As Elizabeth David has demonstrated magnificently, one can write a volume about varieties of flour. When we focus on Italian cooking, however, and specifically on pasta, we limit our field to two basic kinds: soft-wheat, unbleached, all-purpose flour and durum or hard-wheat flour, also known as semolina or, in Italian, semola. The first is white, the second pale yellow.
Each of the two varieties has its virtues and drawbacks. For the classic pasta of Bologna, stretched by hand with a rolling pin, only soft-wheat flour is used. It is lower in gluten than semolina, hence it is easier to hand stretch. Soft wheat has a gentler, warmer fragrance than that of semolina’s, which is faintly sharp. The sweet-smelling pasta it produces is plumper in body and of a fluffier consistency than any made with durum wheat flour. On the other hand, it requires utmost heedfulness in the cooking, because it can quickly pass that dangerous line from firm to overdone.
Semolina has so much tough gluten that it is next to impossible to stretch by hand in the Bolognese manner. It is more suitable for flat pasta compressed by a non-extruding home machine or for such industrially extruded shapes as spaghetti or fusilli. Pasta made with semolina flour is never as downy as the soft-wheat kind, but it makes up for it with a body tautly knit and admirably compact. It accepts an extraordinary variety of sauces and cooks to a perfect al dente, firm-to-the-bite consistency.
When buying semolina one must look out for flour that is ground too coarse. Unfortunately much of it is, including some brands that are sold as pasta flour. It should be talcum soft to the touch and impalpable, like other flour; otherwise it will be difficult to work with.
At home I use semolina when I want extra firmness, such as in tonnarelli. More frequently I use all-purpose, unbleached flour, which makes pasta closer to that made at home in Bologna. The choice, however, depends on one’s preferences. Both flours make equally valid pasta.
© 1986 Marcella Hazan estate. All rights reserved.