Gluten-Free Pasta (Spaghetti)
How we tested
For people who are avoiding gluten in their diets, finding good wheat-free pasta with the right texture and flavor is a challenge, one which has been met in a variety of ways by pasta manufacturers. We first evaluated gluten-free pasta several years ago, and the results were grim. The majority were gritty and grainy or dissolved into a mushy, gummy mess. Only one product, Jovial Organic Brown Rice Spaghetti, offered chewy yet tender noodles with a pleasant, neutral flavor.
We hoped that, given the number of new companies jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon recently, we might have better luck this time around. To find out, we pitted our top two scorers against six new products, tasting them cooked in salted water and tossed with canola oil, and a second time served with our favorite tomato sauce.
New Brands, Same Problems
To our dismay, the majority of the brands again failed to meet our expectations. As before, many products were unpleasantly “pasty” and “gummy” with “zero chew.” Even when we closely monitored their cooking time and strained them promptly, some of them practically disintegrated. But our old runner-up fell into the other end of the texture spectrum. Last time, we'd noticed a slight “rubbery” quality that we were willing to overlook due to its neutral flavor. But now that some brands are hitting the mark, our standards are higher. This time around, our tasters deemed it unacceptably “firm” and “chewy.”
Corn Worth Eating
A newcomer, made with a combination of corn and rice flours, joined our brown rice favorite at the top. When pasta is boiled, the starch granules absorb water and swell. If the protein network is not strong enough to hold those swollen granules in place, starch will leach out of the pasta as it cooks, resulting in soggy and sticky noodles (and very cloudy cooking water). The proteins in corn are more water-soluble than those in rice and therefore more likely to escape the pasta. We'd nixed corn flour pastas in our earlier testing because they had been especially clumpy and gummy, but this pasta remained “intact” and had an “al dente” texture. How had they done it?
We knew that the rice flour was helping, but we'd had poor results with a similar blend in our first tasting. A closer look revealed that this pasta also contains mono- and diglycerides. Corn pastas can be brittle, and these stabilizers help hold the starches together and keep the pasta tender.
The Right Ratio
For all types of pasta, protein is the most important factor in determining texture. More protein is generally better than less, but all of our spaghetti contained between 4 and 6 grams per serving, and those numbers didn't correlate with our rankings. However, gluten-free pastas don't behave in exactly the same ways as pastas made with white or whole-wheat flour. Most get their strength from rice flour—in fact, it's a primary ingredient in every brand we tasted—and it's much lower in protein than either white or whole-wheat flour. Although particles of fiber can interfere with the protein bonds in wheat pasta and cause it to weaken during cooking, rice fiber plays a helpful role in gluten-free pasta—to a point. The ideal combination turns out to be a relatively high amount of protein (at least 4 grams) and a fiber content that's less than half that amount. Our two favorite brands have a relatively high amount of protein that is at least double their amount of fiber; both remained intact but tender after cooking, earning praise for their ability to pass as “regular” pasta. The rest of the samples, all of which had been soft and mushy or gritty and grainy, had a near-equal ratio of protein and fiber.
The Bottom Line
Many products are still disappointing, but it is possible to find good-quality gluten-free spaghetti made entirely from brown rice flour or with a combination of corn and rice flour. In both, a relatively large amount of protein and very little fiber is the key to pasta that doesn't disintegrate during cooking.
Our panel tasted each sample twice—cooked in salted water and tossed with canola oil, then again served with our favorite tomato sauce. The scores from the two tastings were averaged to determine overall rankings.
The following products were not recommended in our original tasting and have not been reformulated: Bionaturae Organic Gluten Free Spaghetti; Ancient Harvest, Gluten Free, Spaghetti Style; Tinkyada Pasta Joy Ready Brown Rice Pasta, Spaghetti Style; Rustichella d'Abruzzo Organic Corn Spaghetti; DeLallo Gluten Free Corn & Rice Spaghetti; DeBoles Gluten Free Rice Spaghetti Style Pasta.