How is packaged pasta made?
How does the drying process affect the quality of pasta?
How does the pasta workshop’s location affect pasta quality?
How does good pasta look, feel, taste and smell like?
How long should I cook my pasta for? What is the ideal level of “cookedness” of pasta?
Is it a good sign if the water I cook my pasta in becomes all cloudy and frothy?
The pasta or the sauce? What is the secret to delicious pasta?
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The key ingredients in pasta are flour and water. Weak flours like all-purpose flour and tipo 00 flour require eggs to give the pasta structure. The mixture is passed through a machine that mixes everything up. The dough is pushed through an extruder (the best are made of bronze plates, and the pasta emerges slowly without heating up excessively and without causing the starch molecules to crystallise into sugar). The head of the extruder comes in different shapes, and this piece can be swapped based on the desired type of pasta. A rotating knife blade cuts the pasta as they exit from the extruder; its speed varies on the desired length of the pasta. The pasta is laid out or hung on pasta drying racks to dry. There are different drying processes, that affect the quality of the pasta. When the moisture has left the pasta, they are packed and ready to be sold.
Pasta that is dried slowly at a low temperature (30-45 degrees celsius depending on the shape and length) does not suffer any alterations to its nutritional properties. From the extruder, pasta is laid out or hung onto drying racks, and placed in drying chambers. The best drying chambers alternate between sauna and ventilator, allowing the pasta to literally sweat out its moisture until equilibrium is reached with the surrounding air. This process takes up to 30 hours.
On the other hand, pasta that is subjected to high temperatures (up to 250 degrees celsius) is not dried – but burnt. The starch in the pasta crystallises and essentially becomes sugar. Vitamins, fibres, minerals and antioxidants are also compromised. When pasta is mass produced by big industries, time is of the essence. Instead of resting in drying chambers, the pasta travels on a conveyor belt through a tunnel, where hot air is blasted onto it. When the pasta emerges at the other end of the tunnel a couple of hours later, it is sufficiently dry and ready to be packed.
Grains are hydroscopic. This means that they gain or lose moisture until equilibrium is reached with the surrounding air. This exchange of moisture occurs throughout the life cycle of grains, in the field, during transportation to the processing plant, when stored and processed, right up to the moment they enters our digestive system. Components in the surrounding air enter the grains through this exchange, and stay in the grains. As a result, what the grains absorb differs based on its location. The air that the grains breathe in a pasta making factory located in an industrial area, compared to a workshop in the midst of wheat fields, is definitely not the same – and this difference carries over onto our plates and into our stomachs.
Good pasta should not be completely smooth. you should feel a slight roughness as you run your fingers along the pasta. This roughness is indicative of a slow extruding process, usually with bronze plates, and allows sauces to cling on to the pasta. Note that roughness does not refer to the shape of the pasta (when the mould itself has ridges), but the texture of the pasta (regardless of whether the pasta is penne rigate or spaghetti).
Pasta that is porous absorbs water and releases starch uniformly and adequately. The pasta’s porosity also allows the flavours in the sauce to penetrate. Pasta that has been dried – read burnt – at high temperatures are not very porous, as the starch molecules have crystallised, forming a “plastic” coating. During the cooking process, the pot of boiling water should gradually turn cloudy, but not quickly become all frothy with a slimy film.
Good pasta holds its structure and does not break up during the cooking process. It maintains a pleasant chewiness when cooked to al dente, instead of feeling sticky when chewed. These characteristics are possible when good quality, high protein flour is used. However, unscrupulous producers have found a way to achieve the desired bite even with poor flour – by adding gluten powder to the pasta mix. Beware of pasta that doesn’t break up or soften excessively even when you let it cook for too long while answering a phone call, for instance.
In general, the closer the colour of the pasta is to the colour of the wheat it is made of, the less it has been processed. Since pasta is traditionally made of milled durum wheat (semola) that is yellow in colour, the amount of yellow pigment in pasta has traditionally been an indicator of quality. Pasta that has undergone high temperatures during the drying process tend to be paler in colour. However, colour is an ambiguous indicator of quality for two reasons. Firstly, the yellow pigment in pasta can be enhanced by colourants and additives such as “Pastazym”. Secondly, pasta made from grains other than durum wheat are definitely not inferior to their more traditional counterparts, and may in fact be superior in terms of taste, texture and nutritional properties. These pastas will naturally adopt the colours of these alternative grains, that range from straw yellow to chestnut brown.
Last but not least, good pasta should smell like the countryside. If you can’t get even a whiff of the wheat fields in the pasta, chances are this pasta has since lost its heritage.
The longer your cook your pasta for, the softer and less chewy it becomes. While we may have individual preferences on how soft or chewy we like our pasta to be, there is a scientifically proven ideal level of “cookedness”. Al dente pasta may seem undercooked to those who are used to softer textures, but as long as the pasta is cooked uniformly and the inside is springy but not grainy and hard, it is thoroughly cooked. Any longer and the pasta gradually becomes softer, less chewy and ultimately poorer in nutrients and more difficult to digest.
Here’s the scientific explanation. Pasta contains starch and gluten. During the pasta making process, a gluten web is formed, trapping molecules of starch within it. During the cooking process, the starch molecules gradually absorb water. When pasta is cooked to al dente stage, the starch molecules are plump and break through their cellulose coating. The starch molecules are sufficiently hydrated and the pasta is no longer grainy and hard. At this stage, the gluten web just manages to hold in the starch molecules and all the nutritional properties. When eaten, the starch in the pasta is released slowly, making it easy for our digestive enzymes to do their work and preventing blood glucose from peaking. The need to chew the pasta well also kickstarts the starch digestion right from when the pasta is still in our mouths – saliva prepares the starch molecules for their subsequent demolition.
If we continue cooking al dente pasta, the starch molecules fill up with water and explode, bursting free from the gluten web and nutrients are dispersed in the water. When eaten, the starch is released immediately, creating a traffic jam for our digestive enzymes and causing blood glucose to peak. In addition, we tend to chew these soft and slippery pasta inadequately.
Pasta, cooked al dente, would have shed off its cellulose coating, leaving some cloudy residue in the pot of boiling water. However, if the pasta is overcooked and its starch molecules explode out of the gluten web, the pot of boiling water would be cloudier and frothier.
Apart from cooking time, pasta quality also affects how much starch escapes from the pasta. Pasta made from flour that has low protein content will not have a gluten web strong enough to hold in the starch molecules, quickly resulting in a pot of very cloudy water often with a film of starch. This slimy film of starch also causes the pasta to clump together. In our stomachs, the quick release of starch also causes blood glucose to peak. If your pot of boiling water becomes cloudy very quickly, chances are the pasta is made with flour of poor quality.
On the other hand, neither is pasta that releases very little starch ideal. It is by releasing starch that the pasta manages to combine well with the condiments in it s sauce, therefore a pasta that is stingy with its starch will resulting in a dish with little harmony between pasta and sauce. This usually occurs when the pasta has gone through heavy processing, such as high temperature drying, and often with additives to strengthen its structure.
The secret to delicious pasta? Good pasta, good condiments, good olive oil. Once you have your ingredients on hand, these tips ensure that they do not go to waste.
Golden rule – make sure that your sauce is ready before your pasta is ready. The sauce can wait (on a small or extinguished flame) but the pasta cannot wait. And never ever put the pasta under running water or immerse it in a bowl of cold water to interrupt the cooking process. To safeguard the taste and texture of the pasta, and to allow it to combine well with the sauce, the pasta goes from boiling water into the sauce directly (with the help of a colander).
The secret to creamy, luscious sauces that bind with the pasta is a ladle of starchy water from the pot where the pasta is cooking. Keeping in mind that the art of cooking pasta is a single, continuous process and not merely heaping sauce onto cooked pasta, the pasta needs to be cooked together with the sauce. When the pasta is al dente and springy, it goes into the pan of sauce along with some of the starchy water. The starchy water binds the various ingredients in the sauce, whose flavours are then absorbed by the pasta that continues cooking in the pan.
If the recipe calls for cheese to be added to the sauce, extinguish the flame before adding cheese. This prevents cheese strands from forming, resulting in a creamy amalgamation of the cheese with other ingredients.
Last but not least, when the pasta is on the plate, a drizzle of good quality extra virgin olive oil exalts the flavours and fragrances of all that goodness.