What do we know about noodles ?

Noodles in a bowl with a red chilli pepper on top.
Photo by RitaE, c/o Pixabay.

Noodles have been around for centuries which seems a very bland statement to make about a food which has such an illustrious past as a staple. Literally, they have been around though for a very long time. We don’t know if it is a popular myth but the great explorer Marco Polo brought noodles back from China to Venice on his return in 1296. Whether they were invented in Italy is not really true as they were certainly about in China and probably in various parts of Arabia too. In 2005 a pot was found in the Lajia archaeological dig in China which was over 4,000 year old; it contained beautifully preserved noodles.

Most dried noodles are the saviour of a student – how many college guys do you know who have lived off these packs ?  They are very convenient for camping and hiking. Sometimes it has been the only foodstuff worth taking on a long wet hike through the Cascades in the USA or up into the Lake District of Cumberland in the UK.

When you look at who is eating noodles we can see that there are probably five countries in the world that would not consider them to be part of their traditional food culture. The United States of America is the first – why ? Because they are only really confined to specific cultures. Russia, Brazil and India certainly eat noodles but not as effectively as their neighbours. Finally a number of African countries but especially Nigeria have not developed a noodle or pasta culture.

The Makeup Of A Noodle

Noodles are usually prepared from three basic ingredients. These are wheat or rice flour, or even a combination of both. Another type of grain is buckwheat as in a soba style noodle. The other key ingredients will be water and a salt. The salt is often the defining material. In some cases konjac flour is used as an alternative to produce the shirataki noodle or zero calorie noodles.

They can also be classified according to the salt composition which is usually based on the presence of absence of alkaline compounds such as sodium carbonate and/or potassium carbonate.

Rice noodles unlike wheat-based types have the benefit of being gluten-free and possessing a low-glycaemic index. These noodles can also appear as flat ribbons which are twisted into convenient bundles for packaging and storage (Lu & Collado, 2019).

The consistency of the noodle depends to a great extent on its protein content. This is correlated with firmness and with elasticity. The white salted noodles are between 8 and 11 per cent protein and are probably the most flexible of the noodle types. Yellow alkaline noodles have a content between 9 and 13 per cent protein whilst instant noodles are between 8.5 and 12.5 per cent.

Types of Noodles

It is not surprising that Asian noodles are regarded as the most authentic both in type, flavour and texture. There is an almost infinite variety of ingredients used to accompany noodles that they have earned this badge of versatility not found with other staples.

The basic type is the Chinese raw noodle which is the version made in the home or restaurant kitchen for use in a variety of dishes. It is also the most commonly examined because there are so many factors which affect quality.

In Taiwan, South China and a few other East Asian countries we find a cooked noodle which is then treated with a vegetable oil that lends a special type of mouthfeel. These are the Hokkien-type noodles. They are always served ‘al dente’. The Hokkien style noodle is boiled once or twice, or steamed so that they are thoroughly cooked. Oil is added after this cooking and the noodles sold in pouches as parboiled for cooking later on in the home.

Buckwheat Asian noodles are not as common in the West but popular in much of China because of their difference in flavour to the standard raw noodle. Different types include soba.

Fresh Egg Noodles

There are four basic types of fresh egg noodle. We have the thin and the thick wonton noodles, the chow mein or Hong Kong style noodles and lo mein noodles.

Wonton Noodles

Wonton noodles come in two basic types ; – thin and thick.

Thin wonton noodles are described as the type found in a typical wonton noodle soup. They are thin and springy and ideal for light dishes especially meat broths such as chicken soup. Other product development opportunities inlcude mixing with simple ingredients such as onions, scallions, spring onions and simple sauce. The noodle is the star of this type of dish. All thin wonton noodles are served by rapid boipling, draining and then drizzling witha seasoning oil such as sesame.

The wide wonton noodles are much thicker and are used for generaour and substantial meals including soups which are flavoured with rich broths. They are especially good with large meaty chunks like chicken, pork, venison, sausage and beef. 

Japanese Noodles

Noodles have been an established ingredient and staple of Japanese cuisine for millenia. They are commonly used as a staple in broths and other hot dishes. There are many types which are now all available throughout the Western world.

The most popular and common are ramen. these are thin noddles made from wheat flour, some salt and water and a special type of alkaline water called kansui. The dough is usually risen before being rolled flat. These all have a firm texture and are commonly a pale yellow-beige in colour. It’s possible to buy these noodles in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

Ramen noodles are often served in a stock broth. There are a large number of dishes that make use of their versatility. The classic dishes are shōyu ramenshio ramenmiso ramentonkotsu ramen, and curry ramen.

The thickest noodles are known as udon. These are white, wheat-based noodles, that are 4-6mm in width. Such noodles are commonly used in soups and broths in Winter months. The other noddles is prepared from buckwheat and wheat flour and these are the soba noodles.

Boiled Or Wet Noodles (Hokkien-Style)

Boiled noodles are a type of Chinese raw noodle which is effectively parboiled before being finished off in the home kitchen. They are extremely popular throughout much of the Far East.

The noodles are partially boiled for 1 to 2 minutes so that there is a fine core of dough in the centre. This is surrounded by cooked and gelatinized dough. The noodle is further oiled in the home before eating. The cooking zone continues into the centre (Moss, 1982). The Hokkien noodle is an alkaline noodle which is prepared using kansui as we discuss later but sold as a boiled noodle.

The noodles are cooked by boiling, then cooled in water and drained. Oil is added to improve pliability and handling before selling in plastic packaging. In the marketplace they can be found in plastic bags (Moss, 1984).

These noodles have a moisture content of around 52% w/w. They have the shortest shelf-life of all noodles.

The boiling process denatures polyphenol oxidases so the noodle remains white or very pale straw coloured. They are prone to microbial spoilage because of the high water content and so must be protected. the most appropriate method of extending shelf-life is to employ good hygienic manufacturing practice along with either chilling or even freezing.

In Japan, the shelf-life of these products is increased several months using retort pouch packaging followed by partial drying. The noodles are sold in heatproof cups or bowls to which are added an assrtmemnt of flavourings or toppings (Miskelly, 1993).

Instant Noodles (Block Noodles

The instant noodle is usually sold as a block and precooked. A flavouring powder and/or seasoning oil is sometime included. The dried noodle block are cooked and soaked in boiling water before being eaten. They are usually prepared from wheat flour, palm oil and salt. They are extremely popular for cheap meals in Western countries.

How Are Noodles Prepared At Home Or In The Kitchen  

Noodles are prepared in the home kitchen as Chinese raw noodles. Fresh noodles are probably one of the most important staples in the Chinese home.

Noodles are prepared as a flat or rolled string of dough which has not been leavened. The source materials for noodles are usually wheat or rice depending on which staple is more commonly available. Asian noodles are always made from one or the other although some mixes are known of. Most processors produce them by extrusion. To store fresh noodles means keeping them at as a cool a temperature as possible.

The general recipe for noodles is the following:-

You’ll need the following for serving 4 people:

  • 2 to 2 and 1/4 cups of all-purpose white flour although wholemeal can also be used
  • 2 egg yolks and 1 whole egg which is lightly beaten
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil such as maize or corn oil or olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • All-purpose flour

– Preparation Of Noodles

A dough mixture is prepared using the following method:-

  • Into a large bowl stir together 1 and 3/4 cups of the flour and the salt. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture.
  • In a small bowl combine the egg yolks with a whole egg, the water, and oil. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture, stirring to combine.
  • The dough will certainly become sticky at this point but becomes smoother as it is kneaded.

– Kneading The Noodle Dough

  • Sprinkle a clean surface for kneading the dough with the remaining flour.
  • Place dough onto the floured surface.
  • Knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic. The whole process takes between 8 and 12 minutes in total.

To knead dough effectively, fold the dough and then push it with the heel of your hand. Turn the dough and repeat this folding and pushing until the dough reaches a smooth and elastic consistency.

  • Cover the dough and let it rest for 10 minutes.

You can make the dough in advance to this point. Transfer the dough to an airtight container; freeze up to 3 months. Thaw completely in the refrigerator, then continue with the next step.

– Roll the Dough

  • Divide the dough into four equal portions.
  • On a lightly floured surface, roll each portion into a 12 x 9-inch rectangle. It can be passed through a pasta machine until 1/16 inch thick.
  • Dust both sides of the dough portions with additional flour.
  • Let the dough stand, uncovered, about 20 minutes.

– Cut the Noodles

  • Loosely roll the dough into a spiral.
  • Cut the spiral crosswise into 1/4-inch-wide strips.
  • Unroll the strips to separate.
  • Cut the strips into 2- to 3-inch lengths.
  • At this point you can cook the noodles immediately, or dry and store them (see next steps).

To Store Cut Noodles

  • Spread the noodles on a wire cooling rack.
  • To store in the refrigerator: Let the noodles dry for 2 hours. Place in an airtight container and chill for up to 3 days.
  • To freeze: Dry the noodles for at least 1 hour; place them in a freezer bag or freezer container and freeze for up to 8 months.

Most packaged noodles come with explicit instructions on preparation. In most cases the noodles along with any powder mixes or soup bases are added to boiling water (2 and one third of a cup is enough). They require cooking in boiling water for between 4 and 5 minutes. Simply remove them from the heat and enjoy as a broth.

There are some great Youtube videos explaining how to make these noodles at home. Just check the link for one of the best. The presenter has a neat way of showing how these noodles are prepared using very simple ingredients. I’ve reproduced what she has done below.

Other Ingredients Added To Noodles

Different additives and ingredients are used to alter the basic flour-water dough mixture and improve its properties.

Guar gum and xanthan gum are sometimes added, as are wheat and soybean proteins which help develop the texture and enhance both elasticity and flexibility. They also modify noodle texture and mouth feel once cooked.

One method known as kansui improves noodle flavour, elasticity and mouthfeel. A typical Hong Kong or Cantonese-type noodle is usually prepared this way. In traditional noodle processing the noodles were treated with wood ash or very hard water once they were prepared. This water contains basic salts such as potasium carbonate, sodium carbonate, bicarbonate of soda, sodium and potassium phosphates. This was known as kansui. The intention is to produce a light yellow colour. About 0.1 to 0.2g of kansui per 100g fried noodle is added, or 0.3g for non-fried noodles. With alkaline pH vlaues at 7 to 8, this enhances the flavour further once the noodle is prepared. 

Emulsifiers are used to spread any oil and fat used throughout the noodle and improve product quality. Plant lecithins such as phosphatidylcholine which are produced during the refining of soybean oil are common enough.

Vitamin E is sometimes added as an antioxidant to prevent lipid oxidation especially of the fat contained in any noodles. There is always the danger that the noodle might go rancid. It is not added as a preservative. It can also be incorporated into soybean oil.

On top of adding this particular vitamin, some noodles are fortified with nutrients including vitamin B1, B2 and calcium. Calcium is an important mineral which can come through kansui or via the water that is used in noodle manufacture.

Seasoning For Noodles

Three types of seasoning are used for instant noodles. These are powder-, granulated powder-  and liquid-type. the powder seasoning predominates in the market.

The main raw materials are:-

Basic seasonings: soy, salt, vinegar, edible oils, sugar

Natural extracts based on seaweed, fungi, meat extract etc.

Spices including pepper, bay, garlic, pimento, nutmeg and allspice.

Sauces And Garnishes For Noodles

Garnishes are added to produce flavours and improve variety and quality. Most garnishes are dehydrated vegetables especially pieces of tomato, vitamins and minerals. retort or cooked sauces are often prepared to ensure the noodle is cooked in a sauce which adds plenty of flavour. 

Large-Scale Manufacturing Of Noodles

Here we look at the industrial preparation of Chinese raw noodles, step-by-step.

The first stage in preparing the ingredients is to weight out the appropriate amount. Virtually all the ingredients are likely to be dry.

(1) On a large-scale manufacturing basis, a weak dough mixture of noodle flour, the kansui (alkalizing agent) and water is prepared in a batch mixer. Take a wheat noodle as an example, the noodle dough is prepared using 0.3 to 0.4 kg of water at a temperature between 20 and 30°C which is kneaded with flour for between 15 and 20 minutes. The process produces a dough which is judged on its elasticity. 

(2) The dough mixture is put through two rotating rollers. This compounds two noodle belts into one single belt. The process distributes ingredients evenly throughout the mixture. The dough can be left for a certain period of time to mature. Usually 30 minutes is enough.

(3) The dough is passed through rolls. This is usually a 100 mm-thick noodle belt where the noodle dough is pressed with ‘pressing rollers’. The noodles are flattened to a thickness of approximately 1 mm. The noodles are often passed through more than four pairs of rollers which then become gradually thinner. The process strengthens what is described as textiform tissue and helps create elasticity in the noodles

(4) Following rolling to produce a flat noodle sheet, the sheet is passed through a slitter. A rolling blade slits the noddle belt into thin noodles. These instant noodles are wavy and almost corrugated by the slitter. This particular shape produces a space between the noodles that prevents the noodles from sticking together.

(5) All noodles are cooked in some way and virtually all instant noodles are steamed for between 1 to 5 minutes at 100°C which pregelatinizes the starch by causing the granules to swell. Gelatinization is an important process in preparing the starch.

(6) After pregelatinization, the noodles can be seasoned by running them through a dipping bath. This will add flavour or condition the noodles for further development.

(7) The noodles which are now pliable are cut into various lengths between 40 and 70cm long. These can be round or square depending on the type of mold serving they enter. This section is often known as the feeder.

(8) The final major process involves a flash fryer. This process is the dehydration step. here the noodle is either air dried or oil-dried. If the noodles are fried, they are held in a metal mold to be passed through frying oil between 140 and 160°C for just over a minute. The moisture content before frying will have been between 30 and 40%w/w but the frying processes reduces the noodle to just between 3 and 6%w/w. Pregelatinization is often accelerated but the starch is not fully cooked.

In air drying (non-frying state), the noodles in the metal molds are placed in an air-drier and dehydrated with hot air for approximately 80°C in just over 30 minutes.

In some cases the ‘raw-type noodles’ are steamed noodles which are sterilised with an organic acid which can be peracetic acid (2-3%w/w).

(9) The noodles are now cooled. Following dehydration, it is likely the noodles will be at least 100°C. The cooling process now involves air followed by various forms of inspection for weight, shape, colour, level of cooling, the shape and form after frying and so on (see section on evaluating noodles).

(10) To comply with HACCP and to ensure no metals are present from the process, all the noodles pass through a metal detector. There is also a balance which checks weight. If outside the weight specification, the noodle can be discarded.

(11) The finished noodles are packed into film bags or cup-containers along with garnishes and seasonings. In cup containers, the noodles are sealed with aluminium foil lids.

(12) Any products outside the bulk weight specification can be automatically discarded.

(13) Secondary packaging is added usually through a system called the caser. These will be cardboard boxes which are then shrink wrapped.

The Manufacture Of Buckwheat Noodles

Buckwheat noodles are prepared in a very similar way to Chinese raw noodles or instant noodles. The main ingredients are buckwheat flour, water (of course), lime-wash and alkaline salts, salt and sometimes yam flour. They are sometimes termed brownish asian noodles because the colour is much darker. 

What Factors Affect The Quality Of Noodles

The key factors affecting noodle quality are probably applied to all other food products;

  • raw materials
  • process of mixing such ingredients to form the dough, paste or slurry
  • dough resting
  • rolling and sheeting
  • cooking ( steaming, boiling, frying)
  • cooling 
  • drying 

Evaluating Noodles: What Quality Checks Are Conducted.

Noodles need to be evaluated or scored based on three characteristic aspects, process performance or machining which means how well they are processed. The factors have already been elaborated above. The other two quality factors are colour and texture.

When it comes to instant noodles, the process effect is probably the most important aspect for instant noodles.

Asian noodles should have the following characteristics in colour:

Noodle Type Colour Requirement
Chinese Raw:     
 
Bright and white color; little discoloration within 24 hours
Japanese Udon: Bright and creamy white color; little discoloration within 24 hours
Chinese Wet Bright yellow color; little discoloration within 24 hours
Thailand Bamee Bright, intense yellow color; little discoloration within 24 hours.
Malaysian Hokkien Bright yellow color; little discoloration within 48 hours
Chinese Instant Fried Bright yellow color
Philippine Instant Fried Bright yellow color
Korean Instant Fried Bright yellow color
Chuka-men Clear bright yellow color; little discoloration and specks within 24 hours

Flour Quality

It is probably fair to say that whatever the source of the flour, it is the quality of the flour itself which has a profound effect on the sensory quality of noodles. A great deal of research is available on the quality of wheat, rice and other sources but when it comes to noodles, then more specific knowledge has been developed.

Raw Chinese noodles for example are a type which is prepared very often in the home. Here the flour used will determine the eating and sensory quality of the noodles. Protein content in the flour will affect the dough strength in terms of elasticity and the starch paste viscosity (Miskelly & Moss, 1985). There is an optimum range for flour where outside the specification, the noodle quality is adversely affected. Noodle brightness which is a measure of sheen and clean appearance is inversely related to protein content and to flour grade quality.

Colour

Colour has always been a key trait because of its visual impact at the point of sale. Most producers realise that the customer is making an evaluation of both the quality of the ingredients used and the age of the product, and colour is a vital clue in noodle quality. Asian customers prefer bright yellow alkaline noodles which have retained a stable colour for at least 48 hours following their preparation.

If the noodle is badly treated in processing the colour can be red or a dull grey which implies poor handling during the process or a poor batch of ingredients (Mares et al., 1997).

Grey colour is a discolouration produced by oxidation of tyrosine that leads to melannin formation (Fortmann & Joiner, 1971; Moss, 1971).

The yellow colour of alkaline noodles is down to flavones and xanthophylls and to other compounds which are partially extracted when water is added during processing. These compounds can also enter  as germ particles from flour processing. The same is possible if hydroxylamine is used at neutral pH or dilute alkali is used in processing.  

The Wheat Marketing Center in Portland, Oregon (USA) is a location offering advice on various aspects of noodle manufacture.

Noodle Packaging

The packaging of noodles is generally split between two types – a cellophane and flexible pouch which contains noodle and a sachet of sauce mix which can be of dried ingredients or a sauce. the other and perhaps more sophisticated alternative is for them to be contained in plastic cups or bowls to which water is added. The advantage of the bowl is that they are used for serving the product. One issues that has steadily come to the fore though is the high level of waste and environmental impact in using what is a generally a non-recycled package.

An interesting development is the development of the microwaveable pouch which allows heating up of a ready made product to which water has already been added. These can be a single noodle product or ones that is part of a dish containing other ingredients.

Noodle Products In The Marketplace

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Amazon Reviews

When I read Amazon reviews about products I’m always wary of wholly believing all the information that is posted but there are some comments which I think have a ring of truth about them. The leading products are those in the top 100 for the category ‘Packaged Pasta & Noodle Dishes’. The current number one in September 2019 for the USA is Nongshim’s Shin Ramyun Noodle Soup, Gourmet Spicy, 4.2 Oz. which is coming as a pack of 20. Nongshim is a Korean company which is making and selling classic dried noodles. The no. 1 seller in the USA is claiming to be made in that country. The ingredient list is typically large when you consider what spice powder mix is being used. May be the sodium content needs to be a little less although on trying this brand noodles need plenty of flavour. I often try the serving suggestion shown on the pack and adding slices of what looks like lamb or beef seems to help improve the overall appeal of the product.

The second leading noodle pack is from Maruchan who offer Instant Lunch Chicken Flavour in a 2.25 Oz. product with 12 in a pack which looks reasonable value. The product is in a pot rather than sachet and comes as a classic Ramen Noodle Soup. This product has a surprisingly high sodium content given that it is claiming to be less sodium – I wonder what the original sodium content must have been. They also offer Lime flavour with Shrimp and Chipotle Chicken flavour.

A solid Japanese brand is Nissin which also offers a triple layered dried ramen noodle. Currently third in the rankings they have Umami Tonkotsu flavor in a 3.35 ounce sachet as part of a pack of six.

Some brands now help you avoid that difficult decision of what bowl to put the boiled noodles into without resorting to using the saucepan of course. Nongshim have a convenient bowl which is made of microwave safe BPA. Their offering is for a beef noodle soup which is strongly flavoured with onion. The real benefit here though is the soup bowl but its not reusable because of the way the ingredients are prepared in the bowl. 

Noodle Restaurants

Pei Wei look to have a very wide distribution throughout the USA – we don’t see anything similar save for Wagamamas in the UK. Pei Wei (https://www.pwiwei.com) are spread across middle America and none in the Northern and Western states at the moment.

References

Fortmann, K. L., and Joiner, R. R. (1977). Wheat pigments and flour color. Page 493 in: Wheat Chemistry and Technology, 2nd ed. Y. Pomeranz, ed. Am. Assoc. Cereal Chem.: St. Paul, MN

Hou, G., Kruk, M., & Center, W. M. (1998). Asian noodle technology. Technical Bulletin20(12), pp. 1-10.

Lo, Z.-H., Collado, L.S. (2019). Chapter 17. Rice Noodles In: Rice. Chemistry & Technology 4th edt. AACC Int.  (Article)

Miskelly, D. M. (1984). Flour components affecting paste and noodle colour. J. Sci. Food Agric. 35 pp. 463-471.

Miskelly, D. M., & Moss, H. J. (1985). Flour quality requirements for Chinese noodle manufacture. Journal of Cereal Science3(4), pp. 379-387.

Mares, D.J., Wang, Y., Cassidy, C.A., (1997). Separation, identification and tissue location of compounds responsible for the yellow colour of alkaline noodles. In: Tarr, A.W., Ross, A.S., Wrigley, C.W. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 47th Cereal Chemistry Conference. Cereal Chemistry Division, Royal Australian Chemical Institute, Melbourne, Australia,
pp. 114–117

Moss, H. J. (1971). The quality of noodles prepared from the flours of some Australian wheats. Aust. J. Exp. Agric. Animal Husb. 11 pp. 243-247 

Moss, H.J. (1982) Wheat flour quality for Chinese noodle production. In: Proceedings Singapore Institute of Food Science and Technology Conference, Singapore, pp. 234-239

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