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Using Your Noodle Or – Let’s Celebrate Pasta

Using Your Noodle


May 2, 2008
By Bob McDougall

Topics

Whether you’ve served a million
orders of linguine with clam sauce, or have just recently made the
decision to add excitement by offering some pasta on your menu, we all
remember our first time … staring down the barrel of a snub-nosed penne
rigate – boiling water laughing at you from the pot – wondering what to
do next …

Whether you’ve served a million orders of linguine with clam sauce, or have just recently made the decision to add excitement by offering some pasta on your menu, we all remember our first time … staring down the barrel of a snub-nosed penne rigate – boiling water laughing at you from the pot – wondering what to do next …

Relax! It’s only flour!
We’re lucky in North America, and especially Western Canada, to have really excellent high-protein wheats, such as durum, with which to make the very best dry pasta. Since – at its essence – dry pasta is a network of moistened, shaped and dried wheat gluten protein, the flour protein content and quality are key factors.

In the same way that water softens and moistens a pizza dough and permits the gluten to develop to the desired degree, water in a pasta “dough” is essential. This dough is mixed, then conditioned and “extruded” or squeezed through a nozzle or “die”, and cut to length, to form the characteristic shapes. A slow, careful drying “sets” the gluten in the desired shape, and provides a long shelf life and resistance to degradation.

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Scientists have taken pictures of pasta with all the starch and non-protein parts removed, leaving only the protein. They look like wire-mesh networks, or like loofah sponges for those who are familiar with them.

The other major component in pasta is, of course, the wheat starch granules. The gluten holds starch tightly, reducing the swelling during boiling and preventing mushy pasta during a typical cook. The higher the amount and quality of protein, the more resistance to softening, and the better the pasta performs. Other benefits of high protein pasta is a greater flexibility in use, since small changes in cook times will not turn pasta to mush, and both hot and refrigerated holding times for properly cooked pasta are also improved. There’s little that can compare with the moist, fully cooked yet “al dente” pasta that results from the best in wheat used in pasta.

Added advantages of high-quality pasta include a better sauce cling, longer life in sauce on a hot hold, longer life if pre-boiled, chilled and portioned for reheating later, and even dietary benefits.

It has been demonstrated that since pasta “dough” is generally just moist enough to work with, starch usually changes relatively little in pasta manufacture. As a result, the starch is slow to break down when cooked. This leads to the starch being degraded or digested more slowly, reducing its glycemic index. As a result, the carbohydrate “rush” from processed starch or sugar is not seen with good, properly prepared pasta. With the increasing interest in and understanding of the possible links between high glycemic foods and diseases such as diabetes, this is a real reason to eat more pasta. In fresh pastas, properly prepared or manufactured, and not overcooked, a similar advantage would be expected. Unfortunately, soggy, instant prep or canned pastas would not be expected to show the same advantage, since the starches therein are immediately available to digestion.

For an operator, it’s often impossible to prepare each portion of pasta from scratch. Typically, large quantities of pasta are pre-boiled then rapidly chilled with ice to prevent overcooking. In this process, more even than in “cook-to-order”, well-salted water at a full rolling boil is essential. Many operators insist that oil must be used in the water, and just as many insist that it shouldn’t. In my experience, if you need oil to keep down foaming, you need a bigger pot or to change your water. Ideally, oil should be applied immediately after the pasta is ice-chilled to below 40F (4C). The pasta is then mixed well, portioned and bagged for later use. Again, better quality pasta and proper cooking and chilling can add 1-2 days to shelf life. Remember scrupulous cleanliness is essential – use gloves and hand sanitizer.

I can count the number of times I’ve seen hot pasta drained on the sideboard of a dirty sink for five minutes before cooling. It’s the same number of times I’ve heard the complaint that “our pasta doesn’t last like it should.” Contrary to what many believe, pasta prep is not job for the “new kids” unless they are properly trained and supervised.
Remember also that what’s good for the pasta is good for the sauce. If you want to expand your choice, or to offer a broad mix ‘n match pasta and sauce – portion and chill the sauces too. Modern heatable pouches allow you to drop a bag of sauce into the pasta reheat pot along with the pasta. Heat to temperature (at least 160F, preferably up to 180F), drain and plate the pasta, fish the sauce pouch out with soft tongs or one of the new silicone heat-proof gloves, shake dry and sauce the pasta. Garnish and serve.

You can’t beat the speed of service on this item – custom pasta in under five minutes from order. Added advantages include essentially zero sauce waste, no brown crusties in the sauce from holding for four hours in a hot well, and no unidentified bits falling into the sauce on the hot table. All together this permits an improved value perception, a better selection for your clientele, and more great places for guys like me to eat pasta.
In this case, the art of pasta meeting the science of food leads to both great taste and profitability. •