Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Best and the Worst of Gluten-free Pasta

I hold fast to the belief that going gluten-free doesn't mean eating meals that a person with normal digestion would never tolerate. However, in my quest for gluten-free alternatives I have braved many a meal some would qualify as inedible. In all my days I can't think of anything I've eaten that was worse than soy pasta.

Not only is soy pasta not a standard grain substitute, but it hardly deserves the label "food." The texture is so far removed from what one expects from a pasta that it is disturbing to eat. The texture is so wrong that it is useless to ruin your favorite sauce by placing it on top of this noodle product.

It is experiences like eating soy pasta that might convince a gluten-free novice to give up on experimenting with new brands or substitutes. However, I personally have not considered giving up on food as a practical option. And what I must consume to live I will find a way to enjoy eating. After the soy pasta fiasco I was determined to find or make a delectable GF pasta. The following is what I found.
Ancient Harvest is your best bet if you're trying to pass a dish off as regular pasta. The color is exactly right, and this quinoa and corn pasta has a firm texture. It is slightly more brittle or dry than a standard pasta, but it is the one that comes closest to replicating the taste and texture of standard semolina. It is also a relatively very nutritious product, quinoa being the only grain that contains a full protein. It has plenty of fiber without the gritty texture of other whole-grain pastas. Ancient Harvest brand offers a variety of pasta shapes.

Mrs. Leeper's is my other favorite GF pasta. It is made from 100% corn flour. Surprisingly, it does not have a hard corn texture. It is the most brittle pasta I have tried, but it is a lot less susceptible to over-cooking than other GF pastas, and never develops a pasty or gluey texture. In spite of its relative brittleness, it holds up better than most to dishes that have to be handled a lot as they are sauced, like pasta carbonara, which is cooked in the pan after draining. The color is quite a bit more orange-yellow than other brands, but a mere color couldn't put me off this all-around great pasta.

Brown rice pastas tend to be a bit too wet, gluey, and gritty for my taste. That being said, there is one brown rice pasta that I can recommend in good conscience. That is the Trader Joe's brand Organic Brown Rice Spaghetti Pasta. While it still succumbs to the pitfalls of other brown rice pastas, it is noticeably less gritty than others I have tried. It is nearly impossible to cook this pasta correctly, however, and I have been unable to avoid getting a starchy film on the noodles. Never over-cook a brown rice pasta, and rinsing is helpful. Sauce it immediately so it doesn't have a chance to stick to itself. (The spiral shaped pasta is perhaps less prone to sticking.) This is more of a cheap stay-at-home pasta than a show-off-your-best-sauce pasta, and probably will not impress wheat-eating guests.

I have experimented with making my own gluten-free pastas. The reward of this hours-long cooking project is a very tender, full-flavored pasta. However, I have not yet come up with a recipe that produces a dough that is easy to handle, and the noodles have always been extremely delicate. That being said, I have found that using a standard egg pasta recipe and substituting the semolina flour with a combination of one-third white rice flour, one-third glutinous rice flour* and one-third brown rice flour or corn flour worked reasonably well. Be sure to use a little xanthan gum or the dough will not be elastic enough to roll out. This is a good place to start from if you are willing to put some time and experimentation into making your own pastas. Let me know when you come up with a winning recipe!

For more pasta reviews, click see my posts on Ener-G white rice spaghetti and Tinkyada white rice pasta.

*Glutinous rice flour does not contain gluten. The word glutinous is a reference to the gluey texture this flour has when wet. It is made from cooked rice rather than raw rice and has a much starchier appearance than regular white rice flour. I usually find it in Asian grocery stores. See my post Mixed-up Flours for more information on rice flours.


Gluten Prude said...

I really know what you mean about the bad pastas! I really like the Mrs. Leeper's and the Ancient harvest gluten-free pastas, too. Thanks for the thorough review!

Anonymous said...

The best tasting (close to wheat flavor) but gluten free pasta I have found is made by ANDEAN and I have bought it at WHole Foods...It is made with Brown Rice and Quinoa...I wish I could find it elsewhere...I live an hour from Whole Foods.

Morven said...

The very best pasta I have found is PASTATO, a potato pasta that I buy in bulk online. It looks, feels and tastes like the real thing, and it is amazing. Mrs. Leeper's is awful. I've tried all the corn pastas and they are terrible. This potato one is a keeper!

Anonymous said...

The very best tasting and best texture pasta, that I have found is the GF pastas in Ronzoni brand.I found these at Walmart.