Gluten-free pasta options have gone from obscure to everywhere. Whether made with rice, corn, soy, even lentils, dry noodles are now widely available in various shapes and sizes. We rounded up 10 of the most popular and invited pasta-making chefs, writers, gluten-free cookbook authors and the owner of a beloved Italian deli at Pike Place Market to rate them at our regular Tasting Panel. Here's the wild card: We didn't tell the chefs they would be tasting gluten-free noodles. The results were surprising, but the biggest take-away were some important lessons learned about how to cook gluten-free pasta.
Here's what we sampled:
The details: Made from organically grown quinoa and corn. Price: $3 for an 8-ounce package.
The details: Made from corn and rice. Price $3 for 12-ounce package.
The details: Made in Italy with organically grown corn, rice and soy. Price: $5 for 12-ounce package.
The details: Made in Italy from organically grown brown rice. Price: $7 for 12-ounce package.
La Fabbrica Della Pasta
The details: Made from corn and rice and "the water of Gragnano," a village near Napoli. Price: $11 for 17.6 ounce package.
The details: Made in Italy from corn and rice. Price: $6.50 for 8-ounce package.
The details: Made in Italy from corn, millet flour, rice flour and cane sugar syrup. Price: $6 for 12 ounces.
The details: Made from organic red lentils, so high in protein. Price: $9 for 12-ounce package.
The details: Made from in Canada with organic brown rice from the U.S. Price: $5 for 12-ounce package.
The details: Made from organic whole grain brown rice, quinoa, amaranth and corn flours. Price: $4 for 8-ounce package.
Before diving into the results, a word about pasta prep. There was no way to cook 10 pastas to order on the day of the tasting, so they were par-cooked (shaving a few minutes off the suggested cooking time, so just short of al dente) the day before in salted water, rinsed and drizzled in olive oil and stored in plastic bags. Shortly before tasting, the pasta was finished in the microwave. Panelists were asked to rate pasta on appearance, taste and texture, from 0 to 5 points, with 5 being the highest.
Shortly after the blind tasting started, panelists raised a red flag: The pasta was under-cooked. "It's unfortunate because this just perpetuates the idea that gluten-free pasta doesn't taste good," said one. Fortunately, there was a pot of boiling water and a few of the finalists got a quick dip to complete the cooking process. However, even that was challenging. One entry went from under-cooked to over-cooked in less than a minute.
Jeanne Sauvage, author of two books on gluten-free baking, offered this advice: "You need to rinse it in hot water, and then sauce it immediately." Shauna Ahern, otherwise known as Gluten-Free Girl, said she doesn't rinse her pasta, but instead adds it to the sauce as soon as it's drained, and adds a splash of the pasta cooking water to the mix.
Most members of the Tasting Panel agreed that some of the pasta didn't cut it, no matter how they were cooked. The winner, however, was clear. Barilla Spaghetti was praised for having the best texture and taste. Bonta 'd Italia's Fusilli came in second place, and La Fabbrica Della Pasta was voted the best looking of the bunch.
In a post-tasting discussion — streamed live on Periscope — one of the three chefs said he serves gluten-free pasta at his restaurants, while the others had reasons for skipping it: "I haven't found the right recipe yet," said Brian Cleavinger from Vendemmia, and Spinasse's Stuart Lane said he has ruled it out because of concern about cross-contamination.
Again, the most important lesson learned was that it's challenging to correctly cook gluten-free pasta. Best advice is to start tasting for doneness several minutes before the recommended cooking time. And don't hold the pasta to be served later.
Special thanks to our panelists: Chef Ethan Stowell (Tavolàta, Anchovies & Olives, Bar Cotto, Marine Hardward, Staple & Fancy, How To Cook A Wolf, Brammling Cross, Red Cow), chef Brian Cleavinger (Vendemmia), chef Stuart Lane (Spinasse), seasoned food journalist Nancy Leson, James Beard award-winning food writer Rebekah Denn, gluten-free author Jeanne Sauvage, gluten-free author Shauna Ahern, Pat McCarthy from DeLaurenti Specialty Food and Wine.