Pasta used to fall into several basic categories: the on-the-fly, kid-friendly type; the vegetarian entrée option; or authentic dishes found in specialty, stand-alone restaurants. But, since the 1980s, as chefs tapped into handcrafted Italian techniques of making their own handmade pastas and pasta dishes with regional-inspired ingredients, they brought enlightened formulations into the mainstream. Today, with the artisan farm-to-table movement and a drive toward minimal processing, pasta is dressing up more nicely than ever.
As an example, on the menu at Chicago’s Nellcote Restaurant, one can find squid ink pasta, made from house-milled flour. Or, there’s the house-made raviolini at San Francisco’s flour + water. Chefs are not only making the pastas and sauces too; they also are handcrafting their own fresh cheeses and curing their own meats.
The retro, retorted can of tomato and pasta might conjure up nostalgic flavors of cheese-flavored tomato paste and soft little pasta circles, but the industry has come a long way with creating shelf-stable, aseptic and flexible, retorted pasta-based meals. To stay competitive today, manufacturers need to become more creative with regional ingredient selection and processing techniques.
The handcrafted pasta trend runs parallel with specialty alternative grains and nutritional niche products. Whole-wheat pasta has been a supermarket option for years, but now the consumer can choose from alternative grains, like kamut, spelt and quinoa. Also, the gluten-free trend brought to the table pastas made from brown rice, corn, artichokes -- and even combinations of corn, quinoa, potato and soy.
Top chefs make handcrafted pasta dinners, but the technical food experts are just as creative, as they try to figure out ways to recreate “handmade” for mass production. And, they do so with a 12-month shelflife for the product. Both chef and scientist are learning new techniques, yet still pull from old-school methods to bring more exciting pasta dishes to the table.
Pasta Shapes Up
Penne, elbows and rotini are some of the leading dried pasta in today’s market, but artful noodles are another way to dress up pasta dishes. Barilla Inc. has made good use of its Italian roots in promoting shapes once unusual to mainstream America. One of its most recent, popular pastas is radiator -- pasta that literally looks like little radiators. (The automotive-themed chain restaurant Quaker Steak and Lube carries it on its menu.)
“A noodle such as radiato, gemelli, campanelli and bucatini maximizes the surface area, while the ridges or channels easily trap a thick sauce,” says Barilla chef Lorenzo Boni. “Almost all shapes have a traditional origin or specific region, and the classic dish associated with it is connected with the shape’s functionality. For example, bucatini, like a hollow spaghetti, is from Rome and typically pairs with the dish Amatriciana. The hole in the middle of the long noodle is a tasty reservoir for the spicy, meaty sauce.”
There always will be a consumer desire for comfortable and familiar shapes, like elbows and shells, but having a wide assortment of shapes on offer helps meet the demand for something new. 
“Keeping the familiar, while slowly introducing new varieties, is the current market trend being seen across all pasta varieties,” says Boni.

No Assembly Required

Most consumers don’t have time to actually prepare the three main pasta dish components of noodles, meat and sauce, so they turn to packaged, frozen and shelf-stable finished products to help them recreate a fine farinaceous experience at home. However, combining multiple ingredients with different moisture contents and acidities can affect finished product quality. Food scientists must formulate the components in such a way that the product maintains flavor and integrity, after going through either a thermally processed or freeze-thaw-microwave cycle.
Using flash-freezing technology, hydrocolloid blends -- and the slightly less-damaging, aseptic hot-fill process -- manufacturers have been able to create gourmet products that closely resemble what can be found in a fine-dining establishment.
Newer techniques in flash-freezing brought high-end finished pasta products back into popularity, without recalling the frozen bricks of spaghetti offered a couple of generations ago. Using methods that quickly freeze food without the formation of ice crystals, the process has been steadily improving since the 1920s, when Clarence Birdseye invented the Quick Freeze Machine.
The use of individually quick frozen (IQF) technology allows ingredient suppliers to provide manufacturers with high-end frozen ingredients, such as fire-roasted vegetables, artichoke hearts and caramel-colored, grill-marked Kobe beef nuggets designed for inclusion in a frozen meal kit. These high-value ingredients allow for a higher price point and better profits.
Other unique IQF products for a frozen pasta kit market include tomato sauce discs, free-flowing in the bag alongside the fire-roasted vegetables, eliminating sauce pouches consumers had to reheat separately. Flash-freezing also helps ensure product safety: Quickly freezing a meat lasagna, for example, reduces the time it spends in the temperature danger zone of 40-140°F.

sauce chart, top sauces

Sauce Specifics

“Premium, jarred sauce sales have been growing much faster than the non-premium brands,” says Dave Hirschkop, CEO of Dave’s Gourmet LLC. “In this segment, we’re seeing better quality ingredients, such as extra-virgin olive oil and larger cuts of fresh herbs.” Hirschkop points out that recent trends include spicy sauces; sauces formulated with specialty cheeses; and healthier sauces formulated with ingredients such as beans and vegetables.
Dave’s Rustic Vegetable Sauce is an example of a sauce targeting the health-conscience consumer. Hirschkop points out that the company’s more exotic flavors, such as Masala Marinara, are “out on the front edge of where consumers are and embody a growing internationalization of the American palate.”
Today’s popular pasta dishes speak many languages. 
“Whether Mexican or Indian, we are seeing a lot of flavorful sauces and seasonings,” says Jessica “Mama Jess” Grelle, founder, owner, R&D chief and “chief mama” of Mama Jess LLC. Mama Jess makes the Bien Good line of organic sauces that are designed to pull double duty in pasta or enchiladas. 
“Bien Good Organic Pasta & Enchilada Sauce is a great example of a Mexican-inspired sauce that can be used on noodles,” Grelle adds. “Similar sauces, such as Campbell’s wide variety of ‘simmer sauces’ are in most major retailers, too.”
Pasta in America also left Italian long ago. An influx of pasta cultures, most notably Asian pastas, reached mainstream trendiness through both the explosion in global cuisines and the gluten-free wave. The latter is due to the prodigious use of rice flour and other non-gluten containing noodles.
Companies such as Annie Chun’s, Taste of Thai Inc. and Thai Kitchen Inc. took the 1970s college ramen craze of cheap and flavorful, heat-and-eat noodles and up-scaled it to gourmet heights -- while cdfkeeping price points low and flavors authentic. Most of the success is due to use of new technologies in freeze-drying and dehydrating of vegetables and herbs that preserve flavor and improves textures of the ingredients. 
With pan-Asian offerings, such as pad Thai, udon bowls and Vietnamese-style phô thin-rice noodle soups, these pasta products allow consumers instant variety -- often in gluten-free formats -- while calories stay low.
Healthier sauce options have risen in popularity alongside ethnic diversity in flavorings. Salt and sugar are two main ingredients common to most sauce formulations. But, both of these ingredients can create “label shock” when used in excess, chasing today’s label-reading consumers away. This is especially true when products are designed with families -- or, more specifically, children -- in mind.
“We had a challenge of making a pasta sauce kids would absolutely love, without added sugar,” says Missy Chase-Lapine, a.k.a., The Sneaky Chef. “We achieved this when we found that sweet potato and carrot pureés added all the sweetness we would need to make the sauces taste delicious. In fact, many families say that these are now their favorite pasta sauces, replacing leading brands.” 
Compared to other leading brands, Sneaky Chef Pasta Sauces have more added vegetables, with lower sodium (400mg per serving) and no added sugar.

Helpful Hydrocolloids

When trying to maintain stability over several months in a consumer freezer space that may have fluctuating temperatures, the importance of hydrocolloids comes into play. Today’s elaborate frozen meals include the sauce, pasta and vegetables all in the same bag. Moreover, they constantly are undergoing a freeze-thaw cycle, as they move from the production line to shipping trucks to the supermarket shelf to the consumer’s freezer.
Ingredients such as microcrystalline cellulose have a wide range of uses in pasta formulations, including enhancing cling in sauces, aiding in freeze-thaw stability and minimizing stickiness in cooked pasta. Tomato sauce that goes through repeated freeze-thaw cycles can start weeping as the tomato solids and liquids begin to separate.
A hydrocolloid blend of xanthan, gum Arabic and citrus fiber is another method of preventing separation and maintaining the emulsion. Relatively new on the food product development scene is konjac (Amorphophallus konjac), an Asian tuber of the sweet-potato variety that contains high levels of a fibrous starch with multiple unique properties. It’s a linear polysaccharide (a glucomannan) made of mannose and glucose and contains 85-95% soluble dietary fiber. 
Konjac helps increase feelings of satiety and improves glycemic control and blood lipid profiles. Companies that specialize in hydrocolloids typically carry konjac in their line of stabilizing products, and it works well as a meat binder and fat replacer. For example, konjac also can be used to maintain integrity of a meatball or a meat analog in a frozen meal kit system. 
Even the pasta itself can benefit from these fiber ingredients. Terri Rogers, founder and CEO of The NoOodle Co., makes a noodle from konjac that contains no carbs, calories, gluten, soy or dairy. There are myriad ways to employ hydrocolloids to improve frozen gourmet sauce and pasta components. Hydrocolloid ingredient makers are available to provide technical support to developers.
Say Cheese, Please
According to the USDA, mozzarella is the most popular cheese in the U.S.; the average American eats 11.43lbs of mozzarella per year, compared to just 9.98lbs of Cheddar. However, it’s the simplicity of soft cheeses (all that’s needed is milk, some acid and a 2-hour minimum), like chèvre (soft goat cheese), ricotta and burrata, that inspire restaurant chefs to take cheese-making into their own hands and have an even more impressive DIY menu. During the recession, cheese was in a slump, but sales are up again in the U.S. And, in addition to popular mozzarella and Cheddar, consumers are reaching for specialty blues, Muenster and Asiago, as well. 

Sealed for Success

Product packaging plays an important role in enhancing the high-end pasta product experience. Nestlé Co.’s Lean Cuisine brand pasta dishes include a release valve on the bag of their multi-packet product, allowing the venting of excess steam during microwaving. ConAgra Foods Inc.’s Healthy Choice Café Steamers line features a dual-tray steam cooker that lets the consumer separate the sauce via cooking the pasta and vegetable components on a grid tray. As the product microwaves, the liquid steam from the sauce cooks the items on the grid.
New packaging processes have redefined retorted, high-pH products. Some commercially sterilized, pre-packaged pasta meals have such good shelflife, they even are sought after by hikers, vending machine suppliers and anyone on-the-go.
“With a pouch system, you can vacuum out all the air and completely eliminate head space, a process not possible in a can, where water or brine must be added to reduce headspace,” says Ryan Booth, a food scientist for Truitt Brothers Inc. The company specializes in contract manufacture of retorted small and large pouches, cans, shelf-stable trays and double-seamed bowls. Booth explains that flexible pouches and double-seam bowls allow chefs and food scientists to create tasty, ready-to serve, always shelf-stable pasta dishes.
Last year, Barilla Inc. launched a line of six varieties of retorted, shelf-stable microwavable pastas with a separate, internal sauce compartment. In keeping the sauce separate, pasta integrity is maintained; plus, the consumers get to customize the meal by adding their own sauce. 
Pacific Foods Inc., a leader in natural aseptic soups and beverages, recently launched a line of Mac & Cheese and Pasta O’s packaged in Tetrapak Inc.’s Recart cartons. Recart technology is similar to a retort canning; however, the thin profile of the package means less cooking time to heat the product, providing a fresher-tasting flavor profile. 
Additionally, the retort process enables the processor to penetrate solids in the cooking process, making even chunkier recipes shelf-stable for up to 24 months. The different layers of the Tetra Recart packages each have their own role in protecting the product from oxygen, light and moisture, thus preserving the original flavor and texture of the product inside.
Creating premium sauces that also are safe, while maintaining high-quality, authentic flavors can be a challenge. All shelf-stable, jarred tomato sauces -- regardless of how “minimally processed” and “artisanal” -- must be subjected to high heat and long cooking times to ensure commercial sterility.
Tomato sauce is a high-acid product. But, sometimes its natural, seasonal pH can be too close to 4.6, the cut-off safety point for growth of Clostridium botulinum and subsequent toxin production. Or, the addition of chunky, non-acid vegetables, such as carrots or peppers, can also lead to a pH at or above 4.6. 
With pH at or above 4.6, the manufacturer has limited options. An acid must be added to bring the pH down to match the pH upon which the thermal process is based. But, acidification of the ingredient mixture can have a negative effect on flavor. One option is that, if the pH is around 4.4 (close to the 4.6, but not at or above), the manufacturer can heat the sauce for a longer period of time or increase the cook- and/or hot-hold time. However, an increase in heat can be damaging to the final product and risk giving it an overcooked taste. 
Creamy-style Alfredo sauces, typically with high-pH (low-acid) environments, present a separate pasta-sauce challenge: While tomato-based sauces have the advantage of being naturally tangy and sour, that flavor is expected, and acidifying those sauces does not cause any consumer surprises. No one, however, wants a sour, acidified Alfredo sauce, which is what would be necessary to allow it to be pasteurized. Therefore, the few shelf-stable Alfredo sauces on the market are retorted and cooked to around 250°F for at least 3 minutes. Fresher-tasting Alfredo products, however, have been making their way to the refrigerated section of supermarkets.
There are several effective potential solutions for low-acid jarred sauces that manufacturers may consider. One option is to use food-grade sodium acid sulfate, which is known for its ability to lower pH without generating a sour taste. A study conducted by the Guelph Food Technology Centre showed that using sodium acid sulfate to acidify an Alfredo sauce from 5.0 to 4.2 (or lower) allows the sauce to remain shelf-stable, with a milder heat treatment, via hot filling, instead of the standard retort. Since sodium acid sulfate has a less-sour flavor than most acidulants, the acidified Alfredo sauce has a more typical profile to the standard versions.
Another, more recently engaged option is the non-thermal process of High Pressure Processing (HPP). It uses water under high pressure to inactivate pathogens and spoilage microorganisms. While HPP does not make the product sterile, it can give the product a 30-day refrigerated shelflife. The process is being used to extend the shelflife of fresh items, such as guacamole, but no one is using it to make a 30-day, refrigerated Alfredo sauce. This could fill an empty niche that falls between the overcooked retorted jar and the short-shelflife refrigerated products. 

Next Level Artisanal

Foodservice outlets, especially casual-dining and restaurant chains, commonly include on their menus pizzas and pastas that require tomato-based sauces. And, consumers expect higher-quality sauces in these venues. 
“Foodservice [operations] have experienced a demand for taking flavors to the next level,” says Ellen Hurwitz, food scientist and director of R&D for sauce-maker Giraffe Food & Beverage Inc. “In pasta sauces, we are seeing additions of such ingredients as aged cheeses, truffles and truffle flavorings, specialty olive oils, and non-traditional meats and sauce components.”
While some of these ingredients are expensive, specialty industrial ingredients that easily blend into a marinara base -- such as concentrated aged-cheese pastes -- are a great way to increase the umami flavor notes, according to Hurwitz. She also reports a “pesto renaissance” that allows developers to take the artisanal approach through using fresh ingredients to create “old is new again, bold flavors.” 
Pesto sauces present specific challenges, according to Hurwitz. “The use of high levels of extra-virgin olive oil can create clouding, gel formation and separation. Giraffe [Foods] was able to eliminate these issues by using an olive oil-canola blend coupled with a natural olive oil flavor.” 
Ingredient selection also plays a big role in value-adding the sauce. “Using IQF herbs, instead of dried, delivers a more ‘Old World’ authentic flavor,” adds Hurwitz