Asian Noodle Basics

Asian Noodle Basics

The Noodles

Supermarkets usually carry one or two kinds; Asian markets offer an overwhelming array. Here are the most common:

Rice Noodles, Sticks, and Vermicelli White, almost translucent noodles, made from rice flour. You can soak rather than cook all but the thickest rice noodles. Check them frequently: The thinnest will be ready in 3 to 5 minutes; the widest will take 15 to 20 or even 30 minutes to soften. The thick, wide types can be boiled to speed things up a bit, but again, check them often; most are tender in 5 to 10 minutes.

Soba Noodles Japanese in origin, these are made from a combination of buckwheat and wheat flour. With a nutty flavor and grayish color, they’re often served cold with a soy dipping sauce or in brothy soups. I like to add them to stir-fries too. Boil until tender, usually 5 minutes at most.

Udon Noodles Made from wheat flour, these chewy noodles are usually served in soups or stews, though you also see them served cold or in stir-fries. They range in thickness and length and should be boiled for 8 to 12 minutes. (Somen noodles are thinner and take much less time to get tender.)

Chinese Egg Noodles They’re long, thin, and golden in color, made from wheat flour and sold fresh or dried. And they cook quickly: Dried take 3 to 5 minutes in boiling water, depending on thickness, and fresh take as little as 1 minute.

Bean Threads They go by various names, including cellophane noodles and glass noodles. These are long and translucent and made from the starch found in mung beans. Soften them by soaking for 5 to 15 minutes, unless you’re using them in soup, in which case you can just toss them right in a few minutes before serving. In any case, you may want to use scissors to cut them up.

Cooking—or Soaking

Though you use the same equipment and similar technique, Asian noodles usually cook faster than Italian pastas, and rice and some other noodles require only soaking in boiling water to become tender. Like Italian pasta, you want them tender enough to eat but not at all mushy; check frequently, since the cooking times can vary wildly, even within the same type. When they’re underdone, they are still too stiff to eat; overdone, they clump together and start to disintegrate. Here’s how to get started:

1 Figure 2 to 4 ounces dried noodles per serving. Bring a stockpot of water to a boil and salt it. When the water comes to a boil, you have two choices:

  • For soaking (rice noodles, bean threads) Remove the pot from the heat and add the noodles (or put the noodles in a large bowl and add enough boiling water to cover). Stir to break them up with tongs or a big fork, then let them sit for a minute or two before you start checking. The thinnestnoodles will be soft in as little as 3 minutes; thicker noodles can take up to 10 to 15 minutes.
  • For boiling (all other noodles) Add the noodles to the boiling water as you would for pasta and stir them with tongs or a big fork to break them up. Start checking after 3 minutes.

2 Drain the noodles in a colander when they are just tender. (You want to rinse rice noodles in cold water to cool them quickly and rinse off the starch, or they’ll clump up in a terrible tangle.) If they seem too long and unwieldy, cut them up right in the colander with kitchen scissors. Use the noodles right away by dressing like salad or adding to soups or stir-fries. Or if the rest of the meal isn’t ready, submerge them in a bowl of cold water for up to an hour, then drain again.

The Eating

Regardless of which you begin with, Asian noodles become fairly interchangeable once you soak or boil them, and you can combine them with all sorts of ingredients.
Here are three super-easy ideas:

CUP OF NOODLE SOUP For a single-serving treat, put 1 cup softened noodles (about 3 ounces dried) in a bowl and add 2 cups steaming hot stock (vegetable, fish, chicken, and beef are all fine) or brewed green or black tea (for the adventurous). Chop up and add ½ small cucumber, ½ fresh hot chile, 2 or 3 scallions, and about ½ cup any cooked meat—or use any other ready-to-eat ingredients you have on hand. For fresh-tasting, crisp vegetables, eat the soup right away.

These are udon noodles.

STIR-FRY WITH NOODLES Cook or soak 8 to 12 ounces of any noodles. Reserve at least 1 cup of the boiling or soaking water when you drain the noodles. Add them to any stir-fry during the last moments of cooking (instead of serving the stir-fry on top of rice) and add just enough of the reserved liquid to help the ingredients come together and form a sauce. Taste and add more soy sauce, oil, and boiling or soaking water, just as you would season sauced pasta.

These are rice noodles.

FRIED NOODLES Cook or soak 8 to 12 ounces of any noodles and drain them well. Put 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in a large skillet over high heat. When it’s hot, spread the noodles in the pan in an even layer. Wait to stir until the noodles smell toasty, about 1 minute. After that, toss the noodles with a spatula until they’re brown and crisp in places. Adjust the heat as needed so they sputter but don’t burn. Transfer to a plate and top with chopped steamed vegetables; simply cooked meat; or just a splash of soy sauce and hot sauce.

These are bean threads.

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