How we tested
Gluten is the protein matrix that gives wheat noodles their structure and pleasant chew. The challenge for gluten-free pasta manufacturers is to achieve a similar structure and chew with grains that lack the specific proteins necessary to form this matrix. We tasted eight products made variously with rice, corn, and quinoa, first tossed with olive oil and then with tomato sauce.
Unfortunately, most samples absolutely failed to meet our standards for spaghetti. They were “mushy” and “gritty”; worse, they tasted “bland” and sometimes “fishy,” and tomato sauce provided only minimal distraction. But there was a lone standout that tasters found “clean”-tasting and “springy”—impressively close to regular spaghetti.
Looking to the product labels for an explanation, we made a few discoveries. For starters, corn-based products (including those misleadingly labeled as “quinoa” pasta but made mostly from corn) were universally bad. Tasters panned not only their “boiled corn muffin” flavor but also their gummy, clumpy texture—a criticism that made sense once we learned that corn flour proteins, called prolamins, are particularly susceptible to dissolving in the cooking water. Better gluten-free pastas were made from rice flour—brown rice flour in particular. Thanks to its bran content, the brown rice flour pasta contained a relatively high combined total of fiber and protein (the combined total matters more than the amount of either fiber or protein alone). Protein and fiber keep the noodles intact during cooking, forming a barrier around the starch molecules, which prevents them from escaping and leaving the cooked pasta sticky and soft. We also thought that the flavor of brown rice pasta came closest to that of the wheat-based kind.
Our top brown rice product was also dried at a low temperature, which helps preserve flavor and ensures that the proteins coagulate and provide structure for the starch. The combination of those factors helped account for its tasting “pretty close to the real deal” and made it our favorite by a long shot. Plus, we’re happy to report that at 33 cents per ounce, it was among the cheaper gluten-free spaghettis we tasted (all of which were about five times more expensive than wheat pasta).