From home kitchens to osterie, Italians love the firm, al dente texture of pasta secca (dried pasta). Mark Cirillo, writer and editor of CucinaTO spoke with industry expert Stephany Occhiuto to find out what to look for in a premium Italian dried pasta.
When it comes to ingredients, what do you look for in dried pasta?
There are only two ingredients in dried Italian pasta: semolina and water. They don’t use additives or preservatives. The difference between the many Italian pasta brands comes down to the quality of the durum wheat and the mineral properties of the water used. You have to do a little research and try a few brands to find which one you like the best.
Some Italian pasta makers advertise the use of bronze die extrusion. Does this really make for a better pasta?
Yes, for sure. Bronze dies are the traditional ones used for making dried pastas, but in recent years less expensive, longer lasting Teflon dies have become more common. The problem with Teflon is that it gives you a slicker pasta surface – the sauce tends to run off of it. With bronze you get coarse, textured pasta that holds the sauce much better.
What about the drying process? How can that effect the quality of the finished product?
Quality pastas are slow dried, typically 30 hours or more, whereas commercial pastas are dried in as little as three hours. To dry the pasta that quickly you need high temperatures that essentially bake the pasta, so you get a brown, slightly caramelized product. That not only changes the taste of the semolina, it kills a lot of its nutrients too. Slow-dried pasta is a fresher, healthier product, and lighter in colour. You can see and taste the difference.
What is your advice for pairing pasta shapes and sizes?
I encourage people to try classic dishes like bucatini all’amatriciana from Lazio or orecchiette con rapini e salsiccia from Puglia, because regionality is so important in Italian cuisine. But people should also feel free to experiment with pairings – have fun with it.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed with the hundreds of pasta shapes to choose from, here are few typical pairings you can try:
• Small pastas like ditalini and pastina are great for soups.
• Long ones like bucatini and spaghetti pair well with simple tomato or oil based sauces.
• Tubes like rigatoni and penne go nicely with ragù and other chunky sauces.
• Irregular and cup-shaped pastas like farfalle or cavatelli complement grainy sauces very well – the grooves are perfect for holding little morsels of meat or vegetables.