Consider this the healthy cook’s guide to pasta. How do whole-wheat varieties differ from those that are gluten-free? Which sauces works best—hearty meat sauces or a good oil and roasted veggies? Knowing the details, ingredients, textures, and numbers of your favorite whole-wheat and gluten-free pastas will change your Italian weeknight dinners for good.
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Whole-Wheat Pasta: The Details
Whole-wheat pastas are thirsty. They absorb a lot more liquid than traditional white pasta, so be sure to keep extra pasta cooking water on hand when preparing. They work better in a very loose sauce, and lots of it.
Serve immediately. The longer whole-grain pasta sits, the more sauce it will soak in.
Whole-grain pasta includes the bran and germ part of the kernel, which lowers the percent of gluten in each noodle, making it structurally less sturdy than refined pasta, with a greater tendency to fall apart if it isn’t made well.
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Gluten-Free Pasta: The Details
Gluten-free (GF) pastas are weaker in structure. Traditional pasta is made from durum semolina, a hard wheat that’s naturally high in gluten—a protein that adds strength and structure to pasta. Pasta without gluten has a greater tendency to fall apart during cooking.
Start checking for doneness a few minutes before the recommended cooking time. Most of the GF pastas we tested did not need to cook as long as the box directions stated.
GF pasta does not make for good leftovers, especially if your sauce is very thin or loose. For best next-day success, keep pasta and sauce separate, and mix just before serving.
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Whole-Wheat Pasta: The Ingredients
Just two: Whole-grain durum wheat flour and water. That’s it.
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Gluten-Free Pasta: The Ingredients
Many GF pastas are made from refined grains. We limited our discussion and tasting to those made with 100% whole grains—mostly brown rice and quinoa.
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Whole-Wheat Pasta: The Texture
The Milling of the Wheat: A smaller particle size eliminates sandy texture and bitterness.
The Quality of the Wheat: Better wheat makes a better pasta.
The Drying and Extruding: If dried too quickly, pasta has a greater tendency to crumble after boiling. Extruding the dough through bronze dies (instead of Teflon) gives the pasta a rougher surface, allowing sauce to cling better to the noodle.
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Gluten-Free Pasta: The Texture
Brown Rice-Based Pasta: Brown rice pasta has a bright, springy texture with a slick mouthfeel. It’s a bit more forgiving if you boil this pasta past al dente; it’ll be less likely to dissolve into your sauce.
Quinoa-Based Pasta: Many quinoa pastas have refined grains added to improve texture. Those made with 100% quinoa rapidly shift from toothy to overcooked and crumbly, so be sure to taste often during the boiling process.
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Whole-Wheat Pasta: The Numbers
Per 2 ounces dried (about 1–1½ cups cooked) CALORIES: 180 (fewer calories than most granola bars) PROTEIN: 8g (more than an egg) FIBER: 6g (the amount in 2 packets of oatmeal) WHOLE GRAINS: 56g (more than 3 servings of whole grains)
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Gluten-Free Pasta: The Numbers
Per 2 ounces dried (about 1–1½ cups cooked) CALORIES: 200–210 calories PROTEIN: Most GF varieties have 4g–5g per serving, about half that of whole-wheat pasta. FIBER: 1g–4g (less than whole-wheat but more than a refined grain) WHOLE GRAINS: 45g–56g
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Carb-Conscious? We Have Good News!
Whole-grain pasta has a low glycemic index (32–37, about half that of white bread). The lower the number, the longer it takes to digest, and the less it affects your blood sugar. Translation: You’ll stay fuller longer and have steady fuel to support energy levels.