Getting to Know: Noodles
Fifty years ago, a plate of spaghetti constituted ethnic cuisine. Nowadays, Americans are getting to know noodles from all over the planet. How lucky are we?
Dried Italian Pasta
Cook dried pasta in plenty of salted water: Use 4 quarts of water and 1 tablespoon of salt per pound of pasta. Don’t add oil, and don’t rinse the pasta after you’ve drained it, but do save some of the starchy cooking water to thin your sauce.
Fresh Italian Pasta
Fresh pasta (made from a softer wheat than dried) is sold refrigerated in most supermarkets. It cooks faster than dried—in three to five minutes, depending on its shape. If you’re willing to invest a little time, homemade pasta is unbeatable. All you need is flour, salt, and eggs—and a little time. A pasta machine expedites the process, but a rolling pin works, too.
A lot of what’s sold as “wheat” pasta is actually a blend containing little whole grain. (Our favorite, Bionaturae Spaghetti, is 100 percent whole durum wheat.) Nutty and hearty, whole-wheat pasta is firmer than ordinary pasta, and it takes a few extra minutes to cook. It’s best with thick sauces and robust flavors like pancetta, mushrooms, and strong cheese.
Egg noodles contain up to 20 percent eggs, so it’s not surprising that our tasters found them “eggy.” They can be wide or narrow and are usually cut into short ribbons. Our favorite product is Light ’n Fluffy Wide Egg Noodles. Serve them in soup or bake them into a tuna-noodle casserole.
In Italy, gnocchi are any dumplings, but Americans are most familiar with those made from flour, mashed potato, and sometimes egg. Our top supermarket pick is Gia Russa Gnocchi with Potato, which is a shelf-stable product; we like it better than frozen or refrigerated. Boil gnocchi in salted water until they float to the surface (about four minutes), drain, and serve with sauce or bake with cheese.
In Japan, “ramen” refers to a whole category of brothy noodle dishes. But many Americans know only cheap, convenient instant ramen: cellophane-wrapped blocks of curly noodles with seasoning. Ramen is deep-fried before being dried, so it cooks in minutes. To upgrade instant ramen, ditch the MSG-spiked seasoning packet; cook the noodles in broth; and top with meat, tofu, or a fried egg.
Though it is often mistaken for a grain, couscous is, in fact, pasta made of durum semolina, just like the Italian stuff. Most cooks use instant couscous rehydrated with boiling water. After five minutes and a quick fluff, it’s ready to eat. We improve on the basic method by first toasting the grains in butter and then steeping them in a mix of broth and water; use a 1:1 ratio of couscous to liquid.
Buckwheat flour accounts for the dark color of these Japanese noodles, which contain at least 30 percent buckwheat. Soba made with 100 percent buckwheat looks even darker and tastes “smoky,” and “mushroomy,” our tasters said. In Japan, soba is served hot in broth or, come summer, chilled with a dipping sauce. If you’re eating cold noodles, toss them with a little oil to prevent sticking.
Udon are fat, chewy noodles made of wheat flour that are sold dried or semi-dried. They can contain a lot of sodium, so don’t salt their cooking water. In Japan, udon are often served in miso broth, a dish replicated at many an American noodle bar. Udon are starchy and “sweet” and stand up well to rich, savory sauces. Boil for 10 to 12 minutes, drain, and rinse under cold water.
These translucent, delicate-looking threads, made from mung bean starch, are also called cellophane or glass noodles. Their neutral taste (a taster likened them to “slippery air”) is a virtue: They pick up flavor from whatever they’re added to, be it hot pots, stir-fries, soups, or even sweet drinks and desserts. Soak dry bean threads in hot water for 20 minutes and drain before using.
These sheets of fresh egg pasta are the wrappers for wontons. Look for them in the refrigerated section of the supermarket, near the tofu. After filling the wrapper, moisten its edges for a tight seal and then boil, steam, or fry to make potstickers, shu mai, and, of course, wontons for soup. To keep the sheets from drying out, cover the stack with a damp towel while working with them.
These translucent noodles are made from water and rice powder. To maintain their chew, we soak them in hot water rather than boiling them. (The soaking time depends on the noodles’ thickness.) For stir-fries, add soaked, drained noodles to a hot pan with the other ingredients and cook, tossing often. Rice noodles feature in pad thai, pho, and hundreds of other Asian dishes.