Friday, February 28, 2020

Buckwheat Bigoli

In June of 2020, A Serious Bunburyist turns 10 years old. I conceived of this website as a place where I would share information about pasta-making, review new cookbooks and memorialize some of my favorite recipes. In my inaugural post I shared a recipe to make a regional Italian pasta called bigoli in a bronze Venetian pasta press called a torchio da bigoli (here). Over the years I’ve posted a number of different bigoli recipes on this site. To start 2020, I want to share another one, this time a dark bigoli version made with buckwheat flour.

Dark Bigoli (Bigoli Scuri)

Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta (2009) lists bigoli’s ingredients as “[g]enerally whole-wheat flour made from durum wheat, but sometimes soft-wheat flour, water, and salt, and often duck or hen eggs.”  Zanini De Vita makes no reference to buckwheat flour, but she notes in her remarks that bigoli “…was always dark until not long ago because peasant women made it from whole-wheat flour.” 

In Bugialli on Pasta (1988), the late Italian food historian and teacher Giuliano Bugialli writes “[o]riginally, dark bigoli probably were made using buckwheat flour, since the grain was once plentiful in the Tre Veneti. (Today, the region is more commonly known as Friuli-Venezia Giulia.) But earlier in this century the Italian government began to require that certified commercial pasta be made only from durum wheat flour, and soon even in the home whole-wheat flour came to replace the buckwheat.”

As Bugialli points out, regional Italian pasta makers were—and still are—naturally opportunistic and used available ingredients. In the Encyclopedia’s Entry No. 200 for Pizzoccheri, Zanini De Vita writes “[t]he cultivation of buckwheat in the alpine valleys from Lombardy to Trentino was already widespread toward the fourteenth century, especially in Carnia….” Italy’s Carnia province lies approximately 40 miles northeast of the Veneto region. Whether buckwheat is the original bigoli flour or not, one can easily imagine buckwheat pasta dough finding its way into a Venetian torchio.


Buckwheat, a flower seed and not a true wheat grass grain, presents challenges to the pasta maker because buckwheat flour contains no gluten. Buckwheat’s characteristics differ by variety, but generally its seeds have a very dark, bitter-tasting outer hull that surrounds a lighter-colored triangular kernel (aka groat). After de-hulling the seeds, mills grind the groats to make buckwheat flour.

Most buckwheat noodle recipes, whether to make Italian pasta or Japanese soba, blend wheat and buckwheat flour to strengthen the dough. In Cooking By Hand (2003), Paul Bertolli writes that buckwheat flour “…has a forceful taste all its own, though the necessity of mixing it with a greater proportion of white flour to strengthen the dough structure also serves to tone down its flavor.” Bertolli’s buckwheat flour blend in Cooking By Hand is approximately 30% buckwheat flour and 70% extra fancy semolina (aka extra fancy durum).

In my experience, extruding a buckwheat dough (e.g., in a torchio) permits the pasta maker to reduce the amount of wheat flour used when making buckwheat pasta without detrimentally affecting the dough’s structure. Exceptions to this general rule exist, especially if making pasta with a coarse, stoneground buckwheat flour containing flecks of hull. However, using a torchio to extrude buckwheat pasta generally allows the pasta maker to focus on taste and texture and worry a little less about dough strength.

Over the last three years I have made buckwheat pasta with buckwheat flour from a number of sources. I used my KoMo grain mill to grind fresh buckwheat flour from store-bought groats. I tried different buckwheat flour from mills here in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. My favorite homemade buckwheat pasta uses a Japanese Ni-Hachi style soba flour (80% buckwheat and 20% type 00 wheat flour) that I bought on-line from Anson Mills in South Carolina. I enjoy the flavor and texture of pasta made from this finely ground blend.

The following recipe, which serves 2, uses Anson Mills’s soba flour without adding any additional wheat flour. The first few times I tried this soba flour to make bigoli with my torchio, I added small amounts of extra wheat flour believing I needed to strengthen the dough. I found adding additional wheat flour unnecessary. Anson Mills’s buckwheat-rich blend works just fine as is with a torchio.

1) Put 115 grams of Anson Mills Ni-Hachi style soba flour into the bowl of a standing mixer equipped with a mixing paddle.

2) Put 1 whole large egg and 1 egg yolk into a glass beaker and beat the egg mixture together.

3) Turn on the mixer and set it at its lowest speed. Very—and this is important—slowly add small amounts of the beaten egg mixture into the flour. Patiently wait between each small pour to allow the mixer to incorporate the egg into the flour. From start to finish, the step of adding the egg mixture to form the dough takes me about 10 minutes, more or less.

You will probably not need to add all of the egg mixture to get the proper consistency for this particular pasta dough. On average I use approximately 58 to 59 grams of the egg mixture for 115 grams of Anson Mills’s soba flour. The dough should not come completely together in the mixer bowl and will look crumbly. I point this out because it is very easy to over-hydrate a buckwheat-rich pasta dough and a sticky dough can cause a mess when extruding a long, thin noodle like bigoli. Here’s a picture of the ready dough in my mixer bowl.

4) Remove the bowl from the mixer and reach into the bowl to bring the dough together with your hand. Form the dough into a log shape that will fit into the torchio’s chamber. The dough will look and feel dry, but don’t worry, it will soften as it hydrates in step 5, below. 

5) Very tightly wrap the dough log twice in plastic film and let the dough rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. Tightly wrapping the dough helps to hydrate the dough.

6) After 30 minutes, unwrap the dough, assemble your torchio with a bigoli die and place the dough in the torchio’s chamber.  Set the piston into the chamber and turn the handle. Cut the pasta at your desired length. (I aim for approximately 8-inch long noodles.) The extruded bigoli should feel just a little tacky, but not unworkably sticky.

Once cooked, this dark buckwheat bigoli boasts a pronounced toasty, almost nutty flavor. Many traditional Northern Italian recipes for buckwheat pasta (e.g., bigoli, blecs, grumi di grano saraceno and pizzoccheri) call for less buckwheat and include milk and butter in addition to eggs. These ingredients, although delicious, often mask buckwheat’s unique flavor.

If the idea of a buckwheat-extruded pasta appeals to you, feel free to try different buckwheat blends and torchio dies to create a pasta that has your desired taste and texture. I like making a buckwheat version of fiorentini (here). Or consider using a spaghetti quadri die (here) to create a square, soba-like noodle.

Finally, I cannot end this post in good conscience without providing this caveat: Extruding a dry dough will put stress on a torchio and, after extruding your pasta, you may find it difficult to remove the die ring nut by hand. I solve this problem by employing a rubber mallet to gently tap the die ring nut clockwise to loosen it.