Italians have been making some form of pasta since at least the fourth century B.C. On a recent trip to Italy, I met with producers of the best Italian pastas to find out what makes good whole wheat pasta. First, they said, start with triticum durum, the variety of wheat highest in protein or “gluten,” and grow it in the right soil and climate, paying special attention to the humidity.
In addition, these pasta experts stressed the importance of using old-fashioned bronze dies (metal molds through which pasta is extruded) in the manufacture of pasta. Bronze dies produce a rough, porous surface that lets the cooking water penetrate so the pasta cooks faster and sauces cling better. Pasta extruded through Teflon dies, which are used by many big commercial companies, looks shiny and has tighter pores that absorb less cooking water.
The pasta makers also agreed that good dried pasta contains only 12 to 13 percent moisture. This allows the pasta to swell to double its volume during cooking. Small Italian producers do an excellent job of controlling the temperature during the critical drying process. The experts I talked to agree that lower temperatures minimize the loss of lysine, one of the essential amino acids that give pasta its high protein content. Low drying temperatures also provide the best conditions for the setting of the starches in the pasta dough.