Angel Hair Pasta
Angel hair is underappreciated. Success with these thin strands starts with buying the right product.
How We Tested
Few pasta shapes are more divisive than angel hair. Angel hair (or capellini, the Italian word for “little hairs”) is a rod-shaped pasta approximately the same length as spaghetti and vermicelli but much thinner. It’s this thinness that has somehow inspired vitriol, with major food publications penning think pieces with snide titles such as “You Couldn’t Pay Me to Eat Angel Hair” and “Lebron James Hates Angel Hair Spaghetti and He’s Not Wrong.”
We think angel hair doesn’t get the respect it deserves. For starters, its uniquely thin strands—the thinnest of Italian pastas—are light but still substantial; twirl effortlessly around forks; and cook quickly (as quickly as 90 seconds versus 8 to 12 minutes for spaghetti), making it a good option for a fast weeknight meal. Angel hair has more surface area per pound than any other strand pasta, so you get more sauce in each bite. And we’ve found that pairing it with a potent sauce thinned out with a bit of pasta cooking water reduces its tendency to tangle and clump.
Finding the Best Angel Hair Pasta
To find the best angel hair pasta, we sampled eight products, priced from about $1.50 to about $5.50 per pound. Six of the products were sold as long, rigid strands, but we also included two products that were shaped into nests before being dried. We sampled them cooked al dente and tossed with neutral-tasting canola oil to prevent sticking and in our recipe for Angel Hair Pasta with Basil, Caper, and Lemon Sauce.
Our tasters liked the flavor of all the products we tried. Every pasta had a “neutral,” “mild” flavor with no aftertaste or off-flavors. A few highly ranked products stood out for their “nuttiness” or slight “wheaty” flavor, which tasters said provided a bit of complexity, but all the pastas had a “mellow” flavor that was a “clean” canvas for sauce. As it turned out, texture was much more divisive.
Just How Thin Is Angel Hair?
In both tastings, we preferred the products sold as strands to those formed into nests. Nested angel hair tended to break apart more than strands did, even before cooking. When we measured and compared the lengths of both types of angel hair after cooking, nest pieces were shorter and less consistent in length, which resulted in more tangles of pasta and fewer twirlable strands. The nested angel hairs also came in 8.8-ounce packages, so we’d have to buy two in order to make a recipe that calls for a pound of pasta.
Nests and strands aside, the textures of the pastas ranged from chewy and distinct to soft and sticky, even when we carefully controlled for cooking time and doneness. In general, tasters preferred thicker strands, which were more “substantial” and “toothsome,” with a slight “bite” that was missing from thinner strands. We measured the widths of the cooked strands and found that their thicknesses ranged from 1.0 to 1.4 millimeters (for comparison, our favorite spaghetti is 2.3 millimeters thick). While a difference of 0.4 millimeters may seem insignificant, it’s actually quite substantial: The widest strands were up to 40 percent thicker than the thinnest strands. Most of the pastas on the thinner side were deemed by tasters to be too thin and delicate. The strands of our favorite products were thicker: anywhere from 1.2 to 1.4 millimeters when cooked, which was just wide enough to resist clumping and tangling and provide some chew.
Interestingly, a product with thinner strands came in second place. While tasters did remark on how thin these strands were, we didn’t find them at all mushy or clumpy. In fact, they seemed firm and substantial. Why the difference?
How Pasta Is Made
Angel hair is made in the same manner as other dried Italian pastas. Semolina, a coarse milled flour made from durum wheat, is kneaded with water to make an elastic dough. The dough is extruded through bronze or Teflon dies into the desired shape and length and then dried under careful conditions until it’s rigid enough for packaging. We scrutinized three factors in the manufacturing process that can impact the final texture of the pasta: the material of the cutting die, the drying time and temperature, and the ingredients—specifically ones that contribute to the formation of gluten.
First, we asked manufacturers about the material of the dies they use to extrude and cut the pasta. We know from previous tastings of spaghetti and fettuccine that a bronze die can leave a shaggy texture on the surface of the pasta, while a Teflon-coated die can provide less resistance and produce a smoother pasta. However, many manufacturers wouldn’t reveal the type of die they used. We then scrutinized all the strands under a microscope, but we couldn’t detect any discernible differences in the pastas’ surface textures.
Next, we looked at the drying time and temperature. Most pasta manufacturers tout the “cold mountain water” they use to produce their pasta and a slow-and-low drying process as their secrets to superior texture. However, aside from providing idyllic descriptions such as “slow-dried at low temperatures in the crisp mountain air,” manufacturers wouldn’t share specifics except for confirming that their pastas were dried at low temperatures for long periods of time.
Finally, we looked at the ingredients that contribute to gluten formation. When pasta dough is mixed and kneaded, water hydrates proteins in the flour to form gluten, which gives the dough strength and elasticity. Pasta with more gluten is firmer, chewier, and more intact, while pasta with less gluten is softer and stickier. The textures of our favorite angel hair products confirmed that they contained more gluten; our tasters described them as firm, toothsome, and chewy, regardless of the thickness of their strands. We looked at ingredient labels and found that all the products we tested shared one simple ingredient: durum wheat (sometimes fortified with vitamins and minerals), usually in the form of semolina. However, we noticed that our top two pastas both contain finely milled durum flour in addition to the coarse semolina used in all the other products in our lineup. Durum flour is a by-product of semolina production that is often discarded, but some pasta manufacturers add it to their pastas to cut costs. However, Jan Delcour, head of the Laboratory of Food Chemistry and Biochemistry at Belgium’s Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, told us that it may also have a textural benefit. Pastas that contain durum flour likely also contain more gluten than products made with semolina alone because the finer durum flour hydrates (and thus forms gluten) more readily than coarse semolina. The durum flour in our top two products is likely responsible for their firm textures—and, as a bonus, the reason why they’re the least expensive of the products we tried.
The Best Angel Hair Pasta: Barilla Angel Hair
The strands of our favorite product, Barilla Angel Hair, were relatively thick and springy and didn’t tangle or clump. We found that they were perfectly al dente in 3 to 4 minutes (the lower end of the time recommended on the box), and their clean, neutral flavor paired effortlessly with our basil, caper, and lemon sauce. While the strands were the thickest of all the products we tried, they were still significantly thinner than spaghetti, with the lightness we expect of ethereal “angel” hair. We have faith that our top-rated product will convert angel-hair naysayers to believers.
- Taste 8 products, priced from about $1.50 to about $5.50 per pound (about $0.10 to about $0.40 per ounce), selected from best-selling nationally available brands and purchased online and in Boston-area supermarkets
- Cook until al dente and taste plain, with measured amount of neutral-flavored canola oil
- Taste in Angel Hair Pasta with Basil, Caper, and Lemon Sauce
- Samples randomized and tasted blind to eliminate bias
- Measure lengths and widths of cooked strands
- Ingredients and cooking times taken from product labels