My Long-Winding Zoodle Journey (Or Should I Get a Spiralizer)

Can zucchini noodles ever satisfy, or are they doomed to be a lame pasta substitute?

zoodles zucchini noodle zoodle
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Every summer is the same. As a food writer, we are constantly tracking food search queries, what recipes people are seeking, what kind of food is popular each season. And every summer is the same—what can I make with zucchini? What’s a good summer squash recipe? What about long and pointy carrots? The answer is always zoodles.

I’ve never had a zoodle. It’s not that I have an aversion to vegetables or dislike anything in the gourd family, but replacing pasta with a spiralized vegetable has never sat right with me. Can a vegetable really accomplish the same thing pasta does—that bouncy texture, the way sauce envelops and clings to starchy noodles, the genuine joy in each bite? Doubtful.

I figured this year is as good as any to find out. Instead of denouncing the zoodle without ever having tried it, I am ready to make my own zoodles, buy store-bought zoodles, and eat zoodles from a restaurant to see what all the fuss is about on low-carb food blogs. There must be a reason zoodles reemerge every summer, right?

The store-bought zoodle

Before I decide whether or not I want to buy a spiralizer, I figured I’d give store bought zoodles a go. If I ended up absolutely hating it, it’d be obvious that I’d have no use for a spiralizer. This could make for an extremely short story: “Zoodles? Hate them. Don’t buy a spiralizer.” 

Fresh zoodles

I picked up a pack of fresh zucchini noodles at Trader Joe’s, all curled in a plastic tub speckled with condensation. They looked crunchy enough and a bright, alluring green. My skepticism, however, remained.

But there’s a key to making great zoodles (a key most low-carb bloggers have already unlocked and have written about at length). Here’s the trick: If you want to cook zoodles, it’s crucial that you don’t salt them before or during the cooking process. Salting the zoodles extracts their moisture and leaves the strands limp and unappetizing, while also making your sauce watery. For once, in cooking, salt can’t save you. 

However, sauteeing the noodles in hot oil, a bit of garlic, chili flakes, and some tomato paste—and then salting to finish—creates a dish worth diving into. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I wholeheartedly enjoyed my fresh zoodles.

I tried it three different ways—just with oil and garlic, in a tomato sauce, and then in a cream-based sauce. And each time, the zoodles came out delicious. Are they as bouncy as actual pasta? Of course not. But are they a sneaky way to up your vegetable consumption and try something new? Yes. 

I can imagine so many possibilities here—zucchini noodle pasta salad, zucchini noodle stir fry, zucchini noodles in a chilled broth. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. 

Frozen zoodles

Look, I don’t live by the principle that fresh is best. I freeze bread, meat, cookies, whatever, and they’re usually just as good after defrosting—as long as they were wrapped properly. I adore my freezer and its ability to stop time and preserve almost everything.

But the frozen zoodle is wet and depressing, like a winter in London. It is clumpy. Sauce does not cling to it. You can not pull the strands of zoodles apart, really. Eating frozen zoodles is akin to eating a wad of wet cardboard, but maybe a little more nutritious. You can not save frozen zoodles.

The restaurant zoodle

After eating the store-bought grocery zoodles, I wanted to continue digging into my zoodle journey by trying zoodles made in a restaurant. This felt like the ultimate test: everything tastes better when someone else cooks it for you. Could this apply to zoodles, too?

I ordered zoodles in a pomodoro sauce, some meatballs, and garlic knots (which kind of defeated the purpose of ordering low-carb noodles, but it couldn’t be helped) from a local Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, Da Nonna Rosa, that just so happened to provide zoodles as a pasta alternative for a small additional fee. 

The restaurant’s name has the word nonna in it, and I wondered how the restaurant owner’s nonna feels about zucchini noodles. Do they approve? Do they know a restaurant in their name is supplying zucchini noodles instead of pasta? Is what I’m doing a blasphemous act? 

“To be honest with you, I know that sometimes, the real Italian nonnas, they do get picky with the food,” says Alex Wittman, one of the managers at Da Nonna Rosa, laughing. “I wouldn’t use this as a substitution for them.”

The zucchini noodles were added to the menu a year ago, an offering more for the gluten-free and vegan crowd in the neighborhood. “If a nonna wants to order zucchini, the zucchini sticks are more traditional,” Wittman says. “I wouldn’t go for [the zoodles] unless she’s a bit more on the lenient side.”

Regardless, whoever said zoodles are crap lied and the proof is in the pomodoro. Everything about the dish was so bright—fresh tomatoes, floral basil, the bite of garlic, and threads of both zucchini and yellow squash noodles. The zoodles actually maintained their shape and some texture, despite steaming in a takeout container hung on the handlebars of a bicycle.

It finally makes sense to me why the search query for zoodles appears every year; this is an idyllic summer meal. 

So should I get a spiralizer?

Here’s the thing. I think zoodles get a bad reputation because they are supposed to be replacements for noodles, which—let’s be real—they can never replicate the springiness of udon or twirl like spaghetti. 

The key to my own enjoyment was setting realistic expectations and imagining zoodle dishes as something different. The zucchini noodles in pomodoro sauce acted more like a refreshing summer stew, or a deconstructed ratatouille sans bell peppers. 

At Manhattan’s NoodleLove, zoodles are reimagined as cold noodle salads or stir frys. “It’s a great low-carb, healthy option without sacrificing our bold, exotic flavors,” explains NoodleLove founder Natalie Camerino. Customers at NoodleLove can opt to build their own bowls or salads, where their expectations can be readily met because they aren’t actually anticipating noodles. 

Instead of thinking of zoodles as a noodle replacement for yaki soba, the dish can just be appreciated as a sticky vegetable stir fry topped with pickled ginger and bonito flakes. Instead of pretending zoodles are soba, the dish can just be a cold, spiralized zucchini salad.

So while I’m not exactly ready to buy a spiralizer (I’m about to move back to my hometown of LA and consider this one less thing I have to drag across the country), I do see myself reaching for a box of zucchini noodles in the grocery store whenever I want a low-carb summer treat.

Zoodles, you’ve roped me in.

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Kat Thompson is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn