What’s the fuss about posh dried pasta?

3 kinds of dried spaghetti

From left to right; Napolina Basic, Napolina Bronze Died, Tesco Authentic Italian

The discrepancy between different brands of dried spaghetti has never really occurred to me. I always thought the question was whether to go for time consuming but delicious home-made pasta, or quick perfectly acceptable dried pasta. When most dried brands contain just water and wheat, how much better can the more expensive stuff possibly be? And is it worth paying more for this staple food? I came up with a pasta criteria to find out; good dried pasta must:

  • Have a firm texture when cooked
  • Have a flavour of its own that comes out when cooked in salted water
  • Hold onto the sauce it is then mixed with

Mike Sissons, author of Global Science Books explains the science behind the firm texture of good pasta; ‘The key features of durum wheat include its hardness, intense yellow colour and nutty taste.’ High protein semolina* from good durum wheat is made up of uniform protein particles and minimal starchy particles which makes the dough strong and elastic during manufacture and firm to the bite when cooked. If the correct balance between protein and starch is achieved the pasta shouldn’t shed too much starch into the cooking water.

(*Semolina is a coarse flour made from the protein-rich endosperm of the wheat.)

In her book, Italian Food, Elizabeth David concurs that the dried pasta with the best flavour and texture is made using very hard water and the highest quality durum wheat. Naples is the home of such favourable conditions which is perhaps why Napolina spaghetti, at £1.55 per 500g, is more than twice the price of its Tesco ‘Authentic Italian’ counterpart. The latter comes in at 65p per 500g despite the nutritional information on the two packets being very similar.

But does sauce adhere to Napolina spaghetti more than cheaper brands? Azélias Kitchen has a highly educational post on bronze die pasta. When making pasta, dough is extruded through a stamp mechanism called a die. The shape of the die determines the shape of the pasta and the material the die is made of determines the texture of the finished product. Though Napolina spaghetti costs £1.55, it is extruded through the same synthetic die as the cheaper brands which gives the pasta a shiny sauce-repelling texture.

The best dried pasta is made using a traditional bronze die, which makes the pasta rough and absorbant, the perfect surface for soaking up sauce. The spaghetti in Napolina’s Bronze Die range costs £1.99 for 500g.

Bronze die

Bronze die (photo found online)

So there you have it, the very best dried pasta on offer is made in Naples out of the finest quality high protein semolina from durum wheat. The dough is mixed using the local hard water, before being extruded through a traditional bronze die and slowly dried.

That is a lot of things to remember if you do decide to splash out on a pack of dried pasta. The main buzzwords to look out for are ‘bronze died’; Generally if the manufacturer has gone to the trouble of using a bronze die, then their ingredients will also be of good quality and their method sound.

Having conducted this research I cooked a spaghetti bolognese with Napolina Bronze Died spaghetti last night. With all my newfound knowledge I thought the spaghetti would dance a waltz around my mouth and romance my taste buds. However, my initial reaction was sceptical with regards to the value of the product.  Luckily the ragù alla bollognese made up for the disappointing spaghetti. I used up the dried porcini left over from the mushroom risotto I made last week and it was fantastic!

Despite falling at the first hurdle, my gut feeling is that good ingredients and traditional processes must yield a superior product, so I will continue looking for a pasta whose taste lives up to its credentials.