A while back New York Magazine did an article called “Last Noodle Standing“, where three chefs and one really Italian guy compared the city’s best dried pasta and voted on their favorites. Not being able to indulge in what they said were some stellar noodles, I devised my own challenge: “Last Gluten-Free Noodle Standing”!
I hosted a few friends over to taste-test five pastas that contained no gluten whatsoever. We followed the same protocol as the NYMag article: each pasta was boiled in salted water according to package directions and then tasted on its own with nothing on it, and then again with some sort of sauce. Whereas the NYMag guys just used oils and cheese as their sauce, we kicked it up a notch and had some heartier coverings. We rated each category – flavor, texture and sauce absorption – on a 30 point scale, for a total of 90 points.
To up the fun, my guests were not given the types of grains the pastas were made out of, and only after we totaled everything up did they discover the source of what they liked and didn’t like. And unlike NYMag we’re admittedly not the city’s top pasta chefs. But along with yours truly – the can’t-eat-much-normal-food gal – my judges are peeps who know how to eat on a budget, and quality pastas are at the top of anyone’s recession-spending list.
Note: gluten-free pastas tend to overcook easily, becoming very mushy, so I tended to cook all on the lower end of the time-range, checking often.
The Winner: 76.25 points
Tinkyada Pasta Joy
Brown Rice Spirals
Sauce: Variety of olive oils, salt and pepper, fresh Parmesan cheese and fresh basil.
Boasts that it can stand “over-cooking”. All-rice company in many varieties of pastas. Cooks in 15 minutes. 210 calories and 4 grams of protein per serving.
This pasta won in both the FLAVOR and TEXTURE departments. Made only of brown rice, it was “just what (one) would expect from a well-seasoned pasta” and tasted close to its wheat-counterpart. Two of us considered it a lovely al-dente, while the other two thought it was slightly softer than a wheat al-dente but not at all grainy, as expected, or unpleasant. It absorbed the flavors of the sauces rather well. One of us wondered how it would do with a cream sauce.
Second Place: 73.5 points
Andean Dream Quinoa/Rice Fusilli
$3.50/8oz at Whole Foods
Sauce: Bergamot olive oil from O&Co and Hazelnut olive oil from La Tourangelle.
Uses organic quinoa grown in the Bolivian Andes, and organic brown. The quinoa is fairly traded and employs 280 families in the Andean Valley. Cooks in 13-15 minutes. 207 calories and 6 grams of protein per serving.
This was a pasta I had never tried before and was very pleased with. It was a little bland on its own, but the closest to how a wheat-pasta would taste on its own. The noodles didn’t clump after cooking, and 3 out of 4 judges thought it had a consistent al-dente texture (though some noodles fell apart – we’re not sure if this was pre- or post-cooking though). "The pasta created a nice blank canvas for the flavors" and "let the flavors shine". We first used Bergamot oil with salt, pepper and sometimes cheese, and were floored by how well it took in the flavor. Then the hazelnut oil brought it to another dimension. This pasta REALLY takes on flavor well, winning in the SAUCE category.
Third Place: 65.75 points
Glutino Brown Rice Spaghetti
$3.00/10oz at Whole Foods
Sauce: Broccoli Rab cooked with olive oil and lots of garlic.
Company focused on bringing tasty alternatives specifically to those with gluten intolerance. Cooks in 7-10 minutes. 200 calories and 5 grams of protein per serving.
Alone, we thought this pasta was a bit grainy and bland, though not bad, with a slightly sweet or citrusy aftertaste. It clumped a LOT from cooking. 3 of us thought it was grainy, being too soft on the outside and harder on the inside, but the 4th thought it was a perfect spaghetti al-dente. It didn’t capture the delicate flavors of the oils and vegetables at all and needed a lot of moisture. It would probably do better with being put directly into a tomato-based sauce right after cooking.
Fourth Place: 52.75 points
Ancient Harvest Quinoa/Corn Rotelle
$2.69/8oz at my local store
Sauce: Beef meat and green pepper sauce for the men and fresh tomato and red pepper sauce for the ladies.
First company to bring quinoa to the U.S. Fairly traded and from sustainable sources. Cooks in 6-9 minutes. 205 calories and 4 grams of protein per serving.
This pasta had a nice flavor on its own, thanks to the corn/quinoa combination. But the corn made it distinctively grainy and inconsistent in cooking – some noodles were perfectly soft while others were hard inside. This is the one pasta that was also cooked to its fullest cooking time, and I pointed out that normally when I use this pasta I have to intentionally over-cook it to negate the inconsistency, therefore making it normally on the mushier side. Though some of us thought it stood up to the heavier sauces well, it didn’t take on the flavors of the sauces or let its own flavor come through, and the texture was a distraction. While I’m not a fan of this pasta, I do give props to the company for producing phenomenal quinoa on its own – both varieties are delicious.
Fifth Place: 46.25 points
DeBoles Rice/Quinoa/Amaranth Penne
$2.99/8oz at my local store
Sauce: sauteed summer squash, onions and garlic in olive oil.
Multi-grain powerhouse combo of quinoa and amaranth. Cooks in 5-minutes. 200 calories and 5 grams of protein per serving.
I was most excited to try this brand and we were all extremely disappointed. On its own it was “bland, but also tasted more like trees. The type of taste people fear when they hear ‘healthy’”, and had a “crunchy, almost woodsy taste, but not in a bad way”. The noodles so fell apart while cooking, it was hard to find whole pieces of penne. They shredded on our forks, and it was impossible to pick up with any sauce or vegetables. The only “saving grace” was adding the squash and sauce, when the pasta “got out of the way” and lost the “natural food aura”.