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May 11, 2013 08:54 PM

Couscous, fregola, & other semolina products

Couscous and fregola are commonly referred to as pastas, but as I understood them to be made before writing this post, they're not. I'll explain:

- Pasta in the general sense consists of a ground flour and some liquid
- Couscous is made from husked and crushed, but unground, semolina of hard wheat using water to bind them (see Clifford Wright, a Mediterranean Feast)

If you agree with the above two statements, couscous is not a pasta.

Giuliani Bugialli's cookbooks (Foods of Sicily & Sardinia; Bugialli on Pasta) describe the technique for making fregola by hand. Couscous is spread on a platter and drizzled with a mixture of water, egg, salt, and saffron. The grains are rubbed until they absorb some amount of liquid, and then baked. They are cooled, and the process repeats a few times as the grains form little balls. My hat goes off to anyone who has successfully done this...

Given that couscous isn't a pasta, neither is fregola, which is made up of couscous.

The high price of fregola has always made me think it was because it was made in an industrialized variant of this traditional technique. Some google searches I just did are making me rethink that. There are recipes online that make fregola out of a regular pasta dough. Here's one that toasts pellets of extruded pasta dough . If that's what's being served and sold in the US as fregola, it's most definitely a pasta.

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  1. Most Italian dry pasta is made from 100% semolina.

    The Oxford Companion to Food distinguishes couscous from noodles because it's not kneaded. That means the gluten's not developed, which explains why it can be steamed without turning into a sticky clump.

    Here's a video showing the commercial process, it never comes together into a dough:

    Contrast that with the pasta-making process, where the semolina's made into a dough before going through the extruder (circa 1:30):

    So you're right, it's not really pasta. Italians classify fregula as pasta, but they shouldn't, since it's not made from dough (pasta). Interesting.

    8 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      Thanks for those videos. Cool stuff. The first video indicates that couscous is made from "semolina flour" as opposed to the crushed but unground semolina I cited above. I think that may because the couscous sold in the US is typically, labeled that way or not, "instant couscous." See and the replies.

      Your cite to the OCF made me thing about looking at Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking. He says that couscous is made from whole wheat flour that is rubbed. Because rubbing doesn't promote gluten development, he says the technique can be applied to other grains. Celiac sufferers take note!

      Also according to McGee, Israeli couscous is an extruded pasta invented in Israel in the 1950s. Assuming you need some gluten formation to get stuff through an extruder, at least that one is an actual pasta.

      Sidenote. Bugialli cites similar preparations to fregola in other regions of Italy: Manfregoli (Tuscany), Manfrigoli (Romagna), Fregoli (Trentino).

      1. re: hyperbowler

        Couscous and Italian commercial dry pasta di grano duro are both made from semolina.

        I believe "semolina flour" is a contradiction in terms. King Arthur and Bob's Red Mill use the term but what's in the bag is semolina. If you look at it with a magnifying glass you can see that the grain shattered in irregular shapes instead of being ground to an even powder.

        If there are fregula-like dishes in other regions I think they're really obscure. Sicilian cuscus is well known.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Now that you mention it, "semolina flour" is kind of a weird term.

          Flour or not, are couscous and Italian commercial dry pasta made from the semolina that's processed in the same way? Various cookbooks talk about using coarse vs. fine semolina, but it's difficult to find products labeled one way or the other.

          I think that, traditionally, pasta is made from fine semolina and couscous is made from coarse semolina. This is based upon the (1) the Wright quote above, (2) Bugialli saying that "throughout Italy, in places untouched by a medieval presence, I found the use of a hard wheat more coarsely ground than the usual Italian semolina. And this wheat is prepared with the same method of rubbing water into the coarse grain as is used for couscous." and (3) Ada Boni's "Italian Regional Cooking" couscous recipe which describes making it from coarse semolina or a mixture of coarse and fine semolina.

          Whether modern/industrialized techniques use the same grain size of semolina, I have no idea.

          1. re: hyperbowler

            I've never seen a choice of semolina in the US and I don't believe I ever did in Italy, though Googling around I see that for the wholesale market they produce fine, medium, and large:


            It might all come from the same process and just be sieved to get the different sizes.

      2. re: Robert Lauriston

        >>Italians classify fregula as pasta, but they shouldn't, since it's not made from dough (pasta). <<

        And are you going to be the one to tell the Italians what they should call pasta and what they shouldn't? Gnocchi di patate, canederli, culingiones, and others may not be pasta by the strictest definition, but they are functionally and morally pasta, and these are hairs the Italians do not split.

        >>semolina flour<<
        is not so much contradictory as redundant. Semolino (which is Italian for semolina, go figure) is merely flour of grano duro ground somewhat more coarsely than what is called farina.

        Most of the fregula sold today is merely chopped up spaghetti. Manfricoli and similar pastas are also made of cut dough, and so are not really like real fregula.

        Traditionally made fregula, which is hard to find even in Sardinia, is made thus from durum wheat flour and water with sometimes saffron for color: "Water is sprinkled, a little at a time, over the flour, which is stirred with a rotary movement until tiny balls no bigger than a peppercorn form. The fregula is gradually sifted from the rest of the flour and left to dry in the sun on a special sieve made of horsehair and covered with a dish towel. When dry, it is cooked in broth." (From Oretta Zanini De Vita, Encyclopedia of Pasta, trans by moi.)

        Look for irregular shapes. The chopped spaghetti is quite regular and easy to spot.

        Italian cuscus (spelled thus in Italy) is also made of durum flour and water: "Large-grained semola is put into a special terracotta bowl, known as a mafaradda in Sicily. The grains are sprinkled with lightly salted water while fingers work the mixture in a rotary movement to form tiny lumps, in an operation called incocciata.The little lumps are spread to dry on a dish towel." (same source)

        1. re: mbfant

          In Italy, semolino is a hot breakfast cereal like cream of wheat (which is sometimes called semolina in the US). "Semolina" is the crushed (not ground) hard durum wheat used to make spaghetti etc.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            The word "semolina" is not in my Zingarelli. Semolino, which is often added to soups and is similar to Cream of Wheat™, is coarsely ground grano duro. Semola di grano duro, which is the same thing, possibly ground finer (rimacinata), is used for pasta. This is also called semolino. Since this is a subject of great importance to me, if I am mistaken, I would be obliged to know your sources. I have never seen an Italian eat breakfast cereal, though cornflakes are widely available and advertised on television (and the word cornflakes seems to have become a generic term to indicate cold cereal, with or without corn).

            1. re: mbfant

              Oh yeah, I guess in Italy they call the stuff you make couscous with semola. Here's the Italian version of the page I linked to above:


              The stuff I'm talking about is not flour, you can see the irregular shards with a magnifying class.

              I've never seen an Italian eat breakfast hot or cold cereal either, but I saw both in supermarkets in Italy and advertised on TV.