Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Is fresh pasta better than dried?

 Bronze spaghetti dies at Rustichella.

Fresh or dried pasta, which is better? 

Frankly, I don’t know if this is a debate or not. If it is I’m sure it ranks low on the scale of disputes, somewhere far beneath the controversy over whether water should be served with or without ice. Still, it is a question that comes up — and almost always I find that folks assume fresh pasta is better. That if you had the time and wherewithal you should use fresh pasta over dried 100% of the time. Maybe that's because it’s more work to make (if you make the pasta at home). Maybe it’s because fresh pasta is more fragile, more perishable and therefore more precious. Maybe it’s because dried seems more industrial, more like a commodity and can sell for so little. 

Whatever the story behind the myth, it’s not true. Fresh pasta is not better than dried. It’s just different. There are many times when dried pasta is preferable. Use dried pasta when you want to enjoy noodles with a lot of texture and flavor; use fresh when you want a softer, subtler dish. 

Dried and fresh pasta are made very differently, hence the different results and different uses in the kitchen. Traditional dried pasta is made by extruding durum semolina dough through bronze dies. It’s dried at relatively low temperatures for a couple days. The bronze-die extrusion leaves the pasta with a rough hewn texture. You can feel it in your mouth and the sauce really grips to it. The slow drying ferments the flour a bit. It transforms the dough from tasting like raw flour to something more like bread. 

In contrast, fresh pasta is usually rolled and cut and there is no fermentation. The texture is much softer, smoother and the flavor is less intense, more like flour. 

It’s important to note when I talk about dried pasta I’m not talking about any old dried pasta. There are only a handful of companies that do dried pasta right. (My two favorites are Martelli and Rustichella.) Most dried pasta is industrially made with exasperating shortcuts that leave it tasting unexceptional. In particular, they employ hot, short drying times so there is no transformation of the dough’s flavor. It tastes like flour. Worse, it’s flour with a burnt edge to the flavor. The extra hot ovens singe the surface in a way Martelli and Rustichella’s do not. To see what I mean taste a piece of uncooked commercially made De Cecco pasta (one of the better industrial companies) and Martelli spaghetti next to each other. The flavor is remarkably different. 

At home I almost exclusively use dried pasta. The dishes I like to cook are robust like crisper box pasta and spaghetti with sardines, arugula and lemon. My regular favorite, which is too simple to even post as its own recipe, is Rustichella Fettucine with Il Mongetto’s plain tomato sauce with a tin of Ortiz's line caught tuna tipped in, oil and all.

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