Illustration of man eating pasta

Issue No. 126: Is fresh pasta better than dried pasta?

Fresh or dried pasta, which is better? Are people concerned about this? Are you talking about it at dinner, arguing for one pasta style over the other? Frankly, I don’t know if this is a debate or not. If it is I’m sure it ranks very low on the scale of disputes, somewhere far under the controversy about whether water should be served with or without ice. It is a question that comes up with friends and colleagues from time to time, though.

Almost always I find that folks assume fresh pasta is better.

The assumption goes 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. Maybe it’s because dried seems more industrial, more like a commodity and can sell for so much less.

Whatever the story behind the myth, though, it’s not true. Fresh pasta is not better than dried. It’s just different. There are many times when dried pasta is preferable. Probably the most concise way to think of the tradeoff is this: 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.

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 much less intense, much 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. Two of my 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 slow, low drying methods do not. To see what I mean, taste a piece of uncooked commercially made DeCecco 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. Spaghetti with sardines, arugula and lemon. Penne with black pepper, pecorino and sausage. And my regular favorite: Il Mongetto’s plain tomato sauce with a tin of Ortiz tuna tipped in, oil and all.