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Cooking Pasta “Al Dente” for Nutrition

“Al dente” means “to the tooth” in Italian and refers to the ideal consistency of pasta when cooked. Besides a more appealing taste, cooking pasta “al dente” provides inherent nutritional value. Raw or undercooked pasta is difficult for the body to digest since digestive enzymes struggle to adhere to the pasta. In overcooked pasta, the pasta becomes too sticky and carries the potential to block digestion. Similarly, starch in overcooked pasta swells and may release nutrients into the cooking water, losing nutritional value. Properties of pasta change as a function of cooking, meaning the identification of an appropriate cooking time is imperative to pasta cooked “al dente.” Pasta cooked “al dente” is observable. Since pasta is mainly composed of starch, once placed in water, the pasta will absorb the water via osmosis and swell. Using both quantitative properties (weight) or qualitative properties (taste, stickiness), “al dente” can be measured. Finding the appropriate cook time takes trial and error.

As a part of Barilla’s food science procedure, all batches of pasta are tested for “firmness” and “color” using predetermined cook times. Both firmness and color are correlated to “al dente” pasta and Barilla ensures each pasta cut reaches the desired “al dente” specifications. If pasta in a given batch is within specification, the pasta is good for consumers. If pasta in a given batch is out of specification, the pasta may be pulled due to an issue in production that may interfere with the pasta’s quality. The quality assurance team performs daily tests to determine whether pasta complies with specifications.

Barilla America Inc., Ames, Iowa

Driving Question

How does pasta cooked “al dente” ensure nutritional value for human consumption?

Probing Questions

  • What are the qualities of good-tasting, nutritional pasta?
  • Why does pasta swell with water when cooked?
  • Is eating pasta beneficial for the human body? Why or why not?

Classroom Suggestions

Students could:

  • Design an experiment to test the best cook time for “al dente” pasta. Various qualitative and quantitative properties can be identified and students or student groups could define and test these properties. Use a recommended cook time as a control.
  • Watch a video of the chemical composition of pasta salad. Analyze the chemical structure of pasta and human digestion of starches/gluten to explore how the human body breaks down the components of sugar molecules to combine with other elements in amino acids/larger carbon-based molecules.

Relevant Related Resources

Iowa Core Alignment


Analyze a major global challenge to specify qualitative and quantitative criteria and constraints for solutions that account for societal needs and wants

Credit Info

Submitted by Aaron Leppert as part of the Iowa STEM Teacher Externship program.

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