Articles / Whole Grain Pastas, Decoded and Conquered: Three Ways

Whole Grain Pastas, Decoded and Conquered: Three Ways

Published March 13, 2023

Wishing you could get alternative noodles to behave more like the best Italian stuff? So were we.

All photos: Kerri Conan

This news cannot be sugar-coated: Only Italian-style dried pastas can deliver that magical creamy-chewy-toothsome combination of textures. Whole wheat, brown rice, and other gluten-free and high fiber options will never behave the same way. And you may as well toss any hope of true al dente out with the boiling water. But that doesn’t mean anyone who wants to—or must—cook with these alternative noodles deserves to be punished with a bowl of broken promises.

The reasons that cooks around the world adore traditional pasta have to do with the type of wheat (durum, which is ground into the pleasantly gritty semolina flour), the way they are shaped (extruded through brass dies that gently heat the dough before drying slowly), and the fact that they’re high in gluten (and low in fiber). Perfection is easily achieved. You boil the noodles in salted water until just shy of fully tender, then toss with sauce and some of the cooking liquid and they finish cooking in a couple minutes. The margin for error is manageable. 

Give whole grain dried noodles the same treatment, and they go from brittle bundle to sticky mush in a moment. It’s not your fault. They have a tiny window of doneness. They soak up liquid before your very eyes. They tear and fall apart at the slightest touch. They are unforgiving of even the slightest inattention. So instead of trying to make alternative pastas something they will never be, here are three techniques to turn their weaknesses into your strengths.

For those of you interested in specific products, over the years I’ve worked with many whole wheat and non-wheat pastas at every price range. Some are available in supermarkets; others must be ordered online or at specialty stores. They vary in taste and texture but have always posed challenges in terms of  keeping them from overcooking. I’ve kept at it for the nutritional benefits of whole grains, sure, and also because I’m an optimist with a puzzle to crack for myself and our readers. I bought both of the delicious long pastas shown in this piece from Community Grains, a company we’ve written about before. Ancient Harvest makes corn-brown rice-quinoa macaroni used in the baked pasta and the Succotash Shells recipe below. They’re my favorite non-wheat whole grain noodles for their lack of fillers and binders and their pleasantly toasty flavor. We’d love it if you’d share the alternative pastas you like to cook with in the comments below.

Now, on with the three key alternative pasta cooking methods, plus one technique detour wedged in the #2 slot:

  • Suspend doneness.

  • (Capture the clouds.)

  • Anticipate doneness.

  • The hell with doneness.

Suspend doneness.

To successfully substitute whole grain and gluten-free noodles in recipes designed for pasta made from durum wheat, I now rinse alternative noodles and coat them in oil before tossing with sauce. Breaking the golden rule of Italian pasta making is a drastic move, not taken lightly. So hear me out.

When the pasta just turns pliable in the boiling water—before it’s edible or even remotely close to al dente—transfer the noodles to a colander in the sink and chill them down fast with cold tap water. Scooping them out of the pot with tongs or a strainer is ideal so you leave behind the water in the pot (more on that in the next section), but whatever you do save more cooking liquid than you normally would. Don’t worry about rinsing off the starch; that’s part of the plan. Remember, the goal here is to minimize stickiness.

Shake the noodles gently to drain excess water. Then drizzle with olive oil or a good-quality neutral vegetable oil (like safflower or grapeseed) and toss lightly with your hands. The noodles should still feel a little stiff and not at all warm. Putting a barrier around the undercooked pasta causes it to absorb moisture more slowly and to release less starch into the sauce. (The exact reasons not to do these these things to durum pastas!)

You’ve now bought yourself up to an hour to get your dinner ducks in a row. I’ve got a simple tomato sauce thickened and bubbling in a large skillet. When you’re ready to serve, you heat the sauce, toss in the noodles—stirring gently from underneath with a spatula for just a minute or two so they heat through and become tender without sticking or too much breaking—and serve right away.

I’ve also tried suspending doneness after rinsing by letting the noodles rest in a bowl of cold water, the way that you do for white rice sticks and other Asian noodles. That worked pretty well, too, but the results were softer when sauced; they soaked up some water after even a few minutes in the bowl. Spreading rinsed, un-oiled noodles out on a rimmed baking sheet (a restaurant trick that works well for traditional pastas) caused too much sticking. 

Some recipes to try with the suspending doneness method:

Bucatini (or Rigatoni) Amatriciana
Pasta with Balsamic Onions
Ma-Ma’s Pasta “Milanese”
Pasta Primavera

Capture the clouds.

A brief pause here to talk about the cooking water. Look at all that starch alternative noodles throw off, even after boiling just a few minutes. The reason I suggest pulling out the noodles (as opposed to reserving some of the cooking water before turning the pasta and water into the colander) is so that you can capture the starchiest, cloudiest liquid at the bottom of the pot. All you do is let the sediment settle for a minute then tip the pot to drain the bulk of the water. (You might even save it for soup.) The super-cloudy liquid left will help you build creaminess back in as you combine the noodles and sauce.

Anticipate doneness.

Cooking pasta like risotto—a one-pot technique where you gradually add liquid to dry noodles—works perfectly for alternative noodles, in large part because you can’t walk away. Also because again you’re coating the noodles in some fat. The benefits of this method are tactile: Unlike pasta blindly boiling submerged in a pot of water, you literally can see, smell, and feel the noodles as they cook.

And like risotto—which let’s face it, is an act of faith until you get a few pots under your belt—the idea is to anticipate doneness with a little extra moisture so that you can set the pasta off heat (covered) to absorb moisture, release starch for creaminess, and achieve tenderness. The trick is to pull the pan off heat before you think you should.

I wanted to test this theory with the most challenging sauce imaginable to see if it was possible to fight off stickiness, even with full-fat coconut milk. I loved it but had to force myself to take it off heat sooner than I wanted to. Thinner, oil- and water-based sauces—especially those that are mostly sauteed vegetables—are less prone to sticking and overcooking.

I’m calling this vegan (and totally winged) concoction One-Pot Coconut-Curry with Whole Wheat Noodles. Here’s the prosepie if you want to try it: Figure 3 to 4 servings and that you’ll need a 12-inch deep skillet with a lid. Skim the fat off a 15-ounce can of coconut milk and use it to crisp some ginger, green onion whites, and garlic; remove the aromatics from the pan. Stir in a couple tablespoons of ground curry blend and a pinch of extra turmeric with some salt. When the spices are fragrant, add the remaining coconut milk and 12 ounces noodles, tossing gently to coat. Cook, adding water in 1/4 cup increments and stirring gently and frequently until the noodles go slack. Add enough water to film the bottom of the pan, cover, and remove from heat. To serve, give one final toss (use a carving fork if you’ve got one) and garnish with chopped green onion tops. Chopped peanuts, pistachios, or cilantro would also be nice. 

Three more one-pot pastas to try with alternative noodles:

One-Pot Pasta with Butter and Parmesan
Orecchiette with Salmon and Leeks
Succotash and Shells

The hell with doneness.

In the spirit of turning challenges into advantages, I bring forth baked whole grain pasta. This is the only dish where you can embrace the soft silkiness of too-tender noodles and the crunch of crust or crumbs all in one bite.

Any baked pasta and mac-n-cheese recipes can be adapted for whole grain alternatives. It doesn’t even matter if you overcook them a bit before baking, as long as you’ve got crisp edges or a topping as counterpoint. I’ve dubbed this invention Jack Mac, which is designed to be less creamy and more crunchy than comparable dishes, since (true confession) I’m not a fan of gooey melted cheese. There’s an easy fix in the prosepie for those of you who prefer creamier versions.

Jack Mac: This is 2 to 3 servings baked in a 10-inch skillet. Heat the oven to 400°F. Boil 8 ounces whole grain noodles in salted water until barely tender. Drain, reserving 2 cups of the starchiest of the cooking liquid at the bottom of the pot; rinse the noodles under cold water. Line the bottom of the skillet with a thin film of olive oil and a layer of grated parmesan and jack cheeses (for a bottom crust). Combine the noodles in a large bowl with a scattering of chopped black olives, dried tomatoes (drained or never packed in oil), and chopped pepperoncini. Season with 1 teaspoon smoked paprika and some salt and pepper. Toss in as much grated cheese as you want to eat melted, along with enough of the reserved cooking liquid to bring the mixture together. Transfer the noodles to the prepared skillet and top with ground tortilla chips or breadcrumbs if you’d like. (I didn’t.) Bake until bubbling below and crusty on the top and sides, about 30 minutes. (For creamier noodles cover the skillet with foil for the first half of baking.)

A final note about leftovers. Once you’ve sauced and tossed these alternative noodles and let them steep in the fridge for a day or two, don’t even bother trying to nuke them. (As much as you might be tempted to blast them into oblivion.) Again you must make the most of the soft, flavorful texture and satisfying heft they offer by introducing crispness. Hash, pancakes, frittatas, and fritters are their only hope at salvation.

Phew. That turned out to be quite a forkful, especially for the Monday after Daylight Saving. Whole grain noodles are worth some love though, don’t you think?