the sea”. (In Marcella's case, she recommends at least 2 tablspoons of salt per 4-5 quarts of pasta.) I would guess that, traditionally, the cooking water on those long voyages was, in fact, “sea water” - after all, why would you waste precious drinking water to cook pasta?

By the time the explorers embarked, different shapes of pasta started to appear, along with new technologies that made making and drying pasta much easier.  It was these innovations that boosted pasta consumption in Italy, and ultimately lead to pasta becoming a key part of the daily Italian (and non-Italian) diet around the world.

The tomato, on the other hand, took longer to integrate into Italian cuisine. It was brought back from the New World soon after its discovery, but did not make significant in-roads into the Italian diet until the early 1800’s.
Pasta and tomato: the ultimate trans-Atlantic match made in heaven.


What Makes One Pasta Better Than Another?

Italian law states that dried pasta must be made with 100% durum semolina flour and water, a rule that all but the lowest quality pasta makers adhere to worldwide. However, there are three things that make artisan-produced pasta superior to most other dried pasta manufactured both inside and outside of Italy: The quality of the wheat, how the pasta is extruded, and how it is dried.

Pasta craftsmen produce their pasta with the skill and experience few can match. They employ traditional production methods now abandoned by industrial pasta makers. They start with the purest water and semolina flour from hand-selected locally grown or US grown durum wheat. Different flours grown in different areas of Italy and the US impart different qualities into the final product. Some wheat flours have higher or lower ash content, or higher or lower gluten content – which creates a pasta of different texture and flavor.

After working the dough by hand, master artisan pasta makers extrude the pasta dough through traditional bronze molds or dies. This slow and careful process is more than tradition; it ensures the proper texture and flavor of the final product. It is the rough surface of bronze extruded pasta, as well as the shape, that ensures a good marriage between the pasta and the sauce.

There are over 350 different shapes and varieties of dried pasta in Italy - more if you consider regional specialties and handmade shapes. The more complicated shapes are designed for grabbing and holding onto sauces. But, the texture of the pasta is also important. Some tube pastas have additional ridges (“rigate”) on the outside, designed to help the pasta and the sauce stay together. It is these traditional bronze dies that, while expensive and prone to wear, are preferred by artisan pasta makers, because they ensure finer quality dried pasta, and help the pasta and the pasta sauce stay attached to each other.

Many commercial producers, especially outside of Italy, use steel or even Teflon dies. These modern dies allow the pasta manufacturer to extrude the pasta much more quickly and therefore, much more cheaply.  But the pasta produced is too smooth to hold onto the pasta sauce – even when making tube or twisted shapes. We’ve all had the experience of eating all our pasta, only to find all our sauce left behind at the bottom of the bowl.  Well … now you know why.

After the pasta is extruded and cut, it must be properly dried. This is another place where industrial pasta producers fall short. Mass produced pasta is dried at very high temperatures for a shorter time, while traditional pasta is allowed to dry more slowly at a much lower temperature and for a longer period of time. Artisan pasta is dried using traditional methods under controlled, low-temperature conditions for 24 to 92 hours, depending on the shape. This slow drying process leads a better tasting product, and a more uniform absorption of water during cooking so that you can get that perfect "al dente" texture on your plate every time.

So, next time you are at the grocery store considering which pasta to purchase, make sure you look for one made with genuine durum wheat semolina that is extruded through bronze dies - ideally with wheat grown in Italy.  Not only will it taste better, but you will help stop the fighting and get your pasta and pasta sauce back together – for good.