Note: This article discusses pasta made with wheat, which some people need to avoid due to celiac disease or sensitivity to gluten. For a discussion of non-wheat pastas, see Gluten-Free Pasta: A Non-Wheat Alternative.
The pastas that we associate with Italy—among them spaghetti (from spago, or “strand”), rigatoni (from rigati, meaning “grooved”), vermicelli (“little worms”), and linguine (“little tongues”)—are most commonly made from semolina. This high-protein flour is milled from the starchy portion of Durum wheat kernels, and yields high-quality pasta with a golden color, mellow flavor, and sturdy texture.
Durum wheat is the hardest of all the wheats, and it’s highest in protein. The harder the wheat, the more gluten it has. Dough made from semolina is high in gluten, which gives it the resiliency and strength to stand up to the mechanical pasta-making process and to hold its shape during cooking.
To make the shapes of commercial pasta, the dough is forced through metal plates (called dies) that have variously shaped holes drilled into them. Long, solid pastas, such as spaghetti or linguine, are pushed through dies with round or oval holes. Hollow pastas are extruded through dies with pins in the center of the holes. Pasta makers use forms to create intricate cartwheels (rotelle) and bowties (farfalle).
The die also affects the pasta’s texture and appearance. Teflon-lined dies, popular in the United States, produce a smooth, polished pasta with a high-yellow color. Imported pastas usually go through brass dies, which yield a rougher texture and whiter color. (Egg noodles, on the other hand, are rolled by machine into thin sheets that are mechanically sliced to the desired length and width.)
Once the pasta is shaped, mechanical knives cut it into the appropriate lengths. The pasta is then carefully dried on racks or, for short pastas such as elbow macaroni, on conveyor belts.
Despite the various Italian names used to identify most of the shapes popular in the United States, the FDA legally defines all dried pasta as either macaroni or noodles.
- Macaroni: This designation is applied to an array of pasta shapes and sizes, whether they’re strands like spaghetti, tubes like elbow macaroni or penne, or shells like conchiglie, to mention just a few. Macaroni must be primarily composed of semolina, farina, or flour milled from durum wheat. These three components can be used separately or in any combination, along with water. Optional ingredients, such as egg whites, salt, or flavorings, are permitted. Some types of macaroni—spaghetti and vermicelli, for example—must also conform to certain size designations.
- Noodles: In addition to the guidelines set for macaroni, noodles must also contain no less than 5.5 percent egg by weight. As a result, noodles have some fat and cholesterol. The protein content of macaroni and noodles is about the same. Although the egg in noodles adds protein, most of these noodles are prepared by combining semolina with softer wheats, such as farina, which have less protein than semolina. There are also Italian-style pastas that are made with egg—fettuccine being a classic example—but that do not qualify under these guidelines as “noodles.”
Other than the official definitions imposed by labeling laws, the principal difference for Western-style pastas of any culinary importance is the difference between fresh and dried.
Most dried pastas are made from 100 percent semolina. However, some manufacturers market versions that combine semolina with other wheat flours, such as farina, which is the coarsely ground endosperm of a wheat that is not as hard as durum. When cooked, these combined-wheat pastas are whiter and softer than 100-percent semolina pasta.
Most Western pastas are classified according to whether they are long or short; round, tubular, or flat; smooth or ridged; solid or hollow. While some names for the various shapes are fairly standard, others are not, particularly in Italy, where one shape can come in several different sizes and have several different names.
Made from durum or other types of wheat flour, water, and, usually, whole eggs, fresh pasta has a higher moisture content and softer consistency than dried. It is used mainly for dumplings, such as ravioli and tortellini, but also forspaghetti, fettuccine, and other shapes that are sold dried. Fresh pasta colored with vegetable purees is also available.
When made with whole eggs, fresh pasta is slightly higher in fat than dried pasta—and contains about 56 milligrams of cholesterol per 6-ounce cooked serving. In addition, if it is stuffed with cheese or meat, as with ravioli or tortellini, fresh pasta can be high in fat and cholesterol. If it is stuffed with vegetables or seafood, the fat content is usually lower, though these stuffings may also include cheese.
Other wheat pastas
In addition to the well known Western-style pastas and noodles, there are a number of other forms of wheat-based pastas available:
- Couscous: Popular in North Africa, couscous is made from semolina that has been precooked and then dried. It is different from both Western and Asian pastas. The tiny grains resemble rice or grits more than they do noodles. Couscous is not enriched, and so contains fewer B vitamins and iron than macaroni or noodles. There are quick-cooking (“instant”) couscouses available that simply require steeping in boiling broth or water. There is also a larger couscous (the size of a small pea) called toasted Israeli couscous, which requires longer cooking.
- Flavored pastas: Some pastas are made with vegetable powders such as spinach, tomatoes, or beets, which add more color than flavor. Other pastas are flavored with such seasonings as saffron, lemon, garlic, or pepper. These additives do not affect the nutrition in any significant way.
- High-protein pasta: Enriched with soy flour, wheat germ, yeast, or dairy products, this type of pasta contains 20 to 100 percent more protein than standard pasta. Although it tastes like regular pasta, it may cook up stickier and will be chewier.
- Whole-wheat pasta: Whole-wheat pasta has a distinctive robust taste and a chewier texture than traditional pasta. Whole-wheat pasta contains about two-thirds more fiber than semolina, and it’s significantly higher in the antioxidant mineral selenium. But because semolina pasta is enriched, whole-wheat pasta is actually lower in B vitamins and iron than semolina pasta.
Like their American counterparts, Asian noodles are made with or without egg and are available fresh and dried. What they are called in the market will vary considerably depending on the country they’re from. Below are some of the more common names.
- Egg noodles: In Chinese, these are called dan mian or don mein. These versatile noodles are added to soups, boiled and topped with meat or sesame sauce, or eaten cold with a dressing of sesame oil, soy sauce, and vinegar. The noodles are also sold as fresh sheets of dough used for making wontons and egg rolls.
- Chinese wheat noodles: These noodles (called gan mian or sun mian) come in a variety of shapes, thicknesses, and colors, and are sold both fresh and dried. Their nutritional value is close to that of Western-style wheat pasta, except that the sodium content may be higher. Chinese wheat noodles are used in lo mein and chow mein dishes. (Be careful not to confuse these chow mein noodles with the crispy “chow mein noodles” that come in cans and are sold at many supermarkets. The canned noodles are deep-fried and contain about 14 grams of fat per cup.)
- Ramen: These Japanese noodles are often packaged as an instant soup. They are instant because they are precooked by steaming and then dried by deep-frying, leaving them with a residue of about 18 percent oil by weight—and over 5 grams of fat per serving.
- Somen: Similar in shape to vermicelli, this Japanese wheat noodle is most often eaten cold, but is sometimes served in soups. There is also a type of somen called tamago somen that is made with egg yolks.
- Udon: Thick and chewy, these Japanese wheat noodles are usually served in broth. Udon are sold both fresh and dried.
See also: 6 Asian Noodles to Try.