TRADITIONAL ITALIAN PASTA TYPES
Pasta secca (dried pasta)
In Italy, dried pasta is traditionally made from durum wheat or semolina flour and water. It can be cooked al dente, and uncooked it can last almost forever.
Pasta fresca (fresh pasta)
Italian fresh pasta is traditionally made using fine-milled 'tipo 00' flour and eggs. Fresh pasta is softer and wetter than dried pasta, so the cooking times are far shorter and it has a shorter life as it has to be stored in the refrigerator. The concept of al dente is quite different in this category, as you will never get that al dente 'bite'. Instead, strive to keep the texture firm and take care not to overcook it, as it will fall apart.
Pasta all'uovo (dried fresh pasta)
Dried egg pasta falls somewhere in-between the two above. Fettuccine and Tagliatelle in this category are brilliant and I personally prefer them because they come closer to al dente than the soft bite of fresh pasta.
Pasta secca senza glutine (gluten-free pasta)
All the big pasta manufacturers now have a comprehensive range of gluten-free dried pasta. This is usually made with a combination of corn varieties and rice.
Integrale o al farro (whole-wheat or spelt pasta)
Healthy eating has become a big global business and gluten-free pasta alternatives is a fast growing category in Italy. For those looking for healthful wheat alternatives, whole-wheat and spelt pastas provide a great middle-ground. The big manufacturers all offer whole-wheat options.
There is a history of colouring and flavouring pasta in Italy. The most usual are spinach, tomato, beets, cacao, mushroom or squid ink. Other flavours include garlic, chilli/chile, red wine or herbs. A lot of the pasta alternatives come in great colours like red lentil and spirulina green, although some look better before cooking and sometimes lose their vibrancy when cooked.
Because fresh pasta is soft, it can be folded and twisted into delicious pasta parcels, housing a variety of tasty filling. Fresh pasta parcels generally have a very short life, not just because they are irresistible, but because the wet filling means they only last a day or so without ruining the pasta. There are also dried filled pastas, like my personal downfall, tortellini, which have been dried, along with their super umami-packed prosciutto and Parmesan filling. I love these cooked al dente in a simple chicken broth.
NON-WHEAT* PASTA ALTERNATIVES
Coeliacs and genuine intolerances aside, there has been a big shift in eating habits, and many today choose to either give up or limit refined carbohydrates and gluten. I have good news! Just because you don't or can't eat gluten, doesn't have to mean that you can't eat pasta. Today, there are literally hundreds of new pasta alternatives that combine the healthful properties of legumes, grains and grasses into familiar pasta shapes ready to be tossed in yummy sauces. I have used a lot of these throughout this blog, and have been both surprised and delighted by the fantastic textures and flavours this new world of healthful pasta offers. The abundance of these products online or in health food stores and supermarkets must mean only one thing: although some people are prepared to give up gluten and refined carbs, they are less ready to give up the comfort of a bowl of pasta. Below are some of the alternative pastas and noodles that I have come across while researching this blog.
*NOTE NOT all non-wheat pastas are gluten-free, so always check the label.
Brown rice, oat, buckwheat, quinoa, rice and quinoa, corn, amaranth, sorghum, millet, white rice, teff, barley.
Bean and legume pastas
Chickpea, green pea, black bean, green lentil, red lentil, yellow lentil, cellophane noodles (mung bean flour).
Tuber, root and sea vegetable
Sweet potato, Jerusalem artichoke, cassava, potato, white sweet potato, yam, kelp.
Another fast-growing trend is to do away with all flour-based pastas (be they wheat or non-wheat alternatives) and replace with spiralized vegetables. Indeed most large supermarket chains now sell boodles or zoodles courgette/zucchini, in the same section as prepped stir-fry vegetables. Yes, I bought a spiralizer, yes I tried it, yes I decided life was too short… cooking time is also tricky with these vegetable noodles and many stay more al dente if microwaved. If, like me, you do not have a microwave, I simply toss them in a non-stick pan just to heat them through but not cook them.