By Kimberly J. Decker, Contributing Editor
As long as there are doting nonnas, endurance athletes, and chefs willing to plumb the creative possibilities of artisanal mac ’n cheese, there will be room for pasta. Some of us may have doubted its fate a few years back, what with the whole low-carb craze and all, but the smart money knows: Never bet against a foodstuff with a history that stretches as far back as pre-Roman times.
But the pasta that graced the tables of the ancients is a far cry from the tubes, twists and tagliatelle that diners enjoy today. And therein lies the lesson that pasta teaches product developers of all stripes: by remaining adaptable in form and formulation, there’s no taste or trend that pasta can’t evolve to meet.
While North American shoppers can find pasta products made from all sorts of wheat and grain flours, “If we were talking about Italy, it is actually the law that dried pasta made for domestic consumption be made of durum wheat," says Paul Ebbinghaus, technologist, pasta technology, Canadian International Grains Institute, Winnipeg, Manitoba. The restriction is partly a nod to tradition, but it’s also a consequence of the practical and quality advantages that durum wheat—and semolina, the coarse-ground flour milled from the durum endosperm—bring to pasta.
Durum “is the hardest variety of wheat and has protein characteristics that make it ideal for the production of high-quality pasta," says Mark E. Vermylen, vice president, A Zerega’s Sons, Inc., Fair Lawn, NJ. What’s more, the golden-yellow color of the endosperm effectively represents what pasta should look like to many consumers—a quality some manufacturers goose with egg yolk. But all else aside, he says, “all top-quality pasta is made from durum."
Ebbinghaus notes that wheat breeding programs continually introduce “newer and improved varieties of durum wheat." And while the improvements mainly benefit growers and farmers, “I’ve seen a vast improvement in the color and increased yellowness of the durum wheat varieties," he says. He’s also seen improvements in protein quality, which is no small matter when making pasta.
Pasta’s protein scaffold
Protein accounts for about 13% of the composition of dried pasta, and it comes primarily from the wheat. The protein forms a scaffolding that envelops the starch—pasta’s “cement"—as it gelatinizes during cooking. Without the protein substructure, pasta can’t hold up.
“It’s what allows the pasta shape to form and remain through the cooking process," Vermylen says. “The high protein content and gluten strength of durum provides for firm pasta with consistent cooking quality." Protein also gives pasta its pleasing al dente “bite" (provided you don’t leave it on the boil too long) and a modicum of nutritional value: about 7 grams protein per 2-oz. serving, dry.
“Generally, the higher the protein the better," Ebbinghaus says, “but protein quality is also very important." If you want a firm, strong bite, then you should look for a protein with less-elastic characteristics, he says, whereas a softer bite calls for a more elastic protein.
“Hard wheat flour is used in pasta for certain dry consumer foods to get cost savings," Vermylen says, “but only where the reduction in pasta quality won’t greatly affect the consumer experience." When working with nonwheat flours entirely, “often other ingredients have to be added to make up for the loss in cooking quality and color as the level of durum falls."
Making up for lost protein
Choosing the right supplemental ingredients “depends on what quality you want to improve," Ebbinghaus says.
Vermylen notes that egg whites at 2% to 7% “are added to pasta intended for use in some processing applications strictly for the effect of their protein on pasta firmness." Wheat gluten, in addition to or instead of egg whites, also enhances pasta firmness; both strength and nutritional protein can come from soy, he says.
“In addition to strengthening agents, such as egg white and wheat gluten, emulsifiers can improve texture and reduce stickiness," Vermylen adds. For example, FDA allows concentrated glycerol monostearate in macaroni and noodles at no more than 2% and 3% by weight of the finished product, respectively.
While “nothing can really replace gluten, gums like xanthan and modified starches can provide something similar in functional properties," Ebbinghaus observes.
Indeed, hydrocolloids improve pasta texture and shelf life, says Janae Kuc, laboratory technician, Gum Technology Corporation, Tucson, AZ. “They also provide structure, improve pliability and improve performance during the extrusion process." They do this in much the same way that protein does: by forming “a supporting gel network that will allow the pasta dough to be stronger, more flexible and less sticky," she says.