What's So Special About Bronze Die Pasta?

Bronze die cut fusilli pasta

Short answer
Pasta that has been extruded through a bronze die has a rougher texture than pasta made using a Teflon or stainless-steel die. This helps sauces stick to it which is why bronze is considered the gold standard of dried pasta making.

Long answer
It wasn't so long ago that you would have to venture to a high-end delicatessen to track down bronze die cut pasta. How times have changed. It's now so ubiquitous that you can find it in the aisles of budget supermarkets like Asda, Aldi, and Lidl. The problem is, despite retailers making a song and dance about it on their packaging, very few consumers really know what it means or why bronze die cut pasta warrants a higher price tag than the cheaper alternatives.

The meaning of bronze die pasta
Let's start with the basics. A pasta die is a metal plate through which dough is pushed (extruded) to create a range of different shapes. Virtually all the dried pasta you have ever eaten will have been produced using this method and it's no different to how butchers turn chunks of meat into mince.

Bronze is the original material
Food historians broadly agree that dies made from bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) were first used to shape pasta around the late 18th Century. Much refinement, mechanisation and automation has occurred since, but for many decades bronze dies were industry standard.

Teflon improves everything (or does it?)
The accidental invention of a substance called polytetrafluoroethylene in 1938 changed everything. The material in question is better known as Teflon, the same stuff that coats your non-stick frying pan. Teflon would ultimately go on to revolutionise all kinds of industries and the pasta industry was not left behind.

Teflon dies have several advantages over their bronze alternatives. They are cheaper to produce, dough can be extruded through them faster, they produce very little mess and are extremely reliable on long production runs. For this reason, once Teflon became mainstream, most of the big pasta companies switched to this new style of die, even though they knew that bronze was superior in all number of ways.

The benefit of bronze dies
The game-changing difference between bronze dies and Teflon dies is the texture of the pasta they produce. The whole point of Teflon is that it is non-stick which means the resulting pasta is smooth and shiny. Bronze on the other hand is a relatively soft and porous metal. The friction between the dough and the metal results in a coarse texture which is important for a whole host of reasons, but primarily how it interacts with sauces.

Sauces cling to bronze died pasta
Some people are sceptical that pasta's rough surface helps sauces cling onto it, but traditional wisdom says it does and we are inclined to agree. In our experience, sauces slide off smooth Teflon pasta whilst clinging on for dear life to the bronze alternative.

The pasta is slightly porous
The rough surface of bronze die pasta means it has a much greater surface area than its Teflon counterpart. That means more sauce is be absorbed by the pasta which results in a more flavourful bite.

Bronze pasta releases more starch as it cooks
We always recommend saving some of your starchy pasta water because adding a little bit of it your pesto before serving helps to thicken and emulsify it. Thanks to bronze-die pasta's rough texture, tiny little shards tend to fall off as it cooks, dissolving into the water and making it exceptionally starchy.

Bronze die cut fusilli

Aesthetics
Pasta aficionados love the artisanal, rustic charm of pasta extruded through bronze. There are plenty of things in this world where "smooth and shiny" is a positive thing, but pasta isn't one of them.

Heritage and tradition
Maybe you have to be a tragically romantic food nerd like us to be interested in how our ancestors used to make pasta, but to many pasta lovers, continuing to respect time-honoured craftsmanship and keeping traditions alive is something of great enjoyment.

Invisible benefits: superior ingredients, dry time, and ethics
There will always be exceptions to the rule, but pasta makers who put up with the expense and limitations of bronze dies in return for a better product are unlikely to skimp in other areas of their business.

It is common for bronze-die pasta makers to use the finest high-protein semolina flour available to guarantee the best taste and firmest texture. Much of their flour is sourced from local farmers which often means it is highly sustainable and made using environmentally friendly practices. It also contributes to the local economy and cuts down on food miles, so win-win.

Multinational Teflon-using pasta makers tend to cut corners when it comes to drying their pasta. They employ all kinds of high-tech equipment such as hot water radiators or centrifugal fans to dry their pasta in minutes, whilst a more artisanal producer will let their pasta dry slowly, often for 48 hours or more. This ensures more nutrient retention and produces a pasta that has a superior texture and mouthfeel to the cheaper alternatives that tend to go mushy when cooked.

Extruded pasta using a bronze die

If this is starting to feel like a bronze die love-in, the metal is not without its downsides when it comes to producers’ outgoings and productivity (and therefore its customers’ wallets).

The mess
Hopefully we've convinced you that pasta with a rough texture has a whole host of advantages over pasta produced with Teflon, but that comes at a cost. A by-product of that roughness is that a lot of dust is generated, meaning manufacturers can only do short production runs before they have to stop and clean down the work area.

Life expectancy
Bronze dies need to be replaced more often than Teflon dies and that is a significant expense that budget pasta makers simply cannot justify.

The expense
Bronze dies are expensive to make, so the resulting pasta will always be a little more expensive than the Teflon alternatives.

Shortage of producers
Bronze dies tend to be handmade and as Dan Pashman found out when he was creating his pasta shape cascatelli, there are very few companies who still make them, so getting hold of a bespoke one can take many months and cost up to £5000.

Trenette pasta close-up

The circle of life
Whilst pasta makers were quick to jump on the cost-saving bandwagon when Teflon was invented, things have started to turn the full circle. The world's biggest company Barilla has now begun switching back to bronze dies for some of their product lines and if other producers follow suit, that should mean prices of bronze die pasta start to come down across the board.

A hack for turning Teflon pasta bronze
If you're in the disastrous position of being the owner of some Teflon die cut pasta and you've got a hot date on the way, America's Test Kitchen has a rather bizarre but successful hack. They bought a non-toxic sandpaper and scratched away at some smooth, Teflon-made pasta for 10 seconds and they found it replicated a bronze-die's roughness remarkably well.