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Gluten-Free Spaghetti

Published November 2013

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).

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*