It may come as a surprise to some people that noodles, not broth, define a bowl of ramen. For a bowl of noodle soup to be ramen, it must contain alkaline, wheat-based noodles—everything else is meant to elevate that one key component, either serving as a complement (the soup, the aroma oil) or a foil (crunchy pickled bamboo, bland blanched spinach, a meltingly soft—or pleasantly chewy!—bit of pork).
This may seem a little odd to those accustomed to eating packaged ramen, since the dehydrated noodles in those packages rarely have much flavor or character of their own, and usually serve as little more than a vehicle to transfer inordinate amounts of salt from bowl to body. But if you've frequented superior ramen shops in Japan and elsewhere, including the United States, the idea of a noodle worth crafting a bowl around should make sense.
The noodles are also the only true constant in the vast and varied world of ramen. While the soup might be clear or milky, thick like sludge or light as a curative broth (and there may be, as in abura soba and hiyashi chuka, no broth at all), and the seasoning can be anything as long as it's sufficiently salty—miso, salt, soy sauce, dehydrated, powdered country ham, say—and the application of toppings can vary from restrained and refined to grossly overabundant, the one thing that never changes in a bowl of ramen is that noodles made from wheat and an alkaline salt solution are always present.
In the past, we've advised home cooks to simply buy noodles from ramen producers; Sun Noodle, the now seemingly ubiquitous supplier of many ramen spots nationwide, sells its noodles at Whole Foods and other locations all over the country—they have a handy tool on their website that shows you where to buy their products, which are very good. If you have a favorite ramen spot, you can ask them (nicely!) if they'd be willing to sell you some noodles, and it's pretty likely they'll oblige. Or, as Daniel wrote several years back, there's a method for "ramenizing" dried pasta, which is an imperfect but passable option for those who really have no other way to procure fresh ramen.
If you want the very best noodles, your best bet is to buy from a noodle manufacturer, like Sun Noodle or Shimamoto Noodle. The machinery they have at their disposal, as well as their expertise, cannot be matched by a home cook with a pasta machine. But for those home cooks who want to explore the wide world of alkaline noodles, we've come up with a basic recipe that is relatively simple to make and uses fairly common ingredients and equipment.
If there's any goal to this recipe, it's to show that making alkaline noodles at home isn't only possible, but also rewarding. If you're interested in experimenting further, we've included the formula for each noodle portion, and after you've made the recipe a couple of times and familiarized yourself with the process, you can alter the ingredient amounts incrementally, which will give you a better understanding of how even small changes in ingredient quantities can profoundly affect the noodles you ultimately produce.
Here's an example of how sensitive noodles are to minor adjustments in formula: You can make this exact same recipe with just one additional gram of water more per serving, and the resulting noodle will still be great to eat, but have a less chewy bite and a slightly more slippery texture. My wife, who helped consume all of the noodles made during these experiments, actually preferred the 41% hydration noodle, and you may prefer it, too.
Beyond changing the ratios of ingredients, you can also experiment with flour types, custom flour blends, and using different alkaline salts, all of which will give you a better idea of the complex interactions that produce such a wide variety of noodles from the very limited basic ingredient list of flour, salts, and water.
What Is Ramen?
Ramen noodles are wheat-based, and the dough will typically include an alkaline salt or two in the form of kansui, which means, basically, "alkaline water" or "lye water." Most noodle manufacturers use a kansui powder that's made up of a specific ratio of potassium carbonate and sodium carbonate, which they dissolve into the water component of their dough recipe to form an alkaline solution.
"Ramen," which is essentially a Japanese way of pronouncing lamian, was, for a long time, referred to as chuka soba or, more controversially, shinasoba, both of which directly translate to "Chinese noodles," although the latter is considered offensive by many Chinese. The word "ramen" refers to both the noodles and the dish, so while it may be tempting to say "ramen noodles," it is also redundant, a little like saying "naan bread" or "chai tea" (although because we are all slaves to the great god of Google, you will likely see "ramen noodles" in either the title of this page or in its metadata).
The noodles' alkalinity is what gives ramen that distinctive slippery quality, and contributes to the glossiness of the noodles' exterior, both of which are also phenomena evident in dried pasta noodles that undergo the so-called "ramenization" process. But the alkaline salts also contribute a specific flavor, produced by the interaction with the wheat, familiar to anyone who has eaten any ramen of any kind.
Ramen come in a wide variety of shapes, thicknesses, lengths, and styles. There are, for example, the relatively thin, straight, and short noodles popular in Hakata-style tonkotsu shops (this is the kind of noodle the massive chain Ippudo employs in most of their bowls); on the other end of the spectrum are the very long, relatively thick, super curly noodles popular in Kitakata. And while many people think that ramen is typically yellow, the noodles don't necessarily have to be yellow (often, that pigment is due to the addition of food coloring, riboflavin, or egg yolk); the alkaline salts will react with some types of wheat in a way that produces a slight yellow tinge, but, as you can see in the photos of this recipe, no such color change is guaranteed.
As I went about tinkering with this recipe, I relied on a wide variety of sources, but I received an inordinate amount of guidance and help from three people: Mike Satinover, a.k.a. /u/Ramen_Lord, who is now writing a must-read ramen column for The Takeout; Keizo Shimamoto, the man behind Ramen Shack (one of our best cheap eats spots in NYC) and Shimamoto Noodle; and Kenshiro Uki, the vice president of operations for Sun Noodle.
Key Ingredients for Making Ramen at Home
Sodium Carbonate, or Baked Baking Soda
The hardest ingredient to find in ramen's extremely brief ingredient list—water, flour, alkaline salt—is the alkaline salt. If you have access to a large Chinese or Asian supermarket, it's very likely that you'll be able to find a kansui solution with a mixture of the two alkaline salts on its shelves, sold under the Koon Chun brand. But, because we wanted this recipe to be doable for as many home cooks as possible, we decided to forego the premixed kansui solution for an ingredient that is a little more accessible.
Almost 10 years ago, Harold McGee published an article in the New York Times about transforming baking soda—sodium bicarbonate—into sodium carbonate, simply by baking it in a moderately hot oven. Since baking soda is widely available, and the process for baking it is relatively straightforward, we decided to use baked baking soda as the alkaline salt in our recipe.
I tested the process McGee suggests in that article, but I found it a little wanting. I preheated an oven to 250°F, dumped about two pounds (920g) of baking soda onto a sheet pan, spread it out in an even layer, and measured the weight every 30 minutes. McGee says that in an hour, the baking soda will be sufficiently baked, and should weigh about a third less than its starting weight; in my case, this meant the target end weight was around 613g. After an hour, the baking soda in the pan weighed 899g; after an hour and a half, it weighed 881g. At that point, I upped the oven temperature to 350°F, and an hour later, the weight had dropped to 791g; two hours later, it was at 657g.
What you're tracking here is the loss of water and carbon dioxide as heat transforms the sodium bicarbonate into sodium carbonate. The problem is that the speed of the process is dependent on the surface area of the material involved, and since McGee didn't give any instruction about how much baking soda to use or how large a pan to bake it in, his estimated timing doesn't mean all that much. I've written up a more definitive process, one that explicitly calls for weighing the sodium bicarbonate at the beginning and comparing it to the weight of the sodium carbonate in the end, ensuring that the final weight is two-thirds that of the starting weight. This way, you can use it for whatever quantity of baking soda is convenient for you, whether that's a half pound or 10; the only thing that will change is the time it takes, although it should generally take between one and three hours.
Once your baked baking soda has cooled, transfer it to an airtight container, and try to avoid touching it with exposed skin, as it is a caustic substance and, as such, an irritant.
Bread Flour and Vital Wheat Gluten
All of my successful experiments with making ramen at home have heavily relied on Satinover's recipes from /r/ramen, the ramen subreddit (located on the sidebar), and while he has since become focused on experimenting with flour blends, his early recipes all make a strong case for using King Arthur brand bread flour, and supplementing it with a small amount of vital wheat gluten. Bread flour, unlike all-purpose flour, is typically made from protein-rich hard wheat (all-purpose is a blend of soft and hard wheat flours), since higher protein content in the flour encourages better gluten development, which in turn translates into chewier breads. King Arthur bread flour is 12.7% protein, a percentage point higher than other commonly available bread flours on the market, and its availability and formula made it ideal for recipe development.
The chewiness you look for in bread is similar to the chewiness you're looking for in a noodle dough, but, as Satinover notes, ramen typically requires an even higher protein content than bread, which means turning to a supplemental source of protein: vital wheat gluten. Vital wheat gluten is simply a powdered form of wheat gluten, the substance you're left with if you wash a wheat-flour dough with water until all the starch is removed—what many will be familiar with as seitan. You can find packages of vital wheat gluten at most supermarkets, health food stores, and chains like Whole Foods—Bob's Red Mill displays will almost definitely have it.
By mixing high-protein bread flour with a small amount of vital wheat gluten, you can up the percentage of protein in your ramen-flour mix to about 16%, which will translate into a much chewier noodle.
Water: How Much Is Enough?
One of the aspects of ramen that distinguish it from other noodles is its relatively low water content, which is often described in baker's percentages (i.e., the amount of any other dough ingredient is expressed as a percentage of the total flour mass). Many types of ramen have hydration levels that hover around 35%, meaning that for every 100g of flour, 35g of water are added. Any seasoned baker will tell you, just by looking at that figure, that the combination wouldn't really produce a dough, per se, but something that resembles a bunch of crumbly, damp flour. (As a comparison, bread doughs on the drier side have a hydration of about 60%.)
The problem this level of hydration presents for home cooks is that it doesn't produce a very workable dough. To get some insight into noodle formulations and how manufacturers process ramen dough, I asked Shimamoto for a tour of his noodle-making facility, a request he generously granted, and he also let me look over his noodle recipes.
Noodle manufacturers don't have an issue with producing a workable dough at lower hydration levels because ramen isn't produced in the same way one would make, say, fresh pasta: There is no initial kneading step, and all the gluten development happens in the rolling process, wherein the dough is folded over and over itself. Ramen manufacturers rely on the incredible pressure that can be exerted by the rollers on their ramen-specific machines to make those damp clumps of flour stick together and eventually form sheets of dough.
With a ramen machine, a set quantity of flour is placed in a hopper, and, as spindles rotate and keep the flour in motion, a set quantity of kansui solution is added in a gradual stream. After a while, the flour-kansui mixture takes on a pebbly aspect, at which point the spindles are stopped and the mixture is allowed to rest for a while, allowing the flour to more fully absorb the liquid. The hopper is then elevated so that the mixture can be shoveled into a set of heavy rollers, which flatten it into a sheet of dough. That sheet is then folded and run through rollers several times, which makes up the entire kneading process. The kneaded dough is allowed to rest for a small amount of time (at least 30 minutes), giving the gluten that has formed in the dough time to relax, after which it is rolled to its final thickness, cut, and packaged.
Looking over Shimamoto's noodle recipe book, the vast majority of noodles had hydration levels below 40%, and the ones with more water in them typically had a higher percentage of kansui added to the mix, a trend that is reflected in Satinover's recipes. There are a number of reasons for this, including the way that kansui contributes to the flavor of the noodles, but Satinover said to me that it is primarily to keep the pH level of the dough sufficiently alkaline to affect the noodles' taste and texture.
In the past, I have had severe difficulties when working with lower-hydration doughs—both in handling the dough and in running it through my standard-issue pasta roller—so I decided to experiment only with doughs with 39% hydration or higher. Suffice it to say, the fundamental difference between this noodle recipe and many of the noodles you'll eat at ramen places is that these are slightly wetter, and therefore less dense and a bit more elastic.
The Base Formula
After a lot of messing with ratios, I settled on the following formula per portion of dough:
- 99g King Arthur bread flour
- 1g vital wheat gluten
- 1g kosher salt
- 1.5g baked baking soda
- 40g water
Note that because there is 40g of water for a total of 100g of flour (the flour and vital wheat gluten combined), this dough has a 40% hydration. This can be scaled up to however many portions you require; each portion will produce a serving of approximately 130g of noodles. Of course, given the amount of labor and specialty ingredients required here, you'll probably want to make several portions at a time.
Essential Tools for Making Ramen at Home
Before we get into the actual process, there are a few tools that are absolutely necessary for making ramen (the noodles) at home.
The first is a digital scale that can accurately measure gram quantities. Small deviations in ingredient quantities will have profound effects on the noodle you produce, so using an accurate scale is absolutely imperative. I have listed the ingredient quantities solely in grams, so there's no way to try to fudge your way around this requirement.
The second is a pasta roller or a pasta rolling attachment for a stand mixer. You will not be able to make this recipe without a pasta roller of some kind; if you do not have a pasta cutter, you can still cut the noodles by hand, but it will be impossible to roll out and knead this dough by hand. The quality of your pasta roller is also somewhat important: I did much of the testing for this recipe at home, where I have a Marcato Atlas roller, which works fine, but when I used the Imperia roller in the Serious Eats test kitchen, the process was much, much easier. That said, the actual noodles were basically indistinguishable from one another. (You can find our favorite tools for making, cooking, and serving pasta right here.)
Finally, you will need either a food processor or a stand mixer to mix the dough. Either works fine, but if you want to scale the recipe up past four portions of noodles, a stand mixer is better equipped to handle larger batches.
Aside from those essentials, a rolling pin (of any kind) helps, as does a bench scraper, but they aren't strictly necessary.
How to Make Ramen (Noodles)
Mixing the Ramen Dough
After I weigh out all the ingredients, I combine the vital wheat gluten and the bread flour in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, and start mixing on low speed to fully distribute the vital wheat gluten.
While that's happening, I add the baked baking soda to the water, stirring to dissolve (this can take up to a minute). When the baked baking soda is completely dissolved, I add kosher salt to the liquid, again stirring to dissolve. (This two-step process may seem needlessly onerous, but it takes far longer to dissolve both the baked baking soda and the salt combined than it does to dissolve them separately.)
With the machine running, I add the salt solution to the flour mixture, one-third at a time, allowing each addition to fully incorporate before adding more. After all the liquid has been added, I let the machine run for a minute to ensure that it's well mixed. I pull the mixer bowl out and cover it with plastic wrap, letting it rest for at least 30 minutes and up to an hour.
Sheeting the Ramen Dough
Before we get into sheeting the dough, I want to warn you: I have broken two pasta machines, neither of which was cheap, making ramen dough in the past. In the process of developing this recipe and method, I ended up wounding my current pasta roller badly, if not fatally. The process I devised is designed to lessen the risk that you'll screw up your pasta rollers, and as long as you're careful, your pasta roller should be totally fine, but you will want to follow the instructions closely, particularly as they pertain to the thinness of the sheets of dough. (Please do not ask me to replace your broken pasta machines—I can't afford it, and you've been warned! It'll be fine, really!)
When I'm ready to start rolling the dough, I set up a pasta roller at a work table, and pull the dough out of the bowl. The dough will be very crumbly, and will look like it won't hold together, but if you smush it together with your hands it should form a ball. Split the dough in half (a bench scraper is great for this, but you can use a knife), and wrap one half in the wrap you used to cover the mixing bowl and set it aside.
Using a rolling pin (or your hands), flatten one dough half on your work surface until it is relatively thin, about a half centimeter, or one-fifth of an inch, thick. What you're trying to do here is just get the dough thin enough that it will easily slide into the widest setting of your pasta roller. This is particularly important if you have a cheaper pasta roller, since you cannot rely on the rollers' gear strength and pressure to flatten the dough for you entirely—forcing the dough through the roller can knock the inner mechanism out of alignment, or break it entirely. A rolling pin is very useful for the sheer amount of force you can apply to the hard dough using your body weight.
Once it is thin enough, slowly start passing the dough through the pasta roller's widest setting. As the dough passes through the roller, it will look awful: dry, splotchy, crumbly, not dough in any familiar sense at all. But don't worry; all that needs to happens is that the dough makes it through in one shaggy, raggedy piece. If you need to roll the dough back and forward to get it through, do so. Do not try to force the dough through.
Once it is through, adjust the pasta roller to the next widest setting, and pass the dough sheet through. Repeat this two more times.
Kneading the Ramen Dough
After you've passed your ragged sheet of noodle dough through four times, you'll want to knead it, which essentially means folding it over and running it through the machine several times.
Running the sheets through four thicknesses is the main way my method deviates (very slightly) from the instructions in many of Satinover's recipes, and I went back and forth with him over email about this process. In those recipes, Satinover calls for passing the dough through three thicknesses (the widest, the second-widest, and the third-widest), and then folding the dough in half crosswise, so that it becomes half its original length, and repeating the process. When I made ramen in the past, it was always after the dough was folded in half that I'd have the most difficulty passing the dough through my pasta machine, and when I was working with particularly dry doughs, that's the moment when my machines would break.
When I was quizzing Shimamoto about how he kneads his noodle dough, he noted that ramen manufacturers all avoid compressing their noodle sheets beyond 70% of the original width, as compressing the dough any more than that will mess with how the dough passes through the machines and "break the gluten." Uki confirmed this, saying, "Slowly compressing the sheets keeps the gluten network that was developed in the mixing and resting stage of the production."
Talking with Satinover, he explained it using bread dough as an example, noting that bread bakers pay an inordinate amount of attention to folding dough and shaping loaves. The goal for a bread baker is to manipulate the gluten network they have developed through kneading and resting so that it will trap the air produced by yeast during the baking process in a specific way, yielding a specific shape with a specific crumb geometry.
The same thing is happening when you pass the ramen dough through rollers repeatedly. The process creates a gluten network through kneading, and running the dough sheets through the rollers repeatedly in the same direction aligns the gluten network in straight lines that run the length of the dough sheet, which means that eventually, the gluten network will run the length of the noodle, resulting in a distinctive "bite" when you chew through the noodle.
Why is this important to know? When sheeting the dough, the surest indication that you've developed the gluten network properly is the presence of longitudinal striping, which you can see in the photos. Note that there are two kinds of lines: the more obvious, pebbly streaks are the result of the flour not being sufficiently hydrated; these disappear after the sheet is allowed to rest and the flour has time to absorb more of the water in the dough. The fainter, more even lines on the sheet are the evidence of properly developed and aligned gluten chains.
In my tests, I found that passing the dough through the roller's successively thinner sheet settings four times made it easier to knead, significantly reduced the risk of breaking the machine, and produced those longitudinal lines more reliably than just passing it through three times. Satinover noted that my issues with his method were probably a function of both the elasticity of the dough, and of the thickness settings of the pasta roller I was using.
Running the sheet through three of the thickness settings and folding it in half, combined with the slight retraction of the dough due to the developing gluten network, produced a sheet that was about five millimeters thick. When I tried to run the five-millimeter-thick sheet through the pasta roller's widest setting, which measures four millimeters, I exceeded the 70% compression rule, making it hard to pass the sheet through the machine and sometimes resulting in broken sheets of dough.
So, instead, after sheeting the dough, I fold it in half crosswise and pass it through the rollers four times, reducing the width of the roller setting each time, then repeat the entire process one more time.
Resting and Cutting the Ramen Dough
After the dough sheet has been kneaded, I fold it up, wrap it in plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out, and let it rest for at least 30 minutes to allow the gluten network to relax. In that time, too, the water in the dough will become more evenly distributed, and the sheets will become more supple and look smoother.
When the dough is rested, I fold it in half and repeat the process one last time, but instead of stopping at the fourth-widest setting, I continue until I get to the thickness I want. For the photos that illustrate this piece, we rolled the dough to about one and a half millimeters, or one-sixteenth of an inch, but you can go thinner if you like (I wouldn't go much past one millimeter, though). Keep in mind that the thickness of the noodle will determine how long it needs to be boiled, and the boil time will range from about one minute and 30 seconds to about two minutes.
After I get the dough to the thickness I want, I run the sheet through the spaghetti-cutter attachment. I then space out the noodles a bit and dust them with flour, tossing them to completely coat them, and finally bundle them into little nests.
You can, if you like, cut the noodle sheets by hand to get a slightly wider noodle, but note that while irregularly cut noodles can be interesting to chew on, they will cook slightly unevenly. If you choose to hand-cut them, dust the sheet of dough with flour and fold it in half, then dust it with flour and fold it again, to create four layers of dough. Slice through the layers using a sharp chef's knife at regular intervals. Dust the cut noodles with some more flour and, using your hands, shake them out.
Drying the Ramen
You can cook the noodles immediately, but their texture will improve markedly if you allow them to rest overnight. The rested noodles will be less susceptible to stretching, which ensures that they remain relatively uniform in thickness (and thus cook more evenly); they also cook up a bit firmer.
Gently place the nests in a quarter-sheet pan and cover with plastic wrap, or place the nests gently in a zip-top bag, taking care not to crush the nests or mush them against one another, and place it in the fridge.
Cooking the Noodles
Regardless of whether you choose to let the noodles rest overnight or not, you will need to test the noodles' cook time. This is as much about your personal preference as it is about ensuring that the dough is cooked, so it's imperative that you test this in advance. Keep in mind that the cook time of freshly cut noodles will be different than the cook time of noodles that have been allowed to rest overnight.
The best way to do this is to take a single noodle strand and cut it up into relatively equal lengths. Bring a pot of water to boil and dump the noodle bits in, and fish them out at defined intervals. A good starting point is one minute and 30 seconds; take out a noodle bit every 10 seconds until you get a noodle that is the consistency you like, then repeat the process. Once you confirm the time it takes to get the noodle to your preferred doneness, shave off 10 seconds, and that is the cook time—this is to account for any carry-over cooking that may occur after transferring the noodles to a hot broth and adding garnishes to your bowl.
Before boiling the noodles, there's an optional step you can take to make the noodles more curly. Curlier noodles impart a greater sensation of chewiness; if that's a goal you can get behind, then take your noodle nest and place it on a dry work surface and compress it slightly, as if you were making a snowball. Then loosen the noodle nest a little, compress it again, and finally loosen them one more time. This will create small bends in the noodles, which will become more pronounced as the noodles boil.
Although it isn't strictly necessary, if you plan on cooking a lot of ramen, and if you plan on cooking ramen for multiple people frequently, we do recommend that you pick up a couple of noodle baskets (and that you have a stockpot big enough to fit at least two of them). Regardless, when you're ready to cook your noodles, dump them in boiling water and stir, loosening the noodle strands to ensure that none of them stick together.
When the cook time has elapsed, drain the noodles and shake off as much excess water as possible using a strainer or noodle basket, and add them to a waiting bowl of piping-hot ramen broth.
These noodles were designed to go in a bowl of shoyu ramen, and while they can be used as a general-purpose noodle for any and all bowls of ramen, they are not the best noodle for, say, a tonkotsu (a straighter, thinner, lower-hydration noodle would be better there).
If you are interested in experimenting with noodles, I strongly suggest that you take a look at Satinover's noodle recipes.
With a little tinkering, you can use this recipe as a base to develop a noodle more suited to your taste preferences, just by making very small adjustments to the amounts per serving of any given ingredient. Happy noodling and stay tuned for more broth recipes in the coming days.
Editor's note: We've published a follow-up article about lower-hydration alkaline noodles for homemade noodle enthusiasts who would like to take their experimentation further, which you can find here.