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Tasting Panel: Whole-Wheat Penne Pasta

A blind tasting samples seven widely available brands

by Laura Giannatempo

fromFine Cooking
Issue 81

Top Picks: Whole Foods 365 organic and Bionaturae.

Whole grains have made a comeback. What else could explain why supermarkets suddenly boast entire sections stacked with whole-wheat pastas? Made from whole durum wheat, whole-wheat pasta offers the nutritional benefits of whole grains, including three times as much fiber as regular pasta. But its assertively wheaty flavor and coarser, grainier texture take some getting used to.

To determine which pasta is worth buying, we conducted a blind tasting of seven widely available brands of whole-wheat penne pasta, cooked in salted water and tossed with mild vegetable oil. To be honest, we didn’t fall in love with any of them, but some were more appealing than others. Overall, we preferred the ones that resembled regular pasta in both flavor and texture. Our two favorites had a mild, well-balanced, slightly sweet wheat flavor and less of the toughness and grittiness that characterize whole-wheat pastas as a group.

Top picks

Whole Foods 365 organic
$1.29 (16 oz.)

We liked this pasta for its sweet, nutty flavor and mild wheatiness, which would pair well with a variety of sauces. A decent al dente texture, which reminded us of regular pasta, made it less chewy and gritty than most brands we tasted. This may well be the best choice for those who aren’t keen on whole-wheat flavor but don’t want to give up the nutritional benefits of whole-wheat pasta.

Bionaturae
$2.49 (16 oz.)

These organic whole-wheat penne imported from Italy scored almost as well as the Whole Foods brand. Their balanced, mildly wheaty flavor was a major selling point, and their relatively tender texture, with almost no trace of the coarse, gritty mouthfeel common to whole-wheat pasta, won us over as well. “Finally, a texture that’s not bad,” one panelist commented.

Runners-up

Pastas numbered in order of preference; prices will vary.

3. Ronzoni Healthy Harvest
$1.99 (13.25 oz.)

While the subtle wheaty flavor of this pasta (the only one in the group that blends regular semolina with whole durum wheat) was a hit among our tasters, its grainy, gummy texture was disappointing.

4. De Cecco
$1.99 (16 oz.)

An elegant bias-cut made this the prettiest of the bunch. But neither flavor nor texture could keep up with appearance. Stronger flavored than our top choices, it had thick walls and was tough and chewy, despite having cooked the longest (12 minutes, per package instructions).

5. De Boles
$1.99 (8 oz.)

While we couldn’t agree on whether we liked this pasta’s flavor or not (some found it pleasant, while others said it was overly wheaty), we all concurred that its texture was too crumbly and at the same time oddly sticky and gummy.

6. Da Vinci
$2.69 (12 oz.)

A stronger-than-average wheaty flavor and an out-of-place spiciness reminiscent of cinnamon caused this pasta’s score to plummet. A dry, brittle texture prone to fracturing was equally unappealing.

7. Hodgson Mill
$1.74 (12 oz.)

Our panel was unanimous in ranking this pasta the lowest. Much darker than the others, it had a disagreeably strong, slightly sour flavor with a bitter aftertaste. Its stiff and stubborn texture didn’t win us over either.

Take it beyond al dente

It may be a fact of life that the texture of whole-wheat pasta is chewier and tougher than that of regular pasta. But we found that if you cook it a little beyond al dente it gets better. We recommend setting the timer for the longest cooking time on the package instructions (if there’s a range) and taste the pasta when the timer goes off. If it still has an unpleasantly dry, gritty core, let it cook another minute or two and taste again. Just don’t let it overcook because, as with regular pasta, it will become gummy.

A happy medium: multigrain pasta

If you think the flavor of whole-wheat pasta is a bit too strong and the texture too coarse, but you still want to get more grains into your diet, you may want to try something in between: multi­grain pasta. We tasted two kinds: Barilla Plus penne ($1.89 for a 16-ounce box) and Mueller’s Multi Grain penne ($1.69 for a 12-ounce box).

Barilla Plus pasta, which doesn’t actually contain whole-wheat flour, is very similar to regular pasta. But it’s still richer in protein and fiber thanks to a blend of coarse durum wheat, oat, spelt, barley, wheat fiber, and ground flaxseed, along with chickpea and lentil flour. We liked its meek, subtly sweet, and nutty flavor, which was reminiscent of regular pasta, and we found its tender texture infinitely more appealing than that of whole-wheat pasta. And because it’s so mildly flavored, it’s easy to pair with almost any sauce.

Mueller’s Multi Grain pasta does contain whole-wheat flour, as well as whole-grain brown rice and oats. While closer to 100% whole-wheat pasta than Barilla, its whole-grain flavor is less assertive than that of the whole-wheat penne we tasted, and its texture less toothy and grainy.

Pairing tips

Whole-wheat pasta can overwhelm subtle cream- or herb-based sauces, but it pairs well with robust red or meat sauces and even bold Asian flavors like peanut sauce, soy sauce, and toasted sesame oil. Or try it as a substitution for hard to find soba noodles (Japanese buckwheat noodles).

Photos: Scott Phillips

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