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An Ode to Italian Pasta

By Chase Brightwell Published

From agnolotti to ziti, there are so many types of Italian pasta to enjoy. Here’s how to shop for and prepare the perfect pot of pasta.

Italian pasta, in some ways, is simple. It’s also a marvel. What starts as a basic dough—often made with nothing more than flour and water—can be formed into hundreds of shapes, with more than 1,300 names. Although no supermarket stocks all of them, the options can still be staggering. Many product packages also tout special ingredients such as “durum wheat flour” or pasta-making terms such as “cut with bronze dies” and “slow dried,” which might not be familiar to every shopper. Once you get the pasta home, there are more questions. How do you cook perfect pasta? Which sauces pair best with which shapes? We’ve developed hundreds of pasta recipes and taste-tested all sorts of varieties and shapes, and we’re here to shed a bit more light on pasta’s history, its terminology, and how to prepare it perfectly.

What Exactly Are Semolina and Durum Wheat Flours?

When shopping for pasta, you'll see "semolina" and possibly "durum wheat flour" on many packages. These two different flours are both made from durum wheat, a type of winter wheat with a particularly hard endosperm—"durum" is Latin for “hard.” Durum wheat contains a relatively large amount of the proteins glutenin and gliadin, which form springy gluten when combined with water and agitated. This gluten allows pasta dough to be worked and shaped; it also helps pasta hold its shape throughout the manufacturing and cooking processes. The difference between semolina and durum wheat flour is grind size: Semolina is coarsely ground durum wheat; its coarseness adds texture and body to pasta dough and a pleasant springiness to cooked pasta. More finely ground durum wheat is called “durum wheat flour” or “durum flour.” Traditional Italian pasta and most high-quality packaged pastas are made only with semolina. However, to save money, some pasta manufacturers may also add finer durum wheat flour, which is less expensive than semolina, to their pasta doughs. The smaller particles take less time to hydrate than semolina when mixed with water, so the addition of durum flour speeds up the production process and increases efficiency. But a finer grind can cause more damage to the pasta’s starch granules, which can become overhydrated and leach starch into the pasta water during cooking, leading to gummy pasta. In taste tests, we’ve found that we prefer all-semolina pasta, and we suggest seeking it out when you’re shopping.

Italian pasta is made from durum wheat. When the wheat is coarsely ground, it's called semolina (left). When it's ground to a finer consistency, it's called durum wheat flour (right).

Pasta that's extruded with a bronze die (versus a nonstick-coated die) has a rougher surface that sauce clings to.

Should I Look for Bronze Die–Cut Pasta?

Some commercially made pasta is shaped by being rolled and cut, but most dried pasta shapes are formed by being extruded through perforated metal plates, or dies. Most manufacturers use dies coated with nonstick materials such as Teflon to produce smooth, dense noodles that retain durum wheat’s signature yellow color. A smaller number of manufacturers use traditional bronze dies, which have rough perforations and produce pasta shapes with uneven, pockmarked surfaces that are ideal for holding onto sauces. Bronze dies also allow more air into the dough, turning it a paler yellow. Since bronze dies are more expensive to produce and maintain than nonstick dies, pasta extruded through bronze dies is often pricier. While a few larger companies such as De Cecco use bronze dies, most bronze die–cut pasta is made by small companies. If a pasta is shaped with a bronze die, it will generally say so on the packaging. Look for it if you want pasta that will cling to sauces a bit better.

Slow versus Fast Pasta Drying

Another term you’ll see on some pasta packaging is “slow dried.” It indicates when a pasta has been dried at a relatively low temperature (about 100 degrees) for as long as three days, compared with the much faster method of drying pasta at 180 degrees for 7 to 10 hours. Although slow-dried pastas are marketed as having better textures than faster-dried pastas, research has shown that there is not much textural difference between the two when cooked. Ingredients and extrusion methods contribute more to pasta quality than how it was dried, so we recommend concentrating on those factors when you’re shopping.

Many pasta packages tout that the contents are "slow-dried." It sounds nice, but we've found that how a pasta is dried doesn't have much influence on the final product.

The Science Behind Cooking Pasta

We all know that pasta softens and expands as it cooks, but here’s what’s happening inside the pot. Pasta’s final texture depends on the relationship between its two main components: proteins and starch granules. As the pasta cooks, its proteins begin breaking down in a process called denaturation. The denatured proteins form a dense matrix around the starch granules, helping protect them from absorbing too much water during the cooking process and becoming gummy. If pasta does not have enough protein or if it’s cooked for too long, its matrix will not be strong enough to protect the starch granules from overhydration; the matrix bursts and releases starch into the pasta water, resulting in gummy, fragile pasta.

More on Pasta

Tips for Cooking Perfect Pasta

Follow these instructions when preparing fresh or dried pasta.

Perfect Pairings

Match your pasta shape to your sauce for maximum deliciousness.

The Differences Between Fresh and Dried Pasta

Fresh pasta isn’t better or worse than dried pasta; it’s simply a different thing.

Italian Pasta: A Timeline

Italy’s traceable culinary history goes back to the Roman Empire, but only within the last 250 years has pasta been widely consumed across the country. How did it happen?

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JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.