My quest for the best gluten-free pasta began when I realized I was gluten sensitive—which means I don’t have celiac disease, but I’m not completely intolerant of wheat. As an Italian, this revelation frustrated many of the joys of my life, specifically the piles of plates of Casio e Pepe and the strings of tomato-soaked spaghetti. Fortunately, the gluten-free pasta aisles keep getting better and wider, keeping the fork spinning smooth.
I’m always on the lookout for alternative foods (non-dairy milk, for example), but I often find ingredient lists full of thickeners, emulsifiers, or other additives used to replicate the properties of the real stuff – for example, non-dairy oils and creamy textures. Dense and smooth. I’ll never forget the Breyer’s ad campaign from the ’90s when kids struggled to read the intricate food labels of competing ice cream. That’s me, as an adult, in every aisle of the grocery store. But I’ve noticed that the best gluten-free pastas are plain, straight and free of many (if any) additives. They keep their shape and feel. They add flavor and character to a dish. They can fool my Aunt Diane, who is highly suspicious of all things gluten-free. It’s still pasta – completely different.
After years of emptying cans of gluten-free pasta into rumbling salt water, I’ve selected a favorite for any pasta occasion on the menu. My exploration extends to ingredients like lentils, quinoa, yellow peas, chickpeas, and almond flour made into fusilli, fettuccine, and everything in between. Do these alternative pasta options exactly mirror my tortellini nonna glazed with mushroom sauce? Of course they don’t, but they come close, oh my goodness. And the best part? Those of us with gluten intolerance can still eat pasta every day if we want to — all the while getting more fiber, protein and various other nutrients depending on whether we’re eating chickpea pasta or pasta made with brown rice flour.
Best for a warm bowl of pasta
Most brands of gluten-free pasta are great in this category. If you follow the cooking time on the can, toss gently, and serve immediately, the pasta will hold reliably—unlike some other applications (more on that later). Panza always in my store. It’s made with chickpeas and comes in many pasta shapes, including linguine and cascatelli, made in partnership with The Sporkful’s Dan Pashman. Delicious panza cooked like the real deal. (This fools Aunt Diane every time.)
Zenb has this effect, too. Made with yellow peas, penne, elbows, and rotini maintain the look and feel of traditional pasta. I also really enjoy playing with the konjac-based Miracle Noodles, which bounce nicely to their bite. Many of the traditional gluten-free Asian noodles, such as soba and rice noodles (I love Thai cuisine), also hold up well when topped with fresh pesto and red sauce.
Zeinab noodles hold up well in broth (cook them separately in water before adding them to soup) with the flavor of your favorite comfort noodles in soup. If you want to add fiber, try red lentil pasta, such as Fusilli General Goods and those from Tolerant. Both maintain their durability after swimming in the liquid for a while and have the added benefit of increasing protein-rich legumes.
Texture matters here, and that’s when a lot of gluten-free pasta doesn’t pass the test. Regular pasta is usually undercooked before baking. However, getting that timing right with gluten-free or grain-free pasta can be tricky, and gluten-free baked pasta dishes often end up disappointing. But Zainab’s Penne Pasta makes it a delicious baked treat. The structure of the pasta remains intact even after the time in the oven or in the microwave the next day.
Yes, you can still enjoy lasagna even if you are on a gluten-free diet. I love Cappello’s Almond Flour Leaves, which have a melt-in-your-mouth quality and are reminiscent of fresh wheat pasta. The almond flavor subtly works in the background, but it doesn’t distract. Jovial’s Organic Brown Rice Lasagna Noodles (not necessary to precook) are another favorite, with chewy bites and crunchy edges with my family and I battling it out.
Best for pasta salads
This is where gluten-free pasta is particularly tricky. Once cool, many vegetable and legume pastas are hard and chewy. Enter rice-based noodles. Jovial’s brown rice noodles (I recommend the bow tie) and Tinkyada’s noodles are excellent choices. Once cooked, cooled, and sauteed in olive oil, the texture remains just as wonderful as pasta.
Best for pasta soup and salads
There is no shortage of traditionally gluten-free pasta options, such as soba (made with buckwheat) and mung bean or rice noodles. But if you’re looking for a plate of ramen, try Lotus Foods, which offers a colorful array of noodles made with rice and millet.