As a food writer who specializes in cooking with whole grains, I often hear a similar story from my readers. Maybe you already know how it goes: You want to eat a bit better, more nutritiously, so one night you substitute whole-grain pasta for the standard spaghetti strands in your favorite recipe—only to find the result, shall I say, underwhelming. And that’s the end of your interest in trying wholegrain pastas. They may be lower in calories and higher in fiber, vitamins, and minerals than regular pastas, but if they don’t taste good, who cares? To this, I say: Don’t give up! The key to making whole-grain pastas sing lies in understanding how they differ from regular pastas and adjusting your pasta dishes accordingly.
The New Whole-Grain Pasta
Whole-grain pastas have come a long way from the dense cardboard noodles of the 1970s and ‘80s. Many varieties are now on the market, and some producers emphasize the flavors of the ancient wheat varieties they use—from buttery kamut to delicately nutty spelt. As with regular pastas, quality varies widely among brands, and not all of them are 100% whole grain. It’s worth your time to read the labels and try different brands.
On supermarket and specialty-store shelves, look for organic wholegrain pastas from these brands:
• Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday Value
For a deeper dive into the world of exceptional whole-grain pastas I highly recommend the following brands:
Community Grains in Oakland, California, introduced the concept of identity-preserved pasta. This standard allows consumers to trace the wheat from the field where it was grown to the box on the store shelf, via the mill where it was ground. Theirs is a super-ambitious goal for transparency, and their organic whole-grain spaghetti and torchiette have a tempting sweet wheatiness.
Baia Pasta, also based in Oakland, uses only 100% American-grown flour and traditional italian production methods. The company offers a wide array of pasta shapes, including alluring wheat varieties with an appealing chewiness. Their whole durum has subtle herbaceous notes, and you can detect the aroma of toasted honey in their kamut pasta.
Sfoglini, based in Brooklyn, offers pasta made with organic rye, emmer, and spelt, grown in new York state. Jovial has built a reputation for its delectable gluten-free whole-grain pasta, made with organic brown rice flour and traditional methods.
Two things set whole-grain pastas apart from regular pasta
What sets them apart is their coarser, chewier texture and more assertive flavor. It’s a bit like preparing steak instead of chicken breast—you wouldn’t necessarily just substitute one for the other, and neither should you do that with whole-grain and regular pastas. Instead, try to combine whole-grain pastas with ingredients that highlight rather than compete with their unique characteristics, something you can do in a couple of ways.
Choose deeply savory flavors.
Think roasted or caramelized vegetables, such as butternut squash, red onions, and radicchio. Earthy mushrooms, aged cheeses, spicy chiles, fragrant herbs, smoky bacon, and salty prosciutto are natural pairings, as are anchovies, tuna, and sardines. Ingredients like these will not only stand up to whole-grain pastas’ nutty flavors, but they’ll enhance and harmonize them, too.
Add complementary textures.
If you simply toss some whole-grain pasta with a jar of marinara sauce and call it dinner, you’re going to be disappointed. In that scenario, the pasta’s rustic texture will predominate, and you’ll quickly grow tired of it. But take that same pasta and add chewy, toothsome, or crunchy ingredients, like sun-dried tomatoes, corn, beans, or nuts, and you’ll have a dish that’s much more balanced and enticing.
You can see these bold flavors and textures at work in the recipes on the following pages. Let them inspire you to give whole-grain pasta another try. And if you are one of those people who tried whole-grain pasta once and gave up, you may even grow to love it.