You can successfully cook an egg by the clock, three minutes for soft boiled, for instance, but not pasta. The key to success with pasta is cooking to that elusive a l dente (literally to the tooth) stage, just to the degree of still being slightly resistant to the bite.
But exactly how resistant? And how to make pasta yield the secrets of its success? That is a problem a group of scientists in New South Wales is grappling with, in a project to explore the relationships between pasta quality and the composition of grains of durum wheat.
According to Elizabeth McKenzie, cereal chemist with NSW Agriculture at Tamworth, an understanding of how different characteristics of durum wheat affect pasta quality is a prerequisite to the development of early generation tests for pasta quality and the release of new, quality, durum varieties.
Dr McKenzie says major savings could be made in Australian durum wheat breeding programs if new cultivars could be assessed for market acceptance much earlier in the programs.
With domestic pasta consumption in Australia growing at a reported 7 per cent a year, and significant opportunities available on export markets, production of durum wheat appears an increasingly attractive option for wheat growers.
Working with Dr McKenzie in the durum wheat project — supported by growers through the GRDC — are Ian Batey and Finlay MacRitchie, of CSIRO's Grain Quality Research Laboratories in Sydney, and NSW Agriculture's Tamworth durum wheat breeder, Ray Hare.
Dr McKenzie says the team had bitten into a lot of pasta in its early attempts to understand the a l dente characteristic, but a newly arrived British machine obtained with GRDC and durum industry support would allow more scientific measurements.
"It really is just a big mechanical tooth, with a bevelled and angled piece of perspex or metal which replicates the ergonomic action of a biting, human tooth," Dr McKenzie said. "It measures exactly the force needed to bite half-way through a strand of pasta."
In related research the question of pasta stickiness is under the lens at CSIRO's Grain Quality Laboratories. Dr Batey is researching the starch qualities of durum wheats, and Dr MacRitchie the interaction of grain carbohydrate, protein and fat in relation to quality.
That has led to another challenge. "Because Dr MacRitchie does not have kilograms of grain to work with, we. are trying to work out how to build a machine that will produce a single strand of pasta for testing."
Subprogram 1.4.01 Contact: Dr Elizabeth McKenzie 067 631100