Is Fresh Pasta Better Than Dried Pasta?
Neither fresh nor dried pasta are better than the other. They each excel in different areas and bring different flavours, textures, and convenience to the table.
In the world of gastronomy "fresh" is a buzzword you'll hear bandied around a lot. The very word carries with it connotations of a food being high quality, healthy, tasty, virtuous, wholesome and, well, just plain better. The truth is though, just like fresh tomatoes vs. tinned tomatoes, both fresh and dried pasta have their place and excel in different areas.
The difference between fresh and dried pasta
There's always an exception to the rule, but almost all the dried pasta you buy will have been made using semolina (durum wheat) and water, whilst most fresh pasta will have been made using flour and eggs. This makes them different in eight key areas: texture, freshness, flavour, colour, cost, shelf-life, convenience, and nutrition.
Al dente ("to the tooth") is something you'll hear a lot if you watch as many cooking shows as we do. It's basically an unwritten law in Italy that dried pasta must be served with a firm resistance. Soft or mushy pasta is considered a culinary crime.
For our tastes, some restaurants take this rule too far and serve pasta that is uncomfortably firm, but there is no doubt that retaining some resistance in the pasta provides a uniquely enjoyable eating experience.
Because fresh pasta has never been dried, it has no ability to provide any kind of al dente texture. Instead, its high moisture content yields a silkier, more tender bite than is possible with dried pasta.
Fresh doesn't necessarily mean as fresh as you might assume. The pasta you buy at your local farmer's market or order at your favourite Italian restaurant will usually have been made that day, and because it will have been made with raw egg it must be refrigerated and eaten within a day or two. Because dried pasta is basically a mix of flour and water that has had most of its moisture removed, there's nothing in it to "go off" so it can be safely kept at room temperature for two years or more.
Fresh supermarket pasta is a different thing entirely. To increase its shelf-life manufacturers pasteurise the egg which extends its life by up to 6-weeks. But whenever we have guests coming over and we want to serve our signature carbonara sauce with perfect al dente pasta we'll make the spaghetti the day before, let it dry at room temperature for 24-hours and then serve. On that occasion, our dried pasta is fresher than fresh pasta. Confusing, right?
Pasta made with eggs has a rich flavour that we love but which some people find off-putting, especially if it has been made with a generous proportion of yolks-to-whites. Dried pasta on the other hand has a more neutral flavour that many people prefer because they argue it takes on the flavour of the sauce better than its fresh counterpart.
You'll find fresh spaghetti, penne, and fusilli in chilled supermarkets aisles, but where it really excels is filled pasta like tortellini or our personal favourite, agnolotti. These shapes are always made with an egg-based dough and are widely considered the Holy Grail of skilled pasta making.
Eggs give fresh pasta an appealing yellow hue that often looks more appetising than its dried, somewhat beige cousin. When chefs make a dough using just egg yolks - especially if they choose eggs from hens whose diet is rich in carotenoids - the colour of the dough can have an incredibly vibrant dark orange colour.
Both dried and fresh pasta can be coloured in other ways, often with a puree of vegetables like spinach or beetroot, or sometimes with a dried vegetable powder. You'll find plenty of elaborately coloured dried pasta in your local TK Maxx, but because fresh pasta is generally regarded as a more artisan product, you're likely to see more colour experimentation in the fresh stuff. If you're a firm believer in eating with your eyes, this can greatly enhance the eating experience.
It's no great surprise that pasta made from egg is almost always going to be more expensive than pasta made from water, although there are exceptions to the rule. Take Atavi pasta for example. Their dried tagliatelle will set you back a staggering £20 for a 280g box.
The process of drying pasta doesn't only give it the ability to be cooked to a perfectly al dente texture, it greatly lengthens its shelf-life too making it a convenient pantry staple. Although conventional wisdom says to eat it within 2-years it can last considerably longer providing it is kept in a cool, dark place. Fresh pasta on the other hand should ideally be eaten the same day, although just like pesto, it will generally last in the fridge for 2-3 days before its quality starts to deteriorate.
We love making pasta from scratch although it is undeniably messy, time-consuming, and far from convenient. Making a semolina-water dough takes the same amount of time as a flour-egg dough, but in the case of dried pasta you need to factor in the drying time which can take many hours or even days depending on the temperature and humidity.
Once made, neither fresh nor dried pasta are any great hardship to cook, although the fresh stuff wins when it comes to cook time. Fresh pasta needs just 2-3 minutes in boiling water whilst the dried alternative can take anything from 10-15 minutes.
Dried pasta is often enriched with vitamins and minerals meaning it offers a considerable nutritional punch. However, there are very few foodstuffs than can rival the humble egg in the superfood stakes, meaning that fresh, egg-based pasta wins hands down when it comes to all-round nourishment.
Yolks in particular contain generous amounts of protein, vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids, making eggs one of the most nutritious foods on the planet. Despite historically being considered unhealthy because of their high fat and cholesterol content, they are now considered a good weight loss food and even feature heavily on most weight loss diets. They also score high on the "satiety index" which grades the ability of a food to make you feel full for longer.
Where things start to get blurry for dieters is when trying to decipher whether fresh pasta is better than dried pasta for your waistline. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer because it depends entirely on what kind of diet you are following. Let's break it down into the three most common diets: low-fat, low-carbohydrate and low-calorie.
For those on a low-fat diet, deciding whether to eat fresh or dried pasta is a no brainer. Clearly the pasta made with water rather than eggs offers a better way for you to reach your weight goals, providing you pair it with an equally low-fat sauce.
If you're following an Atkins-style, low-carbohydrate diet you should avoid pasta altogether. Despite being nowhere near as enjoyable to eat, you can get a hint of the pasta-eating experience by buying noodles made from konjac flour. These contain less than 1% carbohydrate and provide practically no calories or nutrition, but they are better than nothing if you're craving a big bowl of spaghetti.
If you've been following the Atkins diet religiously and feel like you deserve a night off, fresh pasta is better for you than dried. Eggs aren't just high in protein and fat; they are very low in carbohydrates (usually less than 1%) meaning you'll be consuming less carbohydrates than if you were eating dried pasta. Also worth noting is that egg dough is primarily used to make filled pasta, and that means a lot of what you sit down to eat will be the filling, not the dough. Despite plenty of exceptions, meat and fish fillings tend to be high-protein and low-carbohydrate which further compounds fresh pasta's credentials for low-carb dieters.
When it comes to calories, things start to get even more complicated. A perfectly reasonable assumption would be that fresh pasta made from flour and eggs will be higher in calories than dried pasta made from flour and water. But stop to look at the nutritional labels on your favourite fresh and dried pastas and you'll be forgiven for concluding that the fresh stuff is lower in calories. So, what gives?
To understand what's going on we need to look at the weight of both types of pasta before and after cooking. Because fresh pasta starts with a high-water content (often over 50%), it takes on hardly any water as it cooks, meaning it will broadly weigh the same after cooking as it did before.
Dried pasta on the other hand, has a very low water content (usually less than 10%) meaning you're essentially buying a highly concentrated carbohydrate which can often be higher in calories than some fresh pastas. When it cooks though, it rehydrates which effectively dilutes the calorie density per gram. That means you need to use a lot less of it to start with to end up with a bowl of pasta that's the same weight as the fresh one.
We're not usually ones to sit on the fence, but there really is very little in it when it comes to determining whether fresh pasta is better than dried pasta for your waistline. We'll continue to enjoy both without an ounce of guilt and just make sure we continue to use the stairs rather than the escalator.