Chickpeas, lentils, and dried beans—edible seeds of plants in the legume family—are cheap, vegetarian, gluten-free, and packed with protein and fiber. On their own, they’ve been a nutritious and highly valued food source for thousands of years, but recently we've seen them popping up in everything from chips and burgers to bread crumbs and miso. Another massive food category they've invaded? Pasta. To find out if legume pasta was worth the hype, we tasted eight nationally available products.
To determine our tasting lineup, we surveyed the supermarket landscape to see how many products were widely available in the United States and gathered a broad selection. If a particular brand made multiple products, we tasted each product and included our favorite one in our final lineup, which eventually consisted of two chickpea pastas, four lentil pastas, one mung bean pasta, and one pasta made with both chickpeas and lentils. For one brand, we included two options in our final lineup. The pastas were available in an assortment of shapes, but for the sake of consistency, we settled on rotini or spiral shapes since these were most widely available. After determining the ideal cooking time for each product to ensure textural consistency across the samples (each pasta took longer to cook than the time suggested on its package), we asked 21 editors and test cooks to sample the pastas plain, with our Quick Tomato Sauce, and in our recipe for Pasta with Pesto, Potatoes, and Green Beans.
We wondered how manufacturers transformed these humble seeds into pasta, but they were tight-lipped about their specific processes. Through a bit of online research, we discovered that the legume pasta production process is very similar to that of wheat pasta. The dried legumes are milled and then run through fine-mesh sieves until only a fine-textured flour remains. Water is mixed into the flour, other ingredients are sometimes added (more on that later), and then the dough is kneaded and finally extruded through dies into various shapes.
At the start of the tasting process, many tasters didn’t know what to expect because they had never tried pastas made from legumes. Would they taste like chickpeas or lentils, or would they be indistinguishable from wheat pasta? The results were telling. In the plain tasting, the pasta made from mung beans was described as “bitter” and “grassy”—too strongly flavored for many tasters. The more subtle lentil and chickpea pastas scored higher, with tasters describing them as “earthy,” “nutty,” and “slightly sweet.”
Next, we served the pastas with Quick Tomato Sauce and in our recipe for Pasta with Pesto, Potatoes, and Green Beans. Certain products fared well with the tomato sauce, but some did not. Tasters said that the more “vegetal,” “beany” flavors of some pastas clashed with the bright, acidic tomato sauce. Most of the products scored higher in the pesto tasting, where these flavors were more in sync with the herbal pesto. Our higher-rated products were neutral enough in flavor that they tasted delicious with both sauces. In addition to lentil flour, our winner contains rice flour, which is very mild in flavor and gave this pasta a notably neutral flavor. Some tasters compared it to wheat pasta.
Gluten and starch are two vital components of wheat that give wheat pasta its pleasing flexibility and chew. Flours made from legumes contain no gluten and less starch than wheat flour, so some manufacturers add ingredients such as tapioca, xanthan gum, pea protein, rice flour, or quinoa flour in an attempt to mimic the texture of wheat pasta. These additives all improve the moisture-retaining qualities of the pasta, keeping the noodles hydrated and chewy. Some of these additives, such as pea protein and xanthan gum, also improve cohesiveness. Tasters commented that our two higher-rated products, which included one or more of these additives, were “tender,” “chewy,” and “smooth.” Lower-rated pastas had a range of textural issues: They were “gummy,” “dry,” and “crumbly.” We were quick to notice that these samples didn’t contain any additives.
Three of the lower-ranking pastas were described as being “gritty” and “grainy.” This could be attributed to how finely the flour used to make the pastas was milled. Coarsely ground flours would result in grittier pastas.
We can fully recommend three of the products in our lineup, but Modern Table Rotini was the best. This pasta had a “great, chewy, real-pasta texture and a nicely seasoned, buttery flavor.” It was the only sample in our lineup that contained rice flour, which gave it a more neutral flavor, and pea protein, which enhanced its cohesiveness and chew. One taster said, “I would have no idea this wasn’t regular pasta.”