Pasta is the most democratic of foods – delicious, adaptable and imbued with the glamour of Sophia Loren, who once said: “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.” It’s cheap, too – but just how cheap varies enormously. Bargain basement pasta costs just 32p for 500g, enough for five hearty portions; but posh ones can come in at more than 10 times that.
So, what’s the difference? Some contain egg, making for a silkier, often more delicate texture – and usually a higher price, although they make a good treat and need hardly any sauce. At the other end of the desirability scale are the bags of garish stripy pastas that lurk dustily in deli gift selections. Nobody wants to be given those.
But our standard pasta, the stuff of countless weekday dinners, is just flour and water, dried. What could possibly go wrong? It turns out it’s worth being pernickety with pasta details – and price isn’t everything.
What colour is it?
Durum wheat gives a yellowy hue to pasta, which we consumers love – so much that wheat breeders are selecting varieties with higher levels of carotenoids to boost the colour. But don’t be too seduced by that sunshiny glow, except in the case of egg pasta which ought to be a pleasing custard yellow.
Italian cookery queen Anna del Conte describes good pasta (but not the kind with egg in) as being “pale yellow buff”. Deep amber pasta has probably been dried fast at a high temperature, in as little as three hours, darkening the colour as well as making a glassy, smooth surface. Traditionally, slow-dried pasta can take as long as 72 hours to dry, and often looks pallid and chalky in the packet. It has a more porous texture, better for absorbing sauce.
What does the surface look like?
Pasta shapes are extruded through “dies” – plates with holes in. A matt, rough surface on the pasta means that a traditional bronze die has been used. It’s a slower process than modern non-stick dies, but the pasta sauce will cling to the pasta better. Bronze-die pasta also seems to give up a bit more starch to the cooking water: a spoonful of this added to a sauce will help it form a smooth emulsion.
Which flour was used?
Properly, pasta should be made with the very hard part of the durum wheat endosperm (the starchy part of the grain, as opposed to the bran or the germ).
This is called semola or semolina. The softer part of the endosperm can also be ground to make flour, but semolina is preferred because it absorbs water well and gives the most bouncy texture, so look for “durum wheat semolina” on the ingredients label. If it says “durum wheat” or “durum wheat flour”, it may not all be semolina. If ordinary flour is included (as in Tesco’s cheapo Hearty Food Co version), then the texture will probably be softer and stickier.
Not all durum wheat is from Italy – it doesn’t seem to be a requirement that the origin is shown on the packet, and most brands don’t bother to say where it comes from, so kudos to Tesco for being transparent enough to label theirs as “made using EU and non-EU durum wheat”.
The Cost of Cooking
There’s no doubt that when it comes to cooking, pasta is a gas guzzler. Italian cooks recommend at least one litre of water and 10g of salt (a rounded teaspoonful) for 100g of pasta for each person.
So, supper for four will mean bringing four litres of water to the boil. In my largest lidded pan on my most powerful gas burner (a 5kWh number designed for a wok), that took just shy of 20 minutes. Add in 10 minutes of cooking time, and allowing 7p per kWh, and that’s 17p. Not staggering, I grant you, but not that green, either – and if you are using electricity, it’ll be even more expensive.
Some of the more scientific cooks have debunked the traditional way of cooking and suggested a more fuel-efficient method instead. Harold McGee, who has a Dalai Lama-like status in food-science circles, recommends putting 450g pasta in 1.45 litres of cold salted water and bringing it to the boil, giving a total cooking time of about 15 minutes and saving 50 per cent of your cooking costs. It works well, plus the cooking water is extra starchy, great for adding to a sauce.
I tried a second method that’s been doing the rounds on the internet: presoaking pasta. It all sounded a bit student bedsit to me, up there with cooking a steak in a toaster (please don’t do this) or fish fingers and chips in a waffle maker. But in the interests of research, I soaked a portion of penne in salted cold water overnight in the fridge. The next day, I drained off the cold water, trying to ignore how depressingly flaccid the pasta looked, and tipped it into a pan. In went a kettleful of boiling water, then I brought it back to the boil before draining it again.
Amazingly, it worked, the pasta brightening and tightening before my eyes. Not as al dente as I’d like it – next time I’ll soak it for just four hours – but this could save time, money and a fugged-up kitchen.
Sainsbury’s Penne Rigate
This looks almost the same as the posh De Cecco brand (which is also sold by Sainsbury’s) and in a blind tasting, it was all-but indistinguishable – but for less than half the price.
Quite hefty, with a good al dente bite and a mild, pleasant flavour. One for a robust sauce.
Tesco Hearty Food Co Penne
Fractionally paler and a few millimetres longer than standard Tesco penne, but no difference in flavour, and less than half the price. A bit sticky, but I doubt you’d notice in a pasta bake.
Barilla Penne Rigate
Slightly larger penne, with a good wheat flavour and a decent bounce. Good value, and in plastic free packaging, too.
Pastificio Carmiano Gragnano Penne Rigate
Large quills, like something you’d get in a trattoria. Pleasing rough texture, with a real flavour of wheat, nutty like good bread. My favourite – worth the extra money.
De Cecco Penne Rigate
Almost indistinguishable from the Sainsbury’s own brand, although the colour is fractionally more yellowy. Pleasingly bouncy texture, but not much flavour.
Read last week's column: Yes olive oil is a luxury – but you can still buy it on a budget