History Of Pasta: Wheat + Water + Patience
A glimpse into one of the most widely known and best-loved foods on the planet: pasta.
Let’s face it: pasta is life.
You might know it as Sunday dinners with nonna, pasta night with your college buddies, the cheesy baked perfection you turn to in winter or the colorful picnic pasta salad you make every July 4th. From killer comfort food to healthy veggie-loaded meals, pasta is one of the most versatile foods out there. But where does pasta come from, anyhow? And what makes great pasta great?
The History of Pasta
Pasta’s history can be traced through many cultures and continents, from Asia to Africa to the Middle East, reaching back at least 3500 years. Despite its many forms and the countless texts in which it has appeared, pasta seems to be universally associated with Italy. According to history, however, pasta’s earliest roots begin in China, during the Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 BC), where some form of pasta was made with either wheat or rice flour. Pasta also appears to be a feature in the ancient Greek diet in the first millennium BC. Likewise, Africa had its own form of pasta made with the kamut crop.
As early as the fourth century BC, the story of pasta takes shape in Italy. There is archeological evidence for the existence of pasta in the Etruscan civilization, which flourished in the regions we now call Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany. A bas-relief unearthed in an Etruscan tomb depicts tools and kitchen utensils used to roll and form pasta very similar to those still in use today. A lucky find for anthropology, but a sad blow to the legend of Marco Polo, which claims he was the one who introduced pasta to Europe after his adventures in the Far East. He may have brought some unusual noodles back with him, but it was certainly not the first time Italians had ever seen such food.
Like much of Italian culture, pasta as a culinary art form flourished during the Renaissance. By the 14th century, pasta had become a staple in Rome and Florence. In later centuries, as it became available in dried forms and sold in shops, pasta grew more and more popular, until by the 19th century, it achieved a presence and stature in Italian cuisine that continues to evolve to the present day. The extraordinary variety and sophistication of pasta dishes now – from Bucatini alla Amatriciana to Linguine al Pesto are part of a century-long evolution. Though Italians cannot claim to have invented pasta, it’s clear they took to the creation with an unparalleled joy, passion and inventiveness, developing an entire culture and cuisine around it, which is now recognized worldwide.
Pasta Today: Wheat and Water
Pasta is simple, really. The traditional Italian pasta we know and love today is made with semolina, or coarsely ground wheat flour. Like all great Italian foods, it’s made of few simple ingredients. So then, what does it take to make great pasta? The difference is in the quality of the ingredients and how the pasta is made.
Wheat is crucial in the pasta making process. DeLallo Pasta is made with hard durum wheat—a top-quality wheat with a super high gluten content. This gluten content is what gives pasta its desirable al dente texture. That is, a firm but tender bite. Along with the quality of wheat, the texture of the semolina matters too. At DeLallo, we expertly mill our grains for the perfect coarse grind, lending to the texture of the finished pasta.
Bronze vs. Teflon. With the demand for pasta growing exponentially over the years, the artisanal approach to pasta-making has been lost to faster, unflattering methods. Traditionally, pasta is formed by extruding dough through bronze dies, or bronze plates. This gives pasta a rough surface texture ideal for capturing and absorbing sauces. These days, most pasta makers use Teflon to extrude pasta. While extruding dough through Teflon is a faster process, it leaves pasta smooth and shiny with no surface for sauces to stick to. At DeLallo, we believe in preserving the artisanal processes that have made Italian pasta great. We use bronze dies to extrude our pasta, giving it that signature sauce-hugging texture.
How a pasta dries matters to the final product. True to tradition, DeLallo dries pasta slowly at low temperatures. This method allows pasta to retain its nutrients, flavor and texture. Though quick drying methods are faster, much of the pasta’s goodness is cooked out of it before it ever reaches the package.
Cuts and Sauces
Pasta comes in so many forms, shapes and textures—over 500 cuts in Italy, just to give you an idea. From the tiny barely-shaped pastina, Orzo, to the classic tube-like Rigatoni, there is a rhyme and reason for each shape. In Italy, choosing a particular cut of pasta usually depends on the sauce. For instance, scoop-like shapes are better than others at capturing chunky sauces and small ingredients, while thinner, more delicate shapes are best for oil-based and light tomato sauces. Read more about How To Pick the Right Pasta for Your Sauce here.
We bet you’re hungry after all that pasta talk, so we wanted to give you a little inspiration for your next pasta night.
Recipe: Pasta a Cacio e Pepe
Recipe: Pasta alla Gricia
Recipe: Spaghetti all ‘Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino
Recipe: Bucatini alla Carbonara
Recipe: Farfalle with Sweet Peas and Prosciutto
Recipe: Bolognese Sauce
Recipe: Easy Pesto Linguine
Recipe: Three Greens Orecchiette with Pesto
Recipe: Linguine with Clam Sauce
Recipe: Chickpea and Caponata Brothy Pasta
Recipe: Turkey Sausage Pasta
Recipe: Linguine with Chickpeas, Broccolini and Ricotta