Monday, August 16, 2010

Ingredient Profile: No Boil Pasta (How The Heck Does That Work?)

Good afternoon everyone! Once again, it's Monday and that means Maggie and I are restocking our cabinets and drawers with new ingredients for the week. This week, most of the key ingredients we are using we already have - so it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to share our grocery list when the list isn't all that complete.

Instead, I have a little profile of one unique ingredient - no boil noodles. For one of my recipes this week, I'm making a form of lasagna that uses no boil noodles. Right away, that seems counter intuitive - pasta is supposed to be cooked in boiling water, how do no boil noodles work (without ending up being crunchy)? We'll look into the 'science' behind the noodle. Also, are all brands of no boil noodles created equally? We'll pick our favorite. It's a little 'out of the ordinary' for a Monday - but it's fun to mix it up once in a while!

How do no boil noodles work? 

To understand how no boil noodles function, you first have to understand what makes normal pasta tick. Pasta is made by compressing dough through a press or a die that makes the noodle very dense. If you've ever made homemade pasta, you know just how much pressure goes into making the dish. This heavy pressure forces out nearly all of the moisture from the dough - which allows it to be stored for long periods of time. In order to bring the moisture back into the dough, you have to heat the cells of the dough (thus the boiling water) which causes them to open up and absorb the fluid (be it water, broth or sauce).

No boil noodles are not compressed as much as a regular noodle. As such, the cells of the noodle are not nearly as dense as the conventional product. This means that it doesn't take as much water or heat to 'saturate' the noodle, allowing you to cook the noodle with the dish. Pretty cool isn't it?

Most companies simply precook their standard noodles (via flash cooking - a process of intense heat and moisture) then dehydrate the finished product. This reduces the need to boil the pasta as it is essentially 'boiled' and ready to go right into the dish.

No boil pasta noodles come in two major shapes - a more standard 7 X 3.5 inch rectangle and the harder to find 7 X 7 square. In either case, the noodles are rippled which allows them to 'grow' when they become rehydrated, meaning any form of noodle will work with most dishes.

The Brands:

There are many competitors in the pasta market - four of the biggest, more well known brands would be:



Pasta DeFino: 


Of course, there are many other local (and national) varieties not to mention store brand options as well. However, these four are the most likely competitors you will see on every grocery store shelf. So which one is best? 

While we cannot pick out a certain winner (as we haven't tried them all) we can say that we prefer Barilla. We've used Barilla and Delverde no boil noodles in the past - and have tried Pasta DeFino noodles (although not lasagna noodles they were still no boil). We found that the Barilla noodles were just a little softer and absorbed a little more flavor than the others. It also seemed to accept the surrounding flavor a little better than the others. In the end, they are all good choices for your next no boil pasta dish. 

A full review of all the no boil pasta noodles on the market can be found at Cook's Illustrated's review website (subscription required) or in the September 1st, 2002 issue of Cook's Illustrated, as well as in a most of their cookbooks. They cover a lot more products than Maggie and I could ever feasibly do on our own. 

There you have it - you now know how no boil noodles work and which brand we prefer to use! I thought I'd share something a little different with you today, just to change things up. It was the parsnip recipe that featured the last 'ingredient profile' so we were long overdue! We're on our normal schedule this week. I'm cooking Tuesday and Thursday, Maggie has Wednesday. Be sure to stop by tomorrow evening to see what I've got cooking (hint: it's not lasagna...yet). Until then, 


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