Kansui: the Secret to Amazing Scratch Ramen Noodles

I love those instant ramen noodles. Always have, always will. The consistency, the packaging, even the little flavor packet. It's a perfect quick nosh. After hundreds of bowls over years & years, I wondered one day what it would take to make my own ramen noodles. As it turns out, it's pretty easy, but there is a "trick" to getting the color and firmness to the noodle, it's called kansui.

Supplies:

Step 1: Kansui? What Is This Magical Substance?

Alkalis

Most of us are familiar with acids in cooking, like vinegar, lemon juice and wine. On the other side of the pH spectrum (1 -- 14) you will find the alkalis. The one you've probably used before is baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate. Here are some general pH levels for comparison:

  • Lemon juice = pH 2
  • Vinegar = pH 2.4
  • White wine = pH 3 -- 3.4
  • Pure distilled water = pH 7
  • Baking soda = pH 9
  • Kansui = pH 11.2
  • Lye = pH 13

Baking soda is a mild alkali with a pH of about 9. We can take that baking soda and supercharge it, boosting the alkaline level and making it more effective for our ramen noodles. We can transform that sodium bicarbonate into sodium carbonate using something you likely already have in your kitchen: an oven.

Traditional kansui is a combination of sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate. You can find it in specialty stores with names like "alkalinized water" or "lye water" and is usually in liquid form. It has a pH level of about 11.2 and is what is commonly used to make traditional ramen noodles. Sodium carbonate has a pH level of about 11, so it will work really well in approximating true kansui.

Without kansui, the noodles would not have their common slightly yellowish color. Kansui also "toughens" the proteins in the flour, giving ramen its familiar toothiness.

Here is a great discussion from the New York Times from 2010 about the background and use of alkalis in cooking.

Step 2: Let's Bake That Baking Soda!

Some Details

As it turns out, it's pretty easy to make sodium carbonate. Heating sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to about 275 degrees F (140 degrees C) for about an hour changes the molecular structure into sodium carbonate.

Note: Sodium carbonate is a relatively strong alkali, so be careful handing it, because it can be irritating to the skin for some people. It also wants to absorb water from the air, reducing its effectiveness. Keep it in a tightly sealed container to keep it dry and strong.

Making Kansui, aka Sodium Carbonate

  1. Preheat your oven to 275 degrees F (For those of you in Europe, it's gas mark 1)
  2. Spread a layer of baking soda on a foil lined baking pan
  3. Bake for 1 hour -- it will have reduced in mass somewhat
  4. Let cool, and store in a tight container.

This simple process gives us that stronger alkali for great ramen. It can also be used in place of lye (pH 13) for the dunk step in making pretzels. Food grade lye is not very easy to find locally, but it is available online. But if I can make my own alkali that works nearly as well, then it's worth a try!

Step 3: Oh, You Probably Want a Ramen Noodle Recipe, Too...

Did you imagine that I would go to all this trouble to talk about kansui and deprive you of a ramen noodle recipe? I think not... ;^)

I found a recipe with both wheat and rye flour. I love the taste of rye flour and these are really yummy.

Scratch Ramen Noodles

I have made this recipe several times, and it's great. I have tweaked it slightly over time. If you have a KitchenAid mixer with the pasta roller attachment, it's super easy. It's really worth going through all of the steps and repetitions listed in the recipe. I found the original here.

Makes 8 servings

Ingredients

  • ⅓ cup plus 3 tablespoons rye flour
  • 2 cups cold water
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kansui
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt

  • 6 cups all purpose flour

  • Cornstarch

How To

  1. Optional: In a small nonstick skillet, toast the rye flour over medium low heat, stirring, until golden brown and fragrant. This takes 4 - 5 minutes. Do not let the flour burn.
  2. In a small bowl combine the water, kansui and the salt. Stir, then let sit until dissolved.
  3. Place the rye flour into the bowl of a standing mixer, fitted with the dough hook. Add the remaining flour, then mix for 30 seconds on the lowest speed.
  4. With the mixer at the lowest speed, slowly start adding the water mixture into the flour.
  5. Continue mixing until the dough comes together.
  6. Turn the speed to medium, knead the dough until it forms a shaggy ball, this will take 7 - 10 minutes.
  7. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit for 30 minutes at room temperature.
  8. Gently knead the dough for 3 minutes.
  9. Divide the dough into 8 equal sized balls, and lightly flatten each. Keep them covered with a damp cloth until rolling them out.

    For each dough ball:
  10. Roll through your pasta machine at the widest setting.
  11. Fold the dough in thirds, and roll it again at the widest setting.
  12. Repeat this process 5 times. The dough will feel smooth and elastic.
  13. Roll the dough through 1 -- 4 of the setting on the pasta machine - Do this 2 times at each setting.
  14. Lightly dust 2 baking sheets with cornstarch.
  15. Attach the spaghetti cutter onto the mixer, then run the sheet of pasta through the cutter.
  16. Gently toss the noodles with the cornstarch to separate them. Then set aside on the other baking sheet.

Repeat the process until all the dough has been cut.

If you do not use all of the noodles at one time, you can freeze them in individual resealable plastic bags for up to 2 weeks. They will keep in the refrigerator overnight.

To cook the noodles bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook just under 2 minutes - the noodles will be al dente. Do not cook longer or you'll have mush. Immediately drain them in a colander and rinse in cold water to keep them from cooking further.

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