4 Helpful Hints for Choosing Great Pasta at the Grocery Store

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Pasta is one of those pantry staples that most good cooks cannot live without. Even gluten-free cooks can enjoy pasta these days now that there are many wheat-free variations to choose from. But even when leaving the alternatives aside, it still can be quite overwhelming and confusing when confronted with the dozens of pasta choices offered at most supermarkets. Read on for a few things to look out for when purchasing pasta.

Some pastas cost less than $2 per pound and others can be as high as $6 or more. So what's the difference and how to choose? Usually the cheaper brands are a more industrialized product, using processes that create a shiny, slippery, almost flavorless noodle. If money is the primary reason for choosing pasta, you will likely end up with one of these.

But if you're willing and able to spend a little more, you can end up with a much better pasta experience.

Hint #1: Imported Pasta Isn't Necessarily Better

While many of these better pastas are imported from Italy, don't be fooled into thinking that all imported pasta is superior. Italy can produce industrial-style pasta and even outsources the manufacturing of some of it to other countries such as Turkey. Additionally, some of the big brands are actually made here in the USA. All but the tortellini and oven-ready lasagne from Barilla are made in the USA, for example, even though Barilla is an Italian company.

Hint #2: Semolina Flour Doesn't Guarantee Great Pasta

It used to be true that if a pasta is labeled as containing 100% durum wheat, durum semolina flour, or semolina flour, you could count on it being a better brand and a good pick.

But today, if you check the ingredients on a lesser brand of pasta — like Creamette, for instance — you will see that it contains semolina (wheat), durum flour (wheat) and a handful of nutritive additives. So while all good pasta will be made with semolina or durum flour, a so-so pasta can be made from these flours, too; there's no guarantee.

(And what's the difference between semolina and durum flours? Durum wheat is ground into semolina flour, which is a bit coarser than regular flour and is good for making pasta shapes. Durum flour is the finer flour that's left over from making semolina flour. It creates a silkier, stretchier dough.)

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OK. So what are some things to look out for?

Hint #3: Look for a Rough Texture

A pasta that has a matte colored, sandy texture is a good indicator. This rougher texture is what helps sauce to cling to it. Usually these pastas are a little more expensive as they are often made in smaller, more artisanal-style batches using old-fashioned brass die. But if they fit in your budget, they're worth it.

Hint #4: Look for Slow-Dried Pastas

Another variable is how the pasta is dried. Pasta dried with a lower heat and at a slower rate is often superior to a pasta that is quick dried at a higher heat. Usually the manufacturers of these slower dried pastas are sure to let you know this fact, as it is a selling point. But in general you will usually find this information by researching your pasta brand online.

So in conclusion, a roughly textured pasta made with semolina or durum wheat that is ideally manufactured with bronze die and dried slowly is going to give you the best results.

It's going to cost more but it will be worth it. The pasta pictured above is from Community Grains and made in the Bay Area. It was $4 a box and I love it. And even at $4 this is a relatively cheap meal, especially when compared to pricier grains and to meat.

Do you have a preferred brand of pasta? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

(Image credits: Dana Velden)