Last updated on December 2nd, 2021
Pasta comes in such a wide range of shapes and sizes that a person could eat it once a day for almost a year without repetition—not that it’s a good idea. When it comes to gluten-free pasta though, the field of options shrinks significantly, requiring alternate shapes for recipes. With a limited selection of choices available, how do we know which gluten-free pasta to substitute in a given dish?
Some pastas pair better with certain sauces or mix-ins than others. When choosing replacement pasta, it’s all about the other ingredients.
Cultural and family traditions often favor certain types of pasta for specific dishes. The pasta used in cherished handed-down recipes was likely chosen because the shape and size of the noodle serves a purpose. One goal of a pasta dish is to have a little bit of everything in each bite, so the shape of the pasta in a dish is determined by the other ingredients.
Does the meal have large chunky mix-ins like beans and chopped vegetables? There’s a pasta for that. Or perhaps smaller ingredients like peas or capers? There’s a shape for that too. Is the dish prepared with a thick Bolognese, a smooth creamy sauce, or a broth? You get the idea. Ultimately, the form is dictated by the function.
Let’s take a look at some broad groupings of pasta and find the best gluten-free replacement for your meal. Although pasta experts have devised more detailed categories, we’ll keep it simple with long pasta, short pasta, and tiny pasta.
Long pasta is shaped like ribbons, and is either cylindrical, like spaghetti, or flat, like fettuccine. The thicker the sauce, the wider the pasta should be. For example, lasagna noodles are wide enough to support layers of thick sauce, cheese and other components, and would be hard to replace with a smaller type of pasta. If you can’t find gluten-free lasagna, try using sliced vegetables like eggplant or zucchini.
Thin, long pasta works best with light sauces: tomato-, oil-, and butter-based. Spaghetti is the most common gluten-free long pasta, and it pairs nicely with delicate sauces.
The thing is, without the sticky gluten to hold it together, some gluten-free pasta can sort of, well, fall apart.
Let’s say dairy-free fettuccine Alfredo is on the menu tonight, but gluten-free fettuccine is nowhere to be found. One inclination might be to use spaghetti instead. Although it’s long like fettuccine, each twirl of spaghetti would sop up less sauce than the thicker fettuccine, eventually leaving a puddle of uneaten sauce at the end of the meal. And if it’s like the corn-based spaghetti in our pantry right now, it will probably fall apart in the thick Alfredo sauce.
In this case, short pasta might be the way to go.
Short pasta is used in dishes with vegetables and proteins that are meant to be eaten by piercing the morsels with a fork, rather than swirling like long pasta. Slightly smaller ingredients hide in holes or crevices, while sauces cling to fill in shapes and hidey-holes.
Noodles with distinct shapes such as shells, bow ties, and twists hold their own when combined with chunky proteins and vegetables, and pair well with smaller mix-ins. Substitute short shapes in baked dishes, pesto recipes, and, of course, that dairy-free Alfredo sauce.
Similar to getting swirled up in ribbons of fettuccine, tonight’s Alfredo sauce will cling in the ridges of pagoda-shaped noodles or in the spiral of gluten-free rotini or fusilli. However, as with the corn-based spaghetti, gluten-free shapes may fall apart in a sauce thicker than Alfredo.
Which leads us to short tubes.
Short tubes like penne are the rock stars of the gluten-free world. Their size and shape enable them to work well with most sauces, from thick and hearty to thin or oil-based. They play well with large mix-ins, while providing a hiding spot for smaller ingredients.
Elbow macaroni is another classic shape readily found in gluten-free form. It’s smaller than penne, and can be baked in cheese sauce, stirred into a pasta salad, or combined in dishes with smaller bits of protein like ground meat or vegan crumbles. Because elbow macaroni is short, the other ingredients you combine with it need to be prepped on the small size—think diced veggies rather than chopped.
Elbow macaroni works well in broth bowls and some soups, but doesn’t offer the same texture as tiny pasta such as couscous or pastina; it’s just too big.
So what should we substitute for the smallest pastas?
Tiny pasta is often used in soup, or lightly dressed and combined with other petite components such as herbs and minced vegetables. Examples include orzo, acini di pepe, and alphabet- and star-shaped pasta. When gluten-free tiny pasta is not available, you have a couple of options.
One way to modify a recipe featuring tiny pasta is to replace the miniature noodles with gluten-free whole grains or pseudo-grains. Rice and quinoa make fast friends with lightly dressed dishes with small mix-ins like herbs, berries, or nuts. Millet is lovely with sauces and in soups, and buckwheat lends itself to both cold and warm seasonal salads. Different grains have different flavors and textures, so take a crack at it and see what you come up with.
If you’re family isn’t quite ready to dive into the diverse realm of whole grains, or you really have your heart set on having pasta in your dish, another option is to use broken spaghetti.
Remember that package of spaghetti in the pantry, the kind that’s prone to falling apart? You can use it as a stand-in for tiny pasta in recipes. Either break it into 1-inch pieces before boiling in water, or cook as is and cut it up after it’s done.
The long and the short of it is that you don’t need to put in much effort to substitute gluten-free pasta. Consider the type of sauce being served and the size of any other ingredients. Remember: when in doubt, short tubes will almost always be a good choice.