Dry pasta always used to present a strange problem for me at the supermarket. Most stores sold the same few brands, all of which were impossible to tell apart once cooked. It's not just that they tasted similar, like colas or potato chips; once out of the box, I couldn't even distinguish one from another. Barilla, De Cecco, Ronzoni, even the generic supermarket stuff as soon as they hit boiling water, they were all the same: fattening and good. Or at least, good enough.
Today, though, we're seeing a new wave of pastas, some of which claim to be good for you and others that, while no healthier than before, boast finer quality (at a commensurately higher price). Earlier this month, whole-grain Racconto Essentials pasta began making its way into thousands of stores, claiming on the packaging "to help reduce cholesterol in as little as 4 weeks." How? The heart-healthy pasta, made in collaboration with agribusiness giant Cargill, contains plant sterols that are clinically proven to lower bad cholesterol. (Plant sterols, in case you are wondering, are natural chemicals in fruits and vegetables that the FDA says may help reduce the risk of heart disease.) Dreamfields pasta claims, in even more baffling scientific language, to have in effect one-eighth the carbohydrates of regular pastas and a greatly reduced glycemic index, so you don't get the huge blood-sugar spikes that turn you into a "spaghetti zombie" after big meals which creates much bigger problems for people with diabetes. There are organic pastas, whole-wheat pastas and artisanal bronze-die pastas from Italy. How can you sort them out? By taste, of course. This is pasta we're talking about. It has to taste good, or you might as well eat kelp.
First, the good news. I'm now into my second case of Dreamfields spaghetti, and it's the answer to my carb-jonesing prayers. I buy it online at the official site and still don't understand how its indigestible carbs work, but I know that I can eat it four times a week and not gain weight the way I would from its less bioengineered cousins. I am peppy and productive even after a big bowl, which is a miracle. What isn't such a miracle is one side effect of its prebiotic fiber (good for the bacteria in your gut): I tend to become as gassy as a small zeppelin after eating it. So while Dreamfields in some ways is a dream come true for me, it's less so for those around me. Proceed with caution.
The bad news? The Racconto people sent me samples of their new pasta, which will hit stores nationwide this week, and while it may well be good for you, it tastes as terrible as I feared something that healthy would. Like so many of the whole-grain pastas, it seems like it has sawdust mixed into it. (Then again, I still prefer Wonder Bread to seven-grain, so maybe my childhood is to blame.) If you're looking to feel a little better about the pasta you eat, consider an organic one like Mantova. The samples I recently received don't taste any better than Barilla or De Cecco, but at least you know there are no pesticides in it. What you're really looking for with healthy pasta isn't for it to taste better; you just want it to not be awful. Mantova passes that test with flying colors, as does Dreamfields with the aforementioned caveat.
For those of us who want the best possible taste, health effects be damned, what matters about the pasta is less what's inside of it than what's on the outside. Spaghetti, it turns out, is one book that you can judge by its cover. The machines used at the old Italian pasta factories are made of bronze, a soft metal that picks up a lot of tiny nicks and scratches over the years. Those textured surfaces impart a micro-abrasive scratchiness to the soft dough as it passes through them. So many good things happen from that scratchiness: sauces cling to the pasta like butter to an English muffin, and the pasta has a richer, more complex mouthfeel and seems to give up more starch to the water, which makes it easier to bind with the sauce when you plop the still dripping spaghetti into that warmed pan of marinara. The downside, of course, is that luxury brands of pasta, such as Lensi, Latini and di Gragnano, can cost up to four times as much as their smoother supermarket rivals. But since that's still less than $10, I willingly buy them especially given how far a pound of pasta can go.
Whichever pasta you decide to try and I would heartily recommend trying all of them nothing else matters if you don't cook it properly. Just as Chanel looks bad when worn by a retching starlet on YouTube, even di Gragnano pasta will be mediocre if you overcook it or, worse still, douse it with cold water, washing away all that starchy pasta water that is its soul and secret. Here are four tips for cooking any pasta, old or new:
1. Cook it in less water, rather than more. The less water, the starchier it will be and the starchier the water, the better your still dripping pasta will taste once it meets with the sauce.
2. Make sure the water is salty. Maybe not seawater salty, but noticeably salty. I use about two to three tablespoons for a small pot before bringing the water to a boil.
3. Don't rinse the pasta with cold water or any water, for that matter. Lift it with tongs or a strainer directly into a pan of heated sauce and finish cooking it there for a minute or two.
4. Put the pasta and sauce in a bowl and mix in some high-quality extra-virgin olive oil or butter to enrich and thicken the dish. Add Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino cheese as desired. Plate and serve.
Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Awardwinning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.