How to Soak and Use Rice Noodles
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East Asian cooking, especially the cuisine of southeast Asia, uses a lot of rice noodles. They are served hot, cold, in soups, in salads and rolled up into spring rolls. Their lightness and chewy texture make rice noodles a pleasant change from heavier wheat noodles. Only thing is, many of us don't have a clue how to soak them properly. Perhaps I can help.
To start with, let's talk about the different forms rice noodles can take.
Types and Names of Rice Noodles
Rice noodles begin as a pasty mixture of rice flour and water. The batter is spread over a flat surface and steamed. When the batter is cooked through, it is either cut and sold fresh, or air dried on bamboo mats.
Dried rice noodles can be clear or white, but when they are cooked they turn white and have a distinctive chewiness.
If you are looking at a menu, the following terms will tip you off to dishes that use rice noodles:
- Mandarin: fen
- Cantonese: fun
- Vietnamese: bánh, bún
- Tagalog (Philippines): pancit
- Malay: bihon, mi
- Thai: sen, mee
- Indonesian: mie
Noodles can be cut into many forms: vermicelli (rice sticks), thick spaghetti-like strands, fat fettucine strips, or even thicker folded sheets.
Now on to how to soak them. Two often recommended methods are simply all wrong.
How Not to Soak Rice Noodles
The first bad recommendation is to soak the noodles in cold water. Many noodle packages themselves give this direction. No way, José! This just takes way too long and doesn't contribute at all to a better texture.
The second faulty method is to boil the noodles. Yikes! You'll end up with a goopy, gloppy mess.
The best method is a gentle soak in very hot water. Dried noodles require a slightly different treatment than fresh. Here's how to do it for both types.
How to Soak Dried Rice Noodles
For Thin Noodles: put the noodles into a bowl and pour boiling water over them to cover. Soak the noodles for 1 to 5 minutes, or until they are soft. Test a noodle or two until they are soaked to your liking. Drain, refresh with cool water and drain again. Set the noodles aside and use as directed in recipes.
For Thicker Noodles: Bring a big pot of water to a boil. Stir in the noodles for about 30 seconds, then remove the pot from heat. Let the noodles soak for 8 to 10 minutes, or until they are soft and no hard center remains. Drain, refresh with cool water and drain again. Set the noodles aside and use as directed in recipes.
How to Use Fresh Rice Noodles
No soaking is necessary for fresh rice noodles. Just blanch the noodles briefly — 1 to 2 minutes — in boiling water to soften them. Then drain them, refresh with cool water and drain again.
There are fresh Vietnamese-style rice noodles that are really more like sheets, and they don't need any soaking. Just cut them into pieces and use them in stir fries and other dishes.
After they sit for a day or so, these noodles can become hard and difficult to work with. Just wrap them in plastic wrap and microwave long enough to warm and soften them, about 15 to 30 seconds.
Other Types of Noodles
Two other types of noodles popular in Asia — mung bean (bean thread, glass noodles) and potato starch noodles — can be treated in the same way as rice noodles.
I hope that clears it up for some people. I know it took me years of doing it the wrong way to finally get it right. Now my rice noodles come out tender yet firm every time!