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Adventures in Homemade Ramen

I figured out how to make ramen noodles at home during the Bay Area shelter-in-place. We started making a lot of noodles as soon as our son’s school was closed due to COVID-19. We figured it would be a good way to do some teaching beyond the usual distance learning lessons provided by his elementary school. Our noodle-making pretty quickly progressed from fettucine-style noodles to ramen once I got my hands on a few key ingredients.

Noodle Science!

Dan inspecting noodles

The most important thing to know about making ramen noodles is that they are alkali noodles, not egg noodles. So, really the most important ingredient to have on hand is sodium carbonate (Na2CO3). Ironically, although roughly 0% of household kitchens stock sodium carbonate, approximately 100% of household kitchens have sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3), also known as baking soda. To be honest, I have always found the name bicarbonate confusing. It turns out the name is based on an outdated nomenclature system, and has to do with the fact that there is twice as much carbonate per sodium ion in sodium bicarbonate relative to sodium carbonate (the sodium bicarbonate article link references Wikipedia, of all places!). Sodium carb is a significantly stronger base than sodium bicarb because both of its sodium ions will dissociate when dissolved in water, ultimately generating more hydroxide anion (via the water) than sodium bicarb can. Parenthetically, the word sodium derives from the (older) English word soda, so if you’ve ever wondered, Why is it called baking soda?, you should remind yourself of the linguistic connection between sodium and soda.

How do you get ahold of sodium carb? Turns out you can easily make it yourself by heating sodium bicarb at 250°F for about an hour. Some recipes say to heat at 350°F; apparently, it’s not too picky of a reaction. The heating results in a decomposition reaction where the sodium bicarb ends up releasing water (as steam) and carbon dioxide. I watched someone do this on a stovetop in a video I found online, and you can actually see the dry white powder bubbling as it releases gas, which looks pretty cool, but I opted for the oven method for temperature stability purposes. To ensure you’ve heated it long enough, you should weigh your powder before and after heating, and should expect to see a weight loss of about one-third of the starting weight.

What do you need to make good ramen noodles?

  1. bread flour – all-purpose flour also works, but it has less wheat protein, so you’ll need to supplement with more of ingredient #2.
  2. vital wheat gluten – this helps make the noodles springier
  3. sodium carb – this affects the structure of wheat gluten, enhancing springiness; gives the noodles their yellow-brown color; affects taste
  4. salt
  5. water

You’ll also want a KitchenAid mixer; the pasta maker attachment to the KitchenAid mixer helps a lot – it would be really difficult to sufficiently flatten the stiff – and I mean stiff – dough by hand. I followed this recipe very closely, so I won’t belabor all the detailed points. The only modification I made was to use about 20% less sodium carb than the recipe called for, since a reader commented that they thought the noodles tasted a bit too alkaline, and I really did not want our son to have a bad first experience with homemade ramen.

Anyway, that’s enough written description of these noodles – they were great on the first try, even better on the second try. Our son put it best when he excitedly said, upon first trying the ramen, “These noodles taste just like the ramen from Healdsburg!”, referring to one of our favorite ramen shops there, The Taste of Tea. I couldn't have asked for a better compliment!