Rice, corn, quinoa, lentils, chickpeas, black beans…oh my! These are just a few of the new ingredients you may have seen popping up in the pasta aisle lately. Why are they taking over and are these “alternative” pastas worth trying? We taste-tested a few varieties on your behalf, and here’s what we think!
Pasta is traditionally made from wheat flour mixed with water or egg. New varieties incorporate different ingredients, particularly different flours, and many contain no wheat flour at all.
Companies are responding to consumer trends geared towards new flavor profiles, more availability of allergy- and intolerance-friendly foods, and the desire to modify nutritional content.
For example, many of these new pastas are naturally gluten-free, and changing the ingredients affects nutritional components such as fiber and protein.
Each variety has a different cooking time, texture, flavor, and mouthfeel, and they are not always an even swap for a traditional wheat pasta. Consider them as an opportunity to switch things up in the kitchen.
To help you decide where to begin, we did the taste testing for you!
Taste test methodology:
Pasta: We chose six widely available pastas from Giant and Wegmans grocery stores. The goal was to showcase the broad spectrum of currently available options, including those created to mimic wheat pasta as well as others that offer a completely different flavor profile.
Preparation: Each pasta was prepared using the box directions.* To evaluate, we tasted each plain and then with marinara sauce, pesto, soy-ginger sauce, and pasta salad-style (cold with a balsamic dressing).
*Note on preparation: While we followed the box directions for this taste test, we have learned through personal experience with a variety of pastas that a shorter cooking time can overcome some of the dry and crumbly properties noted below in a few of the results. Test the noodles early to test if they’ve reached your preferred texture and level of doneness.
Rating: We considered texture, flavor, mouthfeel, how each variety compared to wheat pasta, and how each paired with the various sauces.
The results are in…
MOST SIMILAR TO WHEAT PASTA
Pros: This pasta reigned supreme as being the most similar to wheat pasta. The texture and mouthfeel were consistent with a wheat noodle, and it had the most neutral flavor, tasting great with all of the sauces. It also held its shape well when chilled.
Cons: The noodle didn’t hold the thinner soy-ginger and balsamic sauces as well. They dripped right off of the noodles and settled at bottom of the bowl.
Best uses: These noodles really shine with the marinara sauce and pesto. The sauces were thick enough to nicely coat the noodles. And, since they hold their shape and texture very well when cooled, they offer a great option for pasta salad, particularly one with a thicker sauce such as a mayonnaise- or Greek yogurt-based sauce.
Try this with Ann’s BLT Ranch Pasta Salad. It’s a really great match!
BEST BEAN-BASED PASTA
Pros: The makers of Banza pastas have learned some tricks of the trade when it comes to mimicking wheat pasta. Tapioca, pea protein, and xantham gum act in the place of gluten. The resulting texture, chew, and mouthfeel are very similar to wheat pasta. The flavor has a slight chickpea flavor, but it is neutral enough to not overwhelm the flavors of the sauces.
Cons: If slightly overcooked, the noodles can break down and become crumbly. If left too al dente, leftovers may seem dry. These noodles also didn’t match as well with the marinara sauce. They oddly tasted quite bland. And, like the Barilla Gluten-Free, did not hold onto the thinner soy-ginger and pasta salad sauces.
Best uses: These noodles paired very well with the pesto. They held the thick sauce well, the flavors paired nicely, and the color contrast was very pretty! In a separate tasting, this pasta worked very well for the gluten-free adaptation of Ann’s Seriously Delicious Gluten-Free Crispy-Top Mac & Cheese. The elbow shape would also work well with a cold pasta salad with a thicker sauce.
BEST FOR ASIAN-STYLE DISHES
Pros: It was no surprise that this Asian-style noodle was best-in-show when it came to the soy-ginger sauce. The classic rice noodle soaks up the thinner sauce, and because the taste of the noodle itself is neutral, it highlights the flavor of the sauce. Although the texture is quite different from a wheat noodle (similar to the texture of white rice), it had a pleasant chew.
Cons: Rice noodles can become chewy or feel almost rubbery if undercooked or underdressed. They also did not mesh well with the marinara sauce and the balsamic dressing.
Best uses: Choose this noodle to add traditional Asian flair to a stir-fry, Pad Thai, or rice noodle soup. Surprisingly, it paired well with the pesto, too. It holds its shape and texture well when cooled and didn’t break when mixed. While we did not prefer them with balsamic dressing, these noodles would pair well in a cold, Asian-style pasta dish.
Turn Ann’s Thai Beef Lettuce Wraps into a satisfying noodle bowl using these rice noodles!
MOST FILLING AND BEST COLOR
(this was a tie between the red lentil and black bean pastas)
Pros: Made entirely of red lentils, this noodle brings some different qualities to the table, and the beautiful red color makes it fun to mix with different dishes. It has 3 times as much fiber and nearly twice as much protein as Barilla’s wheat flour rotini, which means this pasta is very hearty and will keep you feeling full. It also has a different nutrition profile, with a higher content of vitamins and minerals, most notably, potassium, iron, and folate.
Cons: While some might find the hearty texture to be a nice change, it has a very different consistency than wheat pasta. It breaks easily, has a somewhat drier, crumbly mouthfeel, and tastes like lentils. These are not necessarily bad traits, but accurate expectations can be helpful. Because this pasta can crumble when cold, it is not recommended for cold pasta salad.
Best uses: Since the lentil flavor is strong on its own, this pasta works best with a simple sauce, like butter or olive oil, which lets the natural lentil flavor shine. It also works with Ann’s Leafy Greens Pesto (which you can use with a variety of greens, and can be adapted to vegan preferences). Thinning out the pesto may alleviate dryness which can occur with this pasta.
TIED FOR MOST FILLING AND BEST COLOR
Pros: The color. Made entirely from black bean flour, this pasta is striking. This could be the perfect pasta to create a really fun dish for Halloween! The nutrient profile and the texture is more similar to lentil pasta than it is to wheat (higher in fiber and protein and a different variety of vitamins and minerals) and it has a strong but pleasant black bean flavor that pairs well with a variety of dishes.
Cons: The lack of additional ingredients to hold the black bean flour together resulted in the crumbliest pasta of the bunch. It broke very easily when it was both hot and cold and has the mouthfeel of black beans rather than pasta. Its strong flavor overpowered the flavor of the marinara sauce, and the noodle also did not hold the thinner sauces.
Best uses: The interesting texture and the color paired very well with a thick pesto. The sauce stuck to the noodles, and the strong flavors were pleasant together. The flavor pairs well with many Asian dishes like Ann’s Black Bean Spaghetti or even a southwestern-style dish.
MOST “OUTSIDE-THE-BOX” FLAVOR
Pros: Prior to tasting this noodle, we were expecting something different simply based on the ingredients. The texture of this lentil pasta was actually close to that of the Barilla Gluten-Free. The flavor was unique, satisfying, and slightly sweet thanks to the beet and hint of ginger.
Cons: The noodle itself has such a distinctive flavor that it didn’t pair well with the sauces used for testing purposes. Upon the first bite, we tasted sauce alone. Then, as the flavor of the sauce faded, the sweet, gingery flavor of the noodles came through.
Best uses: This pasta may be best served with a plain sauce such as butter or oil. While we did not try it this way, we thought an addition of some roasted veggies and parmesan cheese, like Ann’s Parmesan Roasted Brussels Sprouts might work well, too.
While we certainly did not try every alternative pasta on the market, we hope this guide offers some helpful insight when choosing one to experiment with yourself!
Are there other pasta varieties and brands that you enjoy? What other foods do you want to see us compare? Let us know in the “Comments” section below!