Anyone who’s ever eaten a bowl of noodles—be they tangles of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or Vietnamese origin—is probably aware of the fact that there are a huge variety of noodles out there, and each variety—whether they're made from wheat, rice, starch, the thick, jelly-like extract leftover from steaming kelp, or a very specific type of yam—has a relatively distinct look, texture, shape, flavor, and even method of cooking. Even though I knew this—I’ve eaten my fair of noodles—my first time preparing soba noodles left me with a gluey mass at the end of my chopsticks.
Suffice it to say, that was not what I was aiming for.
Now that I know what I did wrong, and how to make it right, I feel inspired to help fellow noodle-lovers, so here’s some illuminating soba noodle info, plus my findings on how to (properly) cook them.
What Are Soba Noodles?
When it comes to Japanese noodles, the most well known are probably wheat-based ramen noodles (of Chinese origin—if you don’t know, now you know), chewy wheat-based udon noodles, and, last but not least, buckwheat flour-based soba noodles. Soba is the Japanese word for buckwheat and, despite being made from “flour,” 100% buckwheat flour soba noodles are actually gluten-free.
In Japan, naturally nutty tasting soba noodles are typically served cold with a dipping sauce (zaru or mori soba) or in a hot soy and dashi broth (kake soba) and can be found pretty much all across the board from casual izakaya to Michelin starred restaurants (of which Japan has many).
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when soba started to become popular stateside. As late as 2014, soba noodles were difficult to find and were even considered “Japan’s most underrated noodle,” but now they can be found on restaurant menus and in grocery stores and all over the US. While fresh soba are common in Japan for both restaurant- and home-use, we reach instead for dried soba noodles, and, despite the “gluey mass” I mentioned earlier, once you know the key step, soba are not only a snap to make at home, but even quicker to cook than your favorite weeknight pasta.
How to Cook Soba Noodles
Bring a large (and I mean large) pot of water to boil. You want to give your noodles plenty of space to move around.
Don't even think about salting that water. The salt will only make the noodles gummy and stick together.
Add your soba noodles and gently move them around in the water to cover them completely. There should be plenty of space for your noodles to swim; I hope you heeded my warning and used a big enough pot.
Once the water is boiling again, lower the heat a bit just to maintain a simmer; this will prevent the pot from boiling over with starchy foam.
Set a timer for your noodles. Go by the amount of time prescribed on the package the first time you make them. If you find them a bit too mushy, or not done enough, adjust accordingly on your next soba noodle night. As with anything you cook, it’s always a good idea to taste test along the way, so fish out a noodle (chopsticks will be helpful here) and give it a taste to let your mouth decide when done is done.
While the noodles cook, place a colander or fine mesh sieve in or over the sink.
Once the timer goes off, drain the soba noodles completely, then turn on the faucet and rinse the soba noodles with cold running water—tossing and swirling them around gently with your fingers—until the water streaming from the bottom of your colander or sieve runs clear. Let drain before using. Alternatively, instead of rinsing your noodles, simply drain, transfer to a large bowl of cold water, and rub them gently to remove the extra starch. Drain once more and they’re ready to use.