Oodles and oodles of boxed pasta. Photo by Stephanie

Oodles and oodles of boxed pasta. Photo by Stephanie Stiavetti.

Stephanie Stiavetti (@sstiavetti) writes The Culinary Life blog. Her first book, Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese, will be available October 22 from Little, Brown, and it’s superb, the best one I’ve seen, in fact, accept no imitations!

I’m always game for a rant, especially first thing in Monday morning. Take it away, Steph! —M.R.

You’ve heard Michael’s spiel on Americans being trained to believe they’re too stupid to cook. It’s an unfortunate reality that people in this country place a higher priority on time than they do nearly everything else, which greatly affects what we eat. Which affects our health. Which, in the end, affects EVERYTHING. When you eat poorly, guess what? You feel poorly too. You don’t have the energy to do the things you want to do: hitting the gym, playing ball with the kids, actually getting up to go to a movie instead of streaming Netflix while lolling on the couch. All of those things feel like too much effort.

Hey couples: have you noticed that either (or both?) of your libidos have gone down the tubes? What do you two eat everyday? Might want to look into that. Just sayin’.

A few months ago I ranted about cheese, and today I’m compelled to go off on cheap boxed pasta. To be clear: there’s nothing inherently evil about cheap pasta. If you throw something healthy on top of it—like a freshly made pesto, perhaps—then boxed pastas are leagues ahead of countless other things you could be eating, but if you’re at all interested in spiffing up your diet to include high-quality carbs, then that sub-$1 box of generic elbow macaroni might be a good area to investigate.

What’s the primary issue with cheap boxed pastas? As you might have guessed, it’s made from cheap grain. Large-scale pasta operations produce their wares in huge factories, and these factories need to be fed enormous amounts of wheat to churn out 734,387,632 pounds of noodles a day. Do you know any small-scale farmers who can produce quality grain in that kind of quantity? Probably not.

With only a few exceptions, the wheat used to make industrial-made pasta is generally of mass-produced, hybridized (see my comment below on GMO versus hybrid) stock, before it goes through a dizzying amount of processing to get it down to the gossamer white powder we’re so used to eating. Some experts go so far as to say that a lot of the wheat produced these days is not nearly as healthy for you as heritage varieties, which are locally produced on a much smaller scale.

Then there’s the taste and texture issue. Crappy pasta tastes, well, crappy when compared to higher-quality noodles, due both to the lame wheat used and to the fact that it’s made on industrial equipment that does not produce the proper texture. YES, the surface of pasta is meant to have texture. What do you think the sauce is supposed to cling to? Have you ever tried pouring marinara on the windshield of your car? How much sauce would actually hang out on the surface, versus the amount that ended up in a puddle at the base of your windshield wipers? Exactly. Please, for the love of god, avoid super-smooth noodles that could be buffed to a glassy shine. You’re missing the whole point.

Now, there’s a lot to be said for small-production, artisan-made boxed pastas, which often tip the scales when it comes to flavor, texture, and ingredient quality. Brands like Rustichella d’Abruzzo, Cipriani, and Baia produce some excellent varieties. When cooked correctly they’ll sing at the touch of even the simplest sauce, making for a veritable triumph at your dinner table. To take it up yet another notch, many major supermarkets have started selling fresh pastas in the refrigerated aisle, which will give you an even better experience than industrially-made dry pasta, but at that price point, it’s better to make it yourself.

Wait, what? Make it yourself? You heard me. So many folks believe that making pasta is a huge undertaking meant for only the highbrow culinary elite, but that’s just not true. Homemade pasta is relatively quick to make and it’s insanely cheap. Seriously. All you need is some flour and a couple of eggs. And when made in quantity it freezes beautifully, perfect for those “quick & easy” meals Americans love so much.

So how do you go about making pasta? Well, you’ll have to wait for my next post to find out what I’ve got to say about that.

**When I referred to genetically modified wheat, I was using the term in its literal meaning to indicate that the wheat in our food supply has been highly hybridized to maintain/improve certain traits. So those taking issue with my use of GMO are correct, if adhering to the widely adopted meaning of the term. While our wheat has not experienced a “direct manipulation of its genome using biotechnology,” (please excuse the wikipedia explanation, but it was the most succinct for this addendum) it has indeed undergone changes on a genetic level, via hybridizing, to alter its characteristics. We’re modifying the article so that the wording is more clear in the public understanding.

If you can’t wait for Steph’s post, which will surely be more than a simple recipe, take a look at these links:

© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.
Stephanie Stiavetti

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47 Wonderful responses to “Stephanie’s Pasta Rant”

  • JoyS

    If most wheat is mass produced/mass farmed, is there a way to get “better” wheat? I regularly buy King Arthur, but this has me pondering my future purchasing. I don’t often see locally/small farmed wheat at my farmers market or local food co-op (in DC area). Thoughts on flour I should buy? Thanks!

  • Ixchel

    This is really interesting to me. My husband is diabetic, and so we have to be very careful about the carbs he eats.

    When I make homemade pasta, his blood sugar remains balanced after dinner. If I cook with storebought, even pretty good brands, his glucose soars. I haven’t been able to figure out why, since what I put into our noodles is theoretically the same as the storebought listed ingredients- semolina, eggs, water. I guess it’s down to what semolina is being used, for the homemade, I get Bob’s organic, which is a good brand as far as I know.

    I really enjoy making pasta, so now I make all the pasta we eat, which is easy to integrate into our dinnermaking routine, and it allows us to both keep eating something we enjoy.

    • Stephanie

      This is fascinating. I’m not sure of what would cause his glucose to soar. I’ll see if I can find a dietician to weigh in on this.

  • mike

    There is no commercially available GMO wheat. Rants are much better when they include actual facts.

    • Stephanie

      Hi Mike, we’re adding a quick addendum to the post. To paraphrase the full statement being posted above: I was using the term ‘genetically modified’ in its literal meaning to indicate that our wheat has been highly hybridized. American wheat stock has been changed on a genetic level, via hybridizing, to alter some its characteristics. We’re modifying the article so that the wording is more clear in the public understanding.

      • chris r

        The article you reference doesn’t really show what you might believe it shows. While they start out with the idea the currently available wheat is some sort of horrific madness making us all fat the results of the experiment don’t support that. The doctor didn’t switch his patients from current wheat products to those made with heirloom varieties but a complete elimination of what products. As such, all he showed is that eliminating wheat from ones diet may lead to a positive outcome. No supportable case was made that current commercial varieties are better or worse for you than heirloom wheat corn. So in an article about pasta it seems strange to reference an article about eliminating wheat.

  • chris r

    There is currently no GMO wheat approved for use in the United States or anywhere else in the world. While field tests have been undertaken and there have been a couple of known instance of GMO strains being found in the wild there are now vast factory farms grown GMO wheat. If you have actual evidence of GMO wheat being used in boxed pasta you have a far far bigger story on your hands.

    Also, using Dr. Oz to support your idea that the wheat we are currently consuming is bad for us is dicey at best.

    • Celia

      I was about to post that, but I see someone beat me to it. I have no doubt that the grain used to make boxed pasta is sub-par, but hybrid crops =/= GMO crops.

    • Stephanie

      Hi Chris, please see my above comment about the term “genetically modified.” We’re updating the term to ‘hybridized’ so that it’s more clear.

  • Michelle Borek

    I don’t find that any box pasta is far and above better than any other. If you’re not making your own, I kinda feel like its 6 to one… Besides, pasta is empty calories or it should be anyway. We should be focusing on vitamin rich foods lime fruits, vegetables, rtc

    • Stephanie

      I agree that we should be concentrating on veg, etc, but I disagree that all boxed pastas are made the same! Have you tried taste-testing a cheap brand against an artisan brand, one that’s been cut from brass dies?

  • Gregorio

    It bears saying that, from a culinary standpoint, there is a difference between dried semolina pasta and fresh egg pasta and that one does not always substitute well for the other in recipes. In Italy, dry pasta is not seen as inferior to fresh.

  • Judy

    Love Rustichella pasta, have found it at Gallucci’s in Cleveland and Earth Fare. It’s not cheap but their orrechiette is delicious. Recently tried a dried boxed pasta made with organic Einkorn wheat by a company called Jovial. It was very good, it’s a meaty/heart noodle, won’t go with delicate sauces.

    And Dr. Oz is a hack to put it mildly.

  • Mike

    I would agree with Gregorio, and go further saying that artisan dried pasta such as Setaro or Rustichella d’Abruzzo is far superior to generic “fresh” pasta in the refrigerated section of a grocery store.

    • Stephanie

      I would have to agree as well. I’m a huge fan or Rustichella, though I’ve not tried Setaro.

  • Michele Garcia

    The link on the sentence “not nearly as healthy for you as heritage varieties” would be more helpful if it actually went to an article or articles that offer more information about the difference between modern wheat and heritage wheat varieties, and what they specifically are, and not just an article about a doctor who completely does away with any wheat in the diet.

    Typically any commercially milled flour you purchase in the store (King Arthur, for example) is made from hard or soft, red or white, spring or winter wheat, all of which are considered modern wheat due to their high hybridization, in order to increase yield and gluten content. Heritage wheat would include einkorn and spelt, both non-hybridized grains. Jovial Foods is one company I’m aware of that sells einkorn flour and pasta made from einkorn; To Your Health Sprouted Flour is another company that sells sprouted spelt and sprouted einkorn flour.

    I’m also not aware of any wheat in the world that is genetically modified, or “GMO,” like corn and soy are, other than reading recently about some “unapproved genetically altered wheat developed by Monsanto…growing in an Oregon farm field” http://in.reuters.com/article/2013/07/29/monsanto-wheat-gmo-idINL1N0FZ1820130729

    It is also informative to read Sally Fallon’s “Nourishing Traditions” which puts forth the premise that all wheat should be soaked, sprouted, or soured to eliminate anti-nutrients and pre-digest gluten, as traditional cultures have done for hundreds of years. Those are all processes we’ve definitely lost in our current culture. I have often wondered if a combination of factors (i.e. over-hybridization, pesticides, loss of traditional preparation methods) have contributed to more people having problems with eating wheat these days.

    I personally have switched to using spelt or einkorn exclusively in the bread, pasta, pizza and quick breads I make at home because we feel better eating those grains.

    • chris r

      The idea that traditional societies soak, sprout, and sour their wheat products prior to use is based on a very odd view of ‘traditional’ societies. There is evidence of whole ground wheat being used (not sprouted or soured) in ancient Egypt. Likewise you have direct documentation of wheat noodles in China going back almost 2,000 years. So I’m not sure which traditional cultures she is referring to but it’s not like everyone did this and then modern society came along and messed it all up. I have a feeling that she is making an appeal to antiquity (so and so have been doing something this way for thousands of years so it must be good!) which is sort of a bogus premise for an argument.

      • culturedsf

        One idea you might consider is the older harvest methods before you say that wheat in Egypt or anywhere else was not sprouted or soured. There is some evidence that harvest methods employed in older times allowed freshly harvested wheat stalks to dry slowly in the fields after harvest, which did cause sprouting and minimal fermenting with the daily cycles of morning moisture, sun and evening moisture. Modern harvest machinery immediately processes the wheat seeds which are dried right after they are collected. Quite a different way of handling the wheat. Just a thought.

  • Abigail Blake

    I certainly agree about the inferiority of some cheap brands of dried pasta. But a comparison between fresh and dried pasta doesn’t make sense and seems to indicate a basic lack of understanding about Italian pasta in general. Rather, there is industrially-produced and extruded semolina pasta and there is egg pasta. They have different textures, different flavors and they are used differently. Rules are, of course, made to be broken. But in general, homemade egg pasta will soak up a butter or cream sauce, while factory semolina pasta will “wear” an olive-oil based sauce.

    As for that “fresh” pasta available in the refrigerator case in the supermarkets, it is not fresh and its flavor and texture have absolutely nothing in common with homemade egg pasta. If you make egg pasta at home and don’t use it immediately, it will dry out. This is fine. Homemade egg pasta should not be refrigerated or frozen. The stuff in the supermarket is kept artificially soft with aid of chemical additives, usually soy lecithin. It is nasty stuff and best avoided.

    • chris r

      I’d have to agree. Obviously she could be coming at this from a “pasta doesn’t have to be italian” point of view but based on the content it does seem like she has strong opinions on this matter. I’m just not sure those opinions are necessarily backed up by any deeper research. That being said, I agree with her that fresh pasta, if properly made, is a wonderful thing. The problem is that while making fresh pasta is easy, making *good* fresh pasta is a lot harder than one might think.

  • chris

    “Homemade pasta is relatively quick to make and it’s insanely cheap”

    honestly, these rants are so, so tone deaf. If you write a rant addressing ways to encourage people to 1. cook for themselves more 2. use higher quality ingredients but 3. finish it off with a call to make pasta from scratch, your audience is not really the people who need to cook for themselves more.

  • Dean

    Why rant about a problem that doesn’t exist (i.e., use of GMO wheat in pasta)? Facts are wonderful things.

    • Stephanie

      Hi Dean, please see my above comment about the term “genetically modified.” We’re updating the term to ‘hybridized’ so that it’s more clear.

      • Dean

        Stephanie – the change is appropriate. But, people have been hybridizing wheat and other crops almost since they’ve figured out how to cultivate them. Almost every crop raised by large and small farmers is a hybrid crop. In the 1920′s hybridization of corn led to significantly greater yields that helped some parts of the world find relief from hunger. Keeping a diverse agricultural genetic base is important hence the massive, highly secured seed banks that the government maintains. It allows for the preservation of key species, but also supports the creation of new hybrids that can lead to greater productivity, and in some cases better nutrition or taste.
        That being said, one point you and I completely agree on is about over processing. Obviously some processing is necessary, but over refinement, the introduction of adulterants in the process too often ruins the taste, texture, and in some cases, nutritive value of pasta and many other foods.
        Keep the rants coming. Your earlier column on cheese made me smile.

  • Jill

    I see that you still haven’t taken the GMO part out of this post. It’s extremely misleading to call any wheat a GMO. Hybridized, yes, but spelt is hybridized too, it’s debatable whether it’s the hybridization that’s really the issue, or if it’s the processing. I would love to see some actual research on the subject. And no, the article from the Dr. Oz Show doesn’t count as research. And if anyone is actually paying attention it doesn’t even back up this rant. Read the article, it’s saying that all wheat is bad, because it contains gliatin. First of all, the proper spelling is gliadin, and second of all, ALL wheat has it, including heritage varieties like spelt, emmer and einkorn. So if you’re going to use that article as evidence that modern wheat is bad you really have to say that all wheat is bad.

    I’m all for fresh pasta, and less processed wheat in our diets, but a little research would go a long way to make this rant less contradictory.

    • Stephanie

      Hi Jill, the post was updated about half an hour before you left your comment here – did you try refreshing the page?

  • Patrick

    This inspired me to make fresh pasta (without a machine!) tonight. That said…

    Demonizing hybrids here is a little ridiculous. Humans have been doing that literally longer than anyone can tell. Do you also have issues with nectarines? (Keep them as peaches and plums!) Or dog breeds? (Keep them as wolves!) The list goes on and on and on and…

    Yes, corporations are further hybridizing food species directly for profit (i.e., yield/hardiness). Yes, it often results in a less-tasty product. But throwing it around like a boogeyman-word (with GMO) is, like I said, ridiculous.

    I’m using mass-produced flour in my fresh pasta tonight.

  • DJK

    “Please, for the love of god, avoid super-smooth noodles that could be buffed to a glassy shine. You’re missing the whole point.”

    Like noodles made with 00 flour?

    • chris r

      The difference in texture is often a result of the type of die used to extrude the pasta. Bronze dies tend to produce pasta with a rougher texture even when using the same flour. For many sauces a slightly rough texture is a big benefit in terms of carrying capacity. That being said, most Americans won’t notice the difference as they tend to seriously overdress their pasta (which isn’t a bad thing – it’s just not ‘traditional’).

    • culturedsf

      What does using 00 flour have to do with glossy noodles? The noodles made with 00 flour can have texture if made with certain kinds of dies or if homemade they certainly won’t be glossy.

      • DJK

        The noodles we’ve made in our Kitchen Aid with Caputo 00 have always had a much slicker texture than those we’ve made with King’s Arthur All Purpose flour. So I just found it odd that the writer placed such an emphasis on texture, then recommended Caputo 00 over KAAP in the comments section.

  • Betty

    Thanks, Stephanie. Suggestion: since you’ve been crowned the queen of mac-n-cheese, how about a rant on cheese next? Is all cheese in the US still unpasteurized? What about brie and gorgonzola? Is the fear irrational? I do enjoy raw milk cheese when I am somewhere that they are available. Seems we are missing out on a lot of deliciousness. *sigh*

  • Marcella Hazan

    Rant may be the appropriate word, Michael, for this befuddled hash of miscomprehension and misinformation on pasta. Gregorio and Abigail Blake got it right.

  • Charlotte

    While I’m not normally a defender of big Ag — I have to say, this is one of the least-informed, sloppy pieces of reasoning I’ve ever read on this site. To confuse GMO technology with hybridization is ridiculous — as noted in the comments above, we’ve been hybridizing wheat since it was discovered. Currently, the holy grail of wheat agronomy is the development of a perennial wheat that can be dry-farmed, which would be a very good thing in a warming planet where we’re shortly going to see mass starvation across the hotter bands near the equator. Agronomy is a science that can be used for good (perennial wheat) or for evil (Roundup-ready seeds). Like any science. To equate hybridization with gene splicing technology is simply ignorant.

    • Stephanie

      Charlotte, I don’t think it would be fruitful to argue the semantics of the term “genetic modification,” though I’m going to side with my college professors who encouraged me to think critically about the true nature of hybridization in both its positive and negative effects. For better or for worse, to alter the inherent biological traits of organic material is modification on a genetic level. While I certainly don’t have the scientific background to argue the finer points of genetic modification, I’m going to trust that the biologists I worked with way back in my college days know of what they speak. :)

      • Charlotte

        It *is* fruitful to argue the semantics when you are using the terms interchangeably in such a misleading way. As a gardener who has hybridized backyard veggies over the years (and someone who worked in an agronomy lab as an undergrad) and as someone with a PhD in English who believes in being precise with language, I’d suggest that if you’d done a Google search, of say, “GMO vs. Hybrid” you might have helped bolster your argument. For example, here’s a very informative article from Mother Earth News, that explains why the one is so much more alarming than the other. “Unlike hybrids, which are developed in the field using natural, low-tech methods, GM varieties are created in a lab using highly complex technology, such as gene splicing. These high-tech GM varieties can include genes from several species — a phenomenon that almost never occurs in nature.” This is the difference between hybridization — which is a refinement of the characteristics inherent to the plant, and GMO technology, which results in abominations like soy and corn crops that can withstand dousing in Roundup (a process that has poisoned much of the country). Here’s the link to the Mother Earth article: http://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/hybrid-seeds-vs-gmos-zb0z1301zsor.aspx
        You were wrong here — not that cheap pasta sucks, but about the GMO issue. It’s not just you — I’ve had this argument with any number of people who confuse the two terms. They are not the same at all.

  • Alexandra

    This is a really interesting discussion. I had no idea about why boxed mass-consumer pasta should be avoided. I read that wheat today is different from pre-1970s wheat. That gliadin was inserted. That gliadin increases appetite. Not GMO, true, but a hybridization of wheat. Anyone who can weigh in on gliadin??

  • Kristina

    I totally agree that food quality makes a difference in both taste and health, even in pantry staples like dry pasta. However, I feel like Stephanie’s rant misses something crucial: commercial dry pasta (which is made from only flour and WATER and requires machinery) is a completely different animal than fresh pasta (which, though it can be dried for preservation, is made from flour and EGGS and can be made at home by hand). You really can’t compare the two as they are not simply different quality versions of the same thing. It’s like saying apples are superior to oranges — completely nonsensical. There are versions of each that vary drastically in quality and that is more to the point: buy the best quality you can afford of whatever it is that you’re eating. To suggest that storebought “fresh” pasta (which I would never touch) is somehow better than artisanal dry pasta is inaccurate and reflects the author’s ignorance of Italian culinary tradition.

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