It seems that I keep finding myself writing about pasta myths here on CulinaryLore. Oops, I gave it away. Yes, this is a myth. I guess it makes sense that there are so many pasta myths in America. We eat a great deal of pasta. Regarding any food that is a staple, myths and misconceptions will grow.
This myth, that fresh pasta is superior to dry pasta I’ve heard too many times. It’s repeated in cookbooks, articles, and of course, on Food TV. It probably stems from two related sources. First, the granddaddy myth, or assumption, that anything fresh is always better than anything not fresh, whether dried or preserved in some other way. With that comes the belief that dried pasta is something pasta makers in Italy did to get over on us ignorant Americans. Give them this dried crap! They won’t know the difference. Ching, ching (that’s a cash register).
Recommended: De Cecco Pasta
It doesn’t help that the superiority of fresh pasta is touted by authors with Italian or Italian sounding names. Such as this statement, from social media’s “queen of pasta” Carmela Sophia Sereno, in her book A Passion for Pasta: Distinctive Regional Recipes from the Top to the Toe of Italy:
“In my opinion, fresh pasta is superior to dried pasta not only in taste but also in texture in colour.” 1
While she admits the “convenience” of dried pasta and that she has “twenty dried packets” in her pantry at any one time, such a statement deserves some qualification. First, it is opinion, second, it makes no sense if you consider the texture of a pasta must fit the sauce you pair it with. I made Southern spaghetti and meat sauce last night…that’s Southern American, not bolognese which I also make! Frankly, a fresh pasta could not have stood up to the sauce. Dry pasta was the proper pasta.
Dried Pasta is Not Simply Fresh Pasta that is Dry
Many may not realize that fresh pasta, pasta fresca, and dry pasta, pasta secca, are different types of pasta. Dried pasta is not simply fresh pasta that is dried. It is made using a different dough, without eggs, which are usually the primary ingredient, besides flour, in fresh pasta. This in itself produces a different texture and taste, not to mention color. As well, all those various shapes? You can’t make those with fresh pasta.
It is true that, in the past, dried pasta was more common in southern Italy, while fresh pasta reigned in the North. The reason for this is most likely the availability of the durum wheat used to make dried pasta. Durum wheat is mainly grown in the south of Italy. As well, the pasta was dried naturally in the sun, so drier air made a big difference to this process. 2
Italians, it is estimated, eat about 60 pounds of pasta per year. That is about three times as much as Americans. Do you think most of this is fresh? Nah! And let’s look at these shapes. There are about 350 different shapes and sizes of dry pasta in Italy. Do you really think so many varieties would be developed for an inferior throw-away product? And that durum wheat? In Italy, dried pasta is regulated. The law says that dried pasta must be made with 100% durum semolina flour. This is what gives the pasta its firm texture as durum wheat is, as far as I know, the hardest of all wheats.
Seems like they take dry pasta pretty seriously in Italy. Yes, I am trying to convince you that Italians do not think fresh pasta is always superior to dry, so neither should you.
Here is another fact that may clinch it for you. All that durum wheat needed to produce so much dry pasta? Well, there is not enough of it grown in Italy. The demand far outstrips the supply. They have to import most of the wheat.
Dried Pasta is Better for Certain Sauces
In terms of cooking, dried pasta is simply different than fresh pasta. Not only does it last far longer, it can stand up to chunky sauces and is much better suited to strong flavored sauces. Properly made dry pasta, unlike fresh pasta, actually has a rough surface. This surface allows sauces to stick to the pasta, flavoring it. So, dried pasta is more able to pick up the flavor of the sauce that accompanies it.
Something I mentioned in the last paragraph may be important to unravel the reason for dried pasta’s poor reputation among some cooks in America. Above, I speculated on some cultural reasons for this myth. I think they play a part here. However, could it be that much of the dry pasta we buy from our supermarket really is inferior? YES. I think a big part of the reason that people think dry pasta is no good is that most of the pasta that we buy is no good. Any fresh pasta, whether homemade or purchased, will seem far superior to most grocery store brands of dried pasta. They are not all the same!
The best-selling brand of pasta here in the U.S. is Barilla. It is made in Italy and in the U.S. With a few exceptions, most of the Barilla pasta sold in the U.S. is made here. This brand is recommended as the best by many food writers. It’s not bad. It’s certainly a far cry from cheap store brands, and better than the other leading brands.
But, you may not believe it, given my admission to making “Southern American style” spaghetti and meat sauce (yes, that’s a thing), but I am very particular about pasta. The truth is that if you were to try a few very special brands of dry pasta made in Italy, using the finest durum wheat, you would probably be willing to spend the little bit extra for them anytime you could get them.
Cheap Dry Pasta May be a Problem
For example, we are often given careful instructions on how to get our past “perfectly al dente.” You may have experienced the frustration of having perfectly al dente past one moment, and mushy pasta the next. Or, worse yet, they cook unevenly and become mushy on the outside even before they are cooked all the way through.
Well, the better the pasta, the better it cooks up and the more forgiving it is. I use De Cecco Pasta at home and the texture is always perfect. It stays firm as it cooks. What I mean by this is that the pasta cooks evenly throughout and ends up with a uniform texture throughout, rather than an uneven texture. Good brands like this are made with only the best wheat, and with very careful methods. Although it is not dried in the sun any longer, the drying process is carefully controlled so the pasta dries slowly.
As well, while cheap pastas are extruded through smooth Teflon dies, producing a smooth pasta, De Cecco and others like it are extruded through traditional bronze dies which produce a rough texture you can see. Remember what I said about the smoothness of fresh pasta? Well, if you don’t like slippery noodle pasta, the kind you expect to find in canned chicken noodle soup, you’ll like a good imported brand of Italian pasta. Cheap pasta is like plastic wrap: It sticks to itself but nothing else. Your sauce will cling to a good pasta.
Besides De Cecco, which is widely available here in the U.S., some other smaller brands to look for are Cav. Giuseppe Cocco, Maschiarelli, Rustichella d’Abruzzo, and Garofalo, among others. 3
- Sereno, Carmela Sophia. A Passion for Pasta: Distinctive Regional Recipes Fromm the Top to the Toe of Ital. Robinson, An Inprint of Little, Brown Book Group, 2017.
- Parasecoli, Fabio. Food Culture in Italy. Greenwood Press, 2004.
- Marchetti, Domenica. The Glorious Pasta of Italy: 100 Recipes for Maccheroni, Pappardelle, Ravioli, and Many More. Chronicle, 2011.