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Published on The New York Times, By Melissa Clark
I’VE made several concessions at my table in the name of good health, and most of them are positive. I like brown rice nearly as much as white, and a crusty whole-grain boule even more than most pale baguettes. Quinoa and millet have happily entered my dinner rotation, and whole-grain polenta is a sweet, corny delight.
The one line I thought I’d never cross, however, was made of golden strands of semolina linguine.
Becausewas never a major part of my , I thought there was no bodily harm done by staying on the refined side, so I never bothered exploring whole-wheat options. And distant memories of gritty, mushy bowls eaten at bad health-food restaurants kept my curiosity in check.
Then one day, my husband declared that he was going to start running marathons. Pasta became his favorite way to carbo-load, at least twice a week. And that’s when we decided to give the whole-wheat stuff another go.
There was, it turns out, a lot to choose from. In the last few years, the whole-grain pasta offerings on supermarket shelves have expanded with gusto. Where there used to be one or two, there were now up to a dozen. There’s everything from mass-market brands touting health claims (High! Good source of omega-3’s and antioxidants! Extra protein!), to artisanal pastas made from ancient strains of wheat like farro and spelt in tastefully rustic packaging, selling for upward of $10 a pound.
Not only are there more whole-wheat pastas available than ever before, but some of them show a major leap in quality. (Not all of them, though. There is still plenty of dreadful whole-wheat pasta out there.)
Ken Skovron, co-owner of Darienand Fine Foods, a specialty store in Connecticut, said that in the last few years he has watched sales of whole-grain pastas soar.
“There’s been a huge demand for them,” he told me. “A few years ago I stocked one or two cuts. These days I’ve got five or six, and they fly out the door.”
Unlike the gluey, good-for-you-but-not-your-tastebuds pastas of yore, the best whole-grain brands are firm-textured and tasty. I like the toastiness of whole-wheat spaghetti from Garofalo, which Emma Hearst, the chef and a co-owner at Sorella in Manhattan, compared to Grape-Nuts when we tasted it together. The gentle, honey-like flavor of Gia Russa whole-wheat fettuccine makes it a perfect “kid pasta,” said Anna Klinger, chef and co-owner at Al di Là in Park Slope, Brooklyn. My favorite is Bionaturae, which has a mild, clean flavor and an elastic texture that comes closest to that of regular pasta.
The warm, nutty flavor of varieties like these is robust enough to stand up to intense, complicated sauces, yet satisfying with just a little butter and Parmesan shaved over the top. Some were so good that I would happily eat them for their own toasty sake, even if their high fiber and nutrient count had not been lingering in the back of my mind.
According to, co-owner of Felidia restaurant and of the new Italian-food megaplex, Eataly, with growing numbers of people trying to eat more healthfully, the demand for higher quality whole-grain pastas has gone up. Manufacturers big and small are working hard to create products with the springy texture and sweet flavor that once was obtained only through refined flour.
For the most part, Ms. Bastianich said, they are succeeding. Eataly makes fresh whole-wheat and farro pasta daily, and carries nine shapes of dried whole-grain pasta, including Garofalo’s fusilli and Alce Nero’s farro penne. She says she enjoys eating whole-wheat pasta at home.
“There are times when I prefer something less starchy and more nutritious, but I also like its nutty, grainy flavor,” Ms. Bastianich said.
She suggests pairing whole-wheat pasta with heartier pestos, like one made with spinach and walnuts. Anchovies and bread crumbs also go nicely with full-flavored whole grains, she said, as do wilted greens.
To that list, I would add spicy tomato sauces, meat sauces, and chunky vegetable sauces with plenty of garlic. Delicate cream sauces, however, tend to come up short.
Ms. Bastianich and others said that whole-grain pastas have improved because some manufacturers are seeking out higher-quality wheat.
Mr. Skovron said: “A whole-wheat pasta made from inferior wheat will just fall apart in the pot, especially if you overcook it — even by one minute. It will have a granular texture that turns to sawdust when you chew because there isn’t enough gluten to hold it together.”
The best pastas, white and whole wheat, are made from flours that are high in protein, with strong elastic glutens.
White pasta is more forgiving. Pretty much any high-protein flour will produce an edible linguine, though durum wheat (including semolina) is considered the ideal.
Not so with whole wheat, which must be made with low-yielding wheat varieties for it to have any kind of textural integrity. Low-yielding durum wheat works well; it is used to make Bionaturae and Rustichella d’Abruzzo, another tasty brand. Even better are some ancient strains of wheat, including farro, spelt and the little-known einkorn, one of the oldest wheat varieties known to humans.
The reason these grains make good pasta, said Andrea Brondolini, an ancient-wheat specialist at the Italian Agricultural Research Council in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, can be traced to the early history of agriculture. As ancient types of wheat were hybridized into modern varieties, they were bred for a higher yield.
“Higher yields are detrimental to the quality because when you improve the yield, you lose nutritional values, including iron,, vitamin E, microelements and proteins,” Mr. Brondolini said in a telephone interview.
Ancient grains are less hybridized and therefore retain more nutrients and proteins, he explained, including glutens that help pasta hold together when it’s cooked and give it a firm bite.
The first pastas ever boiled to al dente perfection were made from whole-grain flour, according to Oretta Zanini De Vita, author of the “Encyclopedia of Pasta.” They must have been good, or pasta would have gone the way of garum and gruel instead of evolving into one of the most beloved foods on the planet.
Of course, pasta made from 9,000-year-old varieties of wheat isn’t necessarily easy to track down at your local supermarket. Most common whole-grain brands are made from standard high-yielding strains fortified with extras like flaxseed, oat bran or legume powder for added dietary oomph.
These can taste terrible enough to turn off even the staunchest nutritionist. When I asked Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at, what she thought of the profusion of whole-grain “super” pastas, she wrinkled her nose.
“I object to people adding stuff to food to make it seem healthy,” she said. “Pea powder and flaxseeds don’t belong in pasta.”
She did approve of whole-wheat pasta with an ingredient list of one (that would be whole wheat). “Just make sure it has plenty of fiber,” she said — at least three grams in a two-ounce serving. “Otherwise it’s just not worth eating.”
Unless, of course, you happen to like the stuff. I know I do. And judging by the greater amount of retail real estate whole-grain pastas are commanding, others do, too — at least some of the time.
“I wouldn’t call farro my go-to pasta,” Mr. Skovron said, “but it’s fantastic in some dishes.”
He particularly likes it in a rich wintertime sauce made from cabbage, sausage and plenty of cheese, preferably served with an old Barolo from a friend’s cellar.
“No one would ever call that health food,” he said.