If you've been following along for any length of time, you probably know I've been working on concocting the perfect bowl of ramen for quite some time. With the soup improving with each batch I made, I was starting to feel like the store-bought noodles were the weak link holding the entire bowl of ramen back. It was time to tackle the noodles, but given the decade of trial-and-error it took to get the soup right, I figured I was in for another dozen years of experimentation before I'd turn out a decent batch of noodles.
Part of the problem is that there isn't much information out there in English on making ramen noodes. Even in Japan, noodle making is a closely guarded secret and you don't see ramen shops parading around their recipes on the web. From the information I was able to glean, I knew that the noodles are made with wheat flour, and get their yellow color and distinctly firm texture from the addition of kansui. I also knew that they're traditionally hand pulled, which means the dough has a higher water content than noodles you'd roll and cut.
Since noodles get their texture from the proteins in the wheat forming elastic chains of gluten, I decided to use bread flour, which typically contains 12-14% protein (higher than all-purpose flour). I also knew that learning how to hand pull noodles as fine as ramen was a skill that would take far longer to master than I, or many of my readers would have patience for, so I decided to make a dryer dough that could be rolled and cut using a pasta maker.
Here's an account of my learnings batch by batch:
Batch #1: I made this with 2 cups bread flour, 2/3 C water and 1/2 teaspoon of liquid kansui. Everything went into a mixer with a dough hook until the dough came together. Then I formed it into two squares, wrapped and refrigerated one, and rolled out the other. I rolled it out to setting #5 of on the pasta maker and cut it using the spaghetti attachement, then boiled the noodles for 1 1/2 minutes. This batch had a couple of problems. The dough was a bit tacky, so even after being dusted with flour, the noodles stuck together in pairs of two and had to be hand separated. I'd also rolled it out too thin and by the time the noodles were in the ramen, they were soggy. The dough also lacked the lustrous yellow color I was looking for.
Batch #2: After resting in the fridge overnight, I took the other half of the first batch and rolled it out, this time only to setting #3. It was still sticking together, but the noodles had a nice firm texture when cooked.
Batch #3: For this batch, I used 2 cups of bread flour, reduced the water to 1/2 cup and increased the kansui to 1 teaspoon. As soon as I added the water/kansui mixture I knew this batch was going to be better, as the flour immediately turned a bright golden yellow. I let the mixer run for 10 minutes this time and the mixer bowl was full of golden yellow nuggets. I was worried I hadn't added enough water, but with a little hand kneading it came togehter into a ball, and let this rest overnight in the fridge. The next day, I cut the dough in half, rolled it out to setting #3 and cut it with the spaghetti attachment as before. This time the noodles didn't stick together, and I reduced the boiling time to just over a minute. The noodles were extremely firm (almost too firm), but by the time I had the soup and all the toppings on the ramen, they were the perfect texture and stayed that way until the last drop of soup was gone. Success!
If you're wondering what kansui is, it's the ingredient that makes all the magic happen. The story goes that the unique noodles produced around lake Kan in Inner-Mongolia were attributed to the water from the lake. Modern science has since revealed that the lake is highly alkaline, which is what gives the noodles their unique texture and color. You can now buy factory produced "kansui" (lake kan water) either in powdered or liquid form. I used a brand called Koon Chun which labels their product as Potassium Carbonate Sodium Bi-Carbonate.
If you're looking for a more scientific explanation behind how kansui works, here's what Dr. Kantha Shelke, Scientist at Corvus Blue LLC, a Chicago-based food and nutrition research firm has to say:
Science Behind the Noodle
Kansui is a mixture of sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate which form an alkaline solution (pH ~9) when mixed with water. Wheat flour contains a number of compounds called flavones and trans-ferulic acid which are bound to starch and therefore colorless or white. The addition of an alkaline solution to wheat flour changes the pH of the mixture which in turn detaches these flavones (specifically apigenin glycosides) and trans-ferulic acid from starch and allows their natural yellow color to manifest.
Another reason for the addition of kansui is to toughen the protein in wheat flour so that the resulting noodles are firmer, more elastic and springy texture and less sticky when cooked. The addition of Kansui allows the use of lower protein (and therefore less expensive) wheat flour to make noodles with the quality one would expect of noodles made with superior quality flour with higher protein levels.
I know this isn't a typical post since you don't end up with a finished dish, but I really wanted to write a comprehensive post on making ramen noodles from scratch. Here are some recipes for ramen and ramyeon that you can use these noodles for:
Kimchi Ramyeon (Korean style ramen)
makes enough noodles for 4 bowls
- Put the flour in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix the water and kansui together, then add the mixture to the flour. The flour should immediately start turning yellow. If it doesn't, it's possible your kansui is less concentrated than the one I used, in which case, you will need to experiment to figure out the right amount to add.
- Give the mixture a quick stir with a fork or chopsticks to combine everything then attach the bowl to your mixer and run on medium high speed for 10 minutes. It's a dry dough so it will look like a bunch of gravel at this point. Use your hands to divide it in two and press together into two balls.
- Flatten each ball out on a flat surface, and run it through the largest setting of your pasta roller a few times, folding it in half each time. The dough will be ragged the first few runs though but will smooth out. When it starts rolling out smoother, fold it up into a square and wrap with plastic wrap and store it in the fridge overnight.
- When you're ready to cook it, prepare a large pot of boiling salted water. Each ball will make enough for 2 bowls of ramen, so figure out how much you need. Flour the dough generously and roll it out to the 3 setting on your pasta roller. Cut the dough in half so you have two sheets of dough a little over 1 foot long and flour generously again.
- Use the spagetti attachment to cut the pasta into long thin noodles, dusting them with flour as they are cut to keep them from sticking together.
- Boil the noodles until they are slightly firmer than the final consistency you want, since they will continue cooking after you remove them from the water. I usually let them boil for about one minute.