Like many health-conscious people, limiting and changing the kinds of grains I ate was a clear first step to healthier eating. Thankfully, I’ve never been a fan of rice or bread, but I’ve always held a soft spot for pasta and noodles. There’s just nothing as comforting as a large, hot bowl of noodle soup or hearty pasta on a cold and gloomy day. The good thing is that now there are plenty of healthy substitutes to fulfill my carb cravings. Here are four of the best healthy pasta substitutes you can find.
Whole Wheat Pasta
I like to call whole wheat pasta the “training wheels” to pasta substitutes. It’s the default everyone tries and pretends to like, but it’s easily the worst of the bunch. Most grocery store brands actually blend the wheat flour with white flour, so be sure to check the ingredient label for any pasta you’re considering buying. Whole wheat pasta is usually dark in color, and has a slight husky feel from the wheat grains. It also has a mildly woody taste, almost nut-like.
Buying tips: If you do opt for this route, I suggest buying the most expensive brand you can afford. Not only are these actually made entirely out of whole wheat, they’re usually less “husky” and have a better texture.
Cooking tips: Be careful to not overcook because you’ll ruin the pasta and be left with healthy mush.
Brown Rice Pasta
I first heard about brown rice pasta from reality star extraordinaire Jennifer Stano. I reluctantly tried it after tossing my unused and abandoned box of whole wheat pasta away and was flabbergasted. Not only at the color of the pasta, but the taste and texture — it was everything I always hoped for in a pasta substitute. Brown rice pasta is slightly brown when dry, but when cooked has a color and texture nearly identical to regular pasta.
Buying tips: Trader Joe’s has the cheapest prices, and the store brand tastes amazing. Whole Foods and other supermarkets also carry brown rice pasta. There’s no noticeable difference between the brands or price points.
Cooking tips: Do NOT overcook brown rice pasta. Be sure to constantly check the pasta to see when it’s al dente. Overcooking compromises the pasta’s shape and texture, and you’ll end up with a soft, mushy mess.
Oh, the spaghetti squash. In my most humble opinion, you’re not a “real” pasta substitute — because you’re a vegetable, that’s why. Spaghetti squash is a mild gourd that when cooked, comes apart in stringy particles — hence the name spaghetti squash. Personally, I think spaghetti squash tastes delicious with herbs and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese, aka prepared as a vegetable. But many people love to use it as a healthy and colorful substitute for spaghetti. It tastes like a sweet zucchini and has a slight crunch to it.
Buying tips: Pick one that’s symmetrical, bright yellow and dense for its size. Korean markets sell them for much cheaper than other stores, but they’re also readily available at Ralphs and Trader Joe’s.
Cooking tips: Cut in half and seed the squash with a spoon. Bake with the outside of the squash touching the foil for 45 minutes, or until the inside begins to brown. Flake with a fork and store for up to a week.
Shirataki noodles are made mostly out of water and glucomannan, a soluble plant fiber that has zero calories. They taste and feel similar to Asian rice noodles, which in Chinese we call mi fen. They’re a great noodle substitute, but don’t have enough texture or chewiness to act as a suitable substitute for pasta. They also work great in a stir fry for dishes like pad thai or pad see ew.
Supermarkets also sell shirataki noodles made out of tofu, which you’ll instantly recognize as being opaque and having a little (albeit few) calories. I’m not a fan, since they have a stringy texture that doesn’t cook out and they don’t absorb flavors or sauces as easily.
Buying tips: Purchase at Korean or Chinese supermarkets for the best deal (about $1.20 a pack). Whole Foods also sells clear shirataki yam noodles, two packs for $3. Avoid the Miracle Noodle brand and stick to the Asian varieties if possible, since they have a superior mouth feel.
Cooking tips: Drain and wash thoroughly! Don’t be discouraged by the somewhat off-putting smell of the liquid they come in. When cooking in broth or pan frying, let the noodles really cook and steep. It gets rid of their crunchy texture and makes them soft and al dente.