Lucky Peach ramen noodles
It would be hard to read the first issue of Lucky Peach and not come away with an increased appreciation – and appetite – for ramen noodles. From the instant noodles that students subsist on to the most obsessively produced restaurant ramen in Japan, the magazine lovingly explores every aspect of this bright star in the noodle constellation.
And not just as inaccessible food porn, either: although they do discuss a dozen or more Japanese ramen shops that you’ll never get to (and neither will I), the magazine’s authors also fully equip you to make your own ramen at home.
The first key to ramen is, naturally, the noodles. If you’ve made fresh Italian pasta before, then you know how much better it can be than dried noodles. While Italian pasta is defined by the inclusion of eggs, ramen is defined by the inclusion of an alkaline salt.
Alkalis are the opposite of acids; the most common one you see in the western European kitchen is baking soda. Calcium hydroxide is used in extensively in Mexican cooking to make nixtamal. And in East Asia, sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate are used in some noodle doughs. These ingredients affect the behaviour of the flour, making the noodles chewier and less prone to dissolving in broth, as well as giving them a yellow colour and distinctly eggy flavour.
So where do you get sodium carbonate? You make it, by heating sodium bicarbonate (that’s baking soda) at 250°F for an hour. The baking soda gives off water vapour and carbon dioxide, and leaves sodium carbonate behind. Once you’ve done this, you can make all the ramen noodles you like, which is just what I did. (The potassium carbonate isn’t strictly necessary.)
The recipe for alkaline noodles in Lucky Peach says that it’s a tough dough to work with, because there’s so little water relative to flour. Personally, I prefer working with these low-hydration doughs, because they stick to my hands less, and I didn’t find this one unusually difficult to handle. And although it takes a couple of hours to make the noodles, half of that time is spent sitting around waiting for the dough to rest, so it’s a fairly easy weekend project, and the flavour is worth it. What I would change next time is the thickness of the noodles. I rolled them to number 7 on my pasta machine, and thought the result was a bit too thin; they stuck together after cooking, though they loosened again in the broth. OK, it didn’t help that I probably overcooked them, too.
You can read more about cooking with alkalis in Harold McGee’s Curious Cook column. And if you haven’t yet bought a copy of the first issue of Lucky Peach (or you’ve lent yours to your friends), he even provides a similar recipe for alkaline noodles.