Is Expensive Pasta Worth The Price Tag?
The use of higher quality flour, better production methods and extended drying times are what separates the most expensive pasta from the cheap alternatives. If budget allows, we think spending a little more on the premium stuff is easily justified.
First things first, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with budget pasta. With sky-rocketing food prices and budgets seriously stretched, expensive pasta is well out of reach for many households. We've eaten plenty of the cheap stuff in our time and know that when cooked properly and paired with a decent sauce, it makes for a tasty, nutritious, and affordable meal. If cooking for children or non-foodie friends, there really is little point paying any more for the posh stuff.
The pasta in the image above retails for 28p, £1.65 and £7.00 respectively. Many people think that all you are paying for when buying premium pasta is brand recognition and fancy packaging. There's undoubtedly a bit of truth in that, but there are some very tangible differences between expensive and cheap pasta that mean if we can afford it, we always opt for the premium stuff.
Quality of ingredients
The most expensive pasta brands often use specialty or organic ingredients (such as durum wheat semolina) which can result in a rich, decadent flavour. You will find that cheaper pasta brands are far more likely to use lower-quality flours which can sometimes be bulked out with additives or fillers.
All the dried pasta you find in your local supermarket will have been extruded through a die to give it its shape. A die made from Teflon (the same stuff that coats your non-stick frying pan) is low-cost, easy to maintain and provides large pasta makers with a super-reliable, uniform shape and texture time after time. However, the resulting pasta is smooth and shiny, meaning sauces simply slide off it.
Artisan pasta makers favour the more expensive bronze dies, even though they cost more, are harder to maintain and are not as reliable as Teflon during long production runs. They also create more dust which is a major problem for large producers when they're churning out 10,000 kilograms of pasta an hour.
The reason smaller producers put up with these flaws is because bronze die pasta has a rough and porous surface. Look at any bronze-extruded shape under a microscope and the surface looks like super-course sandpaper. These small imperfections allow sauce to stick to it better. Not only that, but the increased surface area enhances the overall mouthfeel of the pasta and that results in a more interesting eating experience.
Drying pasta at very low temperatures for hours or even days ensures it retains more of its natural flavours and textures, and helps it cooks more evenly. The low-and-slow drying process also results in pasta that is slightly porous, meaning it absorbs some of the sauce resulting in a more flavourful bite.
Makers of mass-produced pasta don't have the luxury of ample time and space, so they employ commercial drying techniques such as hot air drying or powerful dehydration systems to speed up the process. The downside of these processes is that they decrease the pasta's nutritional value and make it harder for your body to digest. It's also much harder to cook quick-dried pasta perfectly al dente as the outside invariably goes mushy before the inside is adequately cooked.
More starch released
The large surface area of expensive pasta means it releases more starch as it cooks. This starchy water is liquid gold because adding a little of it to your pesto (or any sauce) helps it to emulsify, creating a glossy, restaurant-quality finish.
Wider choice of shapes
Supermarkets are slowly starting to stock pasta shapes that you may not be familiar with, but the lion's share of your average UK pasta aisle is still made up of spaghetti, penne, fusilli, and farfalle. To enjoy some of the more unusual shapes like orecchiette, trofie or corzetti, you're going to have to look towards the premium brands.
Ethics and sustainability
Some premium pasta brands focus on sustainability and supporting local farmers, whilst the companies making the budget stuff are unlikely to offer the same level of commitment.