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Pasta, wheat

Why Eat It
Varieties
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

Probably no food has undergone a greater transformation in the mind of the health-conscious public than pasta. For years, Americans dismissed it as a fattening filler, a food that gave calories and barely any nutrients. Increasingly, pasta is regarded as rich in complex carbohydrates, high in protein, and low in fat. Easy to prepare, pasta is also one of the most diverse foods made from grains, available in hundreds of shapes and sizes, and used in hundreds of different dishes worldwide.

All types of pasta have one thing in common: They are prepared from a dough, or paste (pasta means "paste" in Italian) that is made by mixing finely ground grain or flour with water. It may be hard to believe that such a simple food could be so nutritious. Yet 82% of the calories in spaghetti and similar pastas come from complex carbohydrates; the remaining calories are mostly protein--enough so that 1 cup of cooked spaghetti supplies more protein than a whole egg. Enriched wheat pastas (the bulk of commercially available pastas) also offer good levels of B vitamins and iron, and have a fair amount of dietary fiber. Whole wheat pastas have even more dietary fiber.

Many of the names given to pasta shapes are Italian, but the Italians hardly have a monopoly on this food. Although the origin of pasta hasn't been established, the evidence indicates that various forms developed independently in many cultures. The Chinese may have eaten noodles as early as 5,000 B.C. It is widely believed that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from the Far East in 1295, but if he did, it was probably to compare it to the pasta already there, since the Etruscans were making pasta as early as 400 B.C. The history of pasta in the United States is much clearer. Thomas Jefferson is credited with bringing it to the U.S. in the late 1780s, after visiting Naples while he was the American ambassador to France. The first pasta factory in the United States opened in 1848 in Brooklyn, New York. Pasta remained a relatively uncommon food until the late 19th century when Italian immigrants introduced the dried wheat pastas that have become the most popular variety in this country.

Varieties

The pastas we associate with Italy--among them spaghetti (from spago, or "strand"), rigatoni (from rigati, meaning "grooved"), vermicelli ("little worms"), and linguine ("little tongues")--are usually made from semolina. This granular product, milled from durum wheat, yields high-quality pasta with a golden color, mellow flavor, and sturdy texture. (Like white flour, semolina has had the bran and germ removed during milling.) Durum wheat is the hardest of all the wheats, meaning that it's highest in protein. Wheat doughs, when kneaded, develop gluten--a tough, elastic protein substance formed from other proteins in the wheat--and the harder a wheat is, the more gluten it will have. Dough made from semolina is high in gluten, which gives it the resiliency and strength to stand up to the pasta-making process and to hold its shape during cooking.

Most dried pastas are made from 100% semolina, but some manufacturers market versions that combine semolina with other wheat flours, such as farina, which is the coarsely ground endosperm of a wheat that is not as hard as durum. (Farina is a prime ingredient in many breakfast cereals.) When cooked, these combined-wheat pastas are whiter and softer than 100% semolina pasta.

Pasta makers use molds or dies to fashion the many different shapes that range from simple strands of spaghetti to intricate cartwheels and bow-ties. Most Italian-style pastas are classified according to whether they are long or short; round, tubular, or flat; smooth or ridged; solid or hollow. While some names for the various shapes are fairly standard, others are not, particularly in Italy, where one shape can come in several different sizes and have several different names.

Despite the various Italian names used to identify most of the popular pasta shapes in the United States, the FDA legally defines all dried pasta as either macaroni or noodles.

Macaroni: This designation is applied to an array of pasta shapes and sizes, whether strands (such as spaghetti), tubes (such as elbow macaroni, penne, and cannelloni), or shells (conchiglie), to mention just a few. Macaroni must be primarily composed of semolina, farina, and/or flour milled from durum wheat; these three components can be used separately or in any combination, along with water. Optional ingredients, such as egg whites, salt, or flavorings, are permitted. Some types of macaroni--spaghetti and vermicelli, for example--must also conform to certain size designations.

Egg Noodles: In addition to the guidelines set for macaroni, egg noodles must also contain no less than 5 1/2% egg by weight. As a result, noodles have some fat and cholesterol. (Some manufacturers make noodles from egg whites, which have neither cholesterol nor fat.) The protein content of cooked egg noodles is only slightly higher than macaroni. Although the egg in noodles adds protein, the noodles usually are made with a combination of semolina and softer wheats, such as farina, which have less protein than semolina.

Pasta is also available in less-standard forms that are finding their way onto supermarket shelves:

Flavored pastas: Some pastas are colored and flavored with vegetable purees (such as spinach, tomatoes, or beets), that add visual appeal and a hint of flavor. Spinach pasta is higher in dietary fiber than plain semolina pasta. Pasta products can also be seasoned with saffron, lemon, garlic, squid ink, black pepper, or other herbs or spices.

Fresh pasta: Made from wheat flour, water, and, usually, whole eggs, fresh pastas has a higher moisture content and softer consistency than dried pasta. Frequently it is used most for dumplings, such as ravioli and tortellini, but is also available as spaghetti, fettuccine, and other shapes. Fresh pasta colored with vegetable purees is also available. When made with whole eggs, fresh pasta is slightly higher in fat than dried pasta and contains 66 milligrams of cholesterol per 6 ounce cooked serving. In addition, if it is stuffed with cheese or meat, as with ravioli or tortellini, fresh pasta can be high in fat and cholesterol; if it is stuffed with vegetables or seafood, the fat content is likely to be lower.

High-protein pasta: Enriched with soy flour, wheat germ, yeast, or dairy products, this type of pasta contains 20% to 100% more protein than standard pasta. Although it tastes like regular pasta, it tends to be a bit more chewy (an attractive feature to some) and it be sticky after cooking.

Whole wheat pasta: Made from whole wheat flour or whole wheat durum flour, this pasta is not significantly higher in vitamins and minerals than semolina pasta because semolina pasta is almost always enriched with B vitamins and iron. However, whole wheat pasta is higher in dietary fiber and has a distinctive robust taste.

Shopping

It is difficult to tell when a particular batch of dried pasta was made (though some packages are stamped with "sell-by" dates). Luckily, dried pasta keeps almost indefinitely, so "freshness" isn't a particular concern. Just be sure that the package is intact and hasn't been exposed to water, and that the pasta inside is not broken.

Fresh pasta is perishable, and should be displayed in a refrigerated case or in a freezer. Buy it from a shop with a high turnover; if it is packaged, check the "sell-by" date. Keep in mind, too, that a pound of fresh pasta won't serve as many people as a pound of dried (since the fresh absorbs much less water during cooking).

Most supermarkets routinely stock 20 to 30 pasta shapes, which may seem like more than enough. However, the Italians have created over 600 pasta shapes, and more than 150 of them are available now in the United States, mostly in specialty and gourmet stores.

Storage

Store dried pasta in a cool, dry place away from bright light and it will keep for many months. (Research has shown that pastas lose considerable riboflavin when exposed to light.) As an extra precaution, remove the pasta from its original package and place it in an airtight opaque container.

Store fresh pasta tightly wrapped in plastic wrap; it will keep for one week in the refrigerator or one month in the freezer.

Leftover cooked pasta will keep for a day or two if refrigerated; dress it lightly with oil to prevent clumping. To serve hot, add to boiling water for 30 seconds and drain. Reheat in a microwave by placing the pasta on a platter and cover with vented plastic wrap before you heat it.

Preparation

Pasta should be cooked in boiling water, which softens and properly hydrates it. Since pasta is cooked in more water than it absorbs during cooking, 25% to 50% of the water-soluble B vitamins added during the enrichment of the semolina are lost.

Cooking pasta is not difficult but does require attention. The two main rules for perfect pasta are to use plenty of water and do not overcook. Sufficient water helps the pasta cook evenly and prevents clumping and sticking. Pasta is best when it is cooked to the "al dente" stage--tender but firm to the bite. Overcooked pasta will be mushy.

Choose a sufficiently large pot--one that can comfortably hold 4 quarts of water per pound of pasta. Many cooks and recipes suggest adding salt to the cooking water; about 10% of the sodium in salt will be absorbed by the pasta. If you are sodium sensitive, you should eliminate it (try fresh lemon juice in the water).

When the water reaches a rolling boil, uncover the pot and add the pasta in small batches to keep the water boiling steadily. Boil, uncovered, stirring occasionally with a fork to separate the pieces and keep them from sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Pasta cooking time depends on the type of pasta. Package directions are generally accurate if you are cooking the whole package at once but often overestimate the cooking time for smaller amounts. Begin checking the pasta about halfway through the recommended cooking time. Remove a piece from the pot, run it under cool water, and bite it. If it is still hard and white in the middle, continue cooking. If it's almost cooked through, taste another sample in 45 seconds. The pasta is done when it is translucent in the center and no longer hard, but still firm. (Pasta that is to be baked, stir-fried, used in soups or stews, or cooked further should be undercooked slightly.)

Drain the pasta immediately in a colander. Shake the colander gently to remove as much water as possible. Do not rinse pasta unless you are going to serve it cold, as in a salad, or you need to handle it, as with lasagna or manicotti. Rinsing pasta removes more water-soluble B vitamins and the outer layer of starch that allows the sauce to stick to the pasta.

Place the drained pasta in a warm bowl and toss lightly with a small amount of sauce or oil. Once it's been transferred to plates, add more sauce, if you wish. Alternatively, add the drained pasta to the sauce and combine all the ingredients.

Nutrition Chart

Pasta/1 cup cooked

189
Total fat (g)
0.9
Saturated fat (g)
0.1
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.4
Dietary fiber (g)
1.7
6
Carbohydrate (g)
38
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
1
Thiamin (mg)
0.3
Folate (mcg)
94
Manganese (mg)
0.4
Selenium (mcg)
29

Whole Wheat Pasta/1 cup cooked

173
Total fat (g)
0.8
Saturated fat (g)
0.1
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.3
Dietary fiber (g)
3.9
7
Carbohydrate (g)
37
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
4
Manganese (mg)
1.9
Selenium (mcg)
36

Egg Noodles/1 cup cooked

213
Total fat (g)
2.4
Saturated fat (g)
0.5
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0.7
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0.7
Dietary fiber (g)
1.8
8
Carbohydrate (g)
40
Cholesterol (mg)
53
Sodium (mg)
11
Thiamin (mg)
0.3
Folate (mcg)
102
Iron (mg)
2.5
Manganese (mg)
0.4
Selenium (mcg)
35


Date Published: 04/20/2005
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