Noodles are beloved all across the world. I’m sure every culture knows some kind of noodle dish. However, the origin of noodles remains unclear to this day.
The Chinese often claim to have invented noodles and that noodles made their way across the silk road to Europe. They try to back up this claim by a roughly 4000-year old noodle bowl that was discovered in the year 2005 in Laija, China. However, scientists quickly found out that the “noodle” in this bowl was made from millet.
To produce noodles, you need to use a flour that contains gluten. However, millet is gluten-free which doesn’t make it suitable for noodle production. The Chinese scientists who discovered the noodle bowl claimed that the noodle found was a hand-pulled lamian noodle. This is complete bullshit. You can try it yourself if you have time at home. If you mix millet flour with water it won’t produce a stretchy dough that can be hand-pulled.
Also, at that time, China didn’t have any access to wheat flour. Wheat is a Western plant that the Europeans brought to China. So while in Europe it was very common to mill grains to produce flour to bake bread, in China most grains like rice and millet were consumed whole. There is no evidence near the archeological site that the Chinese had any tools to mill flour at that time.
There was a follow-up study after the discovery of the “noodle bowl” by Chinese scientists titled: Can noodles be made from millet? The authors concluded that it is not possible to stretch millet flour to produce noodles. So if you ever read about how China invented the noodle about 4000 years ago, as is claimed in many online articles, be warned that the author hasn’t done proper research. I can highly recommend you to read the scientific statement by the French scientist Françoise Sabban on this topic.
Unfortunately, I can’t give you an answer as to when noodles where invented. It is unknown and a great mystery. However, what is very likely is that Western and Asian noodles were developed independently from each other. That is because they don’t have much in common.
But before I want to dive into the production process for noodles, I want to quickly define what a noodle is. The English language is very strange with its definitions for pasta and noodle. The English word noodle is derived from the German word ‘Nudel’. However, Brits and Americans changed the original meaning of that word.
In the German language, there is no distinction between noodles and pasta. It’s the same thing. But not just that. ‘Nudel’ is a very loosely defined term which just means boiled or steamed dough. So, German steamed buns (‘Dampfnudeln’) or cheese dumplings (‘Kärnter Nudeln’) or even soup dumplings (‘Maultaschen’) are noodles.
The same is true for the Italian word pasta which literally translates to ‘dough’. And, of course, the Chinese word for noodle ‘miàn’ is not based on the shape of the food you are eating but on the fact it is made from flour in a liquid. The English language is truly a strange language. Maybe it’s because the UK didn’t have a big noodle culture that they misunderstood the German word ‘Nudel’.
What’s the difference between Asian and European noodles?
Here are some convincing arguments as to why European and Asian noodles were probably invented independently from each other:
- Traditional Western noodles were made from durum wheat or another hard wheat flour whereas Asian noodles were traditionally made from soft wheat flour. Both soft and hard wheat flour were available in Europe. However, China didn’t have any access to durum or any other hard wheat variety which means that they couldn’t produce dried noodles. Soft wheat noodles are not suitable for drying. Noodle drying and cooking the noodles ‘al dente’ was only popular in the West.
- European and Asian customers have vastly different expectations when it comes to the texture of noodles. According to the fabulous book ‘Asian Noodles: Science, Technology, and Processing’ by Gary G. Hou Asian customers consider an ‘al dente’ texture of noodles to be too firm and too brittle. Consumers in Asia require noodles to have a smooth, elastic, and chewy texture. Brittleness is usually associated with low elasticity and a lack of chewiness. On the other hand, if you look into the book ‘Pasta and Semolina Technology’ by R.C. Kill and K. Turnbull, they state that one of the most important factors for the sensory evaluation of noodles is firmness. A good European noodle should be firm, elastic, and slightly sticky in the mouth. You might know that if you have visited Italy before, that the firmness of Italian pasta (and risotto) is no joke. Spaghetti of 1.8 millimeter diameter would be cooked for about 8 minutes in Southern Italy compared to about 11 minutes in the UK or the Netherlands. Yes, we all eat overcooked mushy noodles and rice according to Italians. However, it’s up to you to decide if you prefer your noodles a little raw on the inside or your rice extra crunchy.
- The last striking difference between Western and Asian noodles is the production process. Western noodles are usually unsalted and get cooked in very salty water whereas Asian noodle dough gets salted generously and then cooked in unsalted water. European noodles are industrially produced by extrusion whereas Asian noodles are primarily produced by a method called the ‘roll pressure stretching’ technique. This roll pressure stretching technique is the way most of us make noodles at home with their pasta machine although there are also pasta extruders for home usage on the market.
How to make Asian noodles
I want to start with the production process for Asian noodles as this one is probably more familiar to you. All of my homemade noodle recipes on this blog are using the roll pressure stretching method although I would love to give you some recipes for extruded noodles in the future. The basic process can be broken down into seven steps:
1. Mixing the dough ingredients: The aim of this is to hydrate the flour uniformly with salt or an alkaline salt solution to form a crumbly dough. The salt is usually dissolved in water before it gets added to the flour. The flour should have a hydration level between 32-38 %. It is important to not knead and overwork the dough at this point. The gluten will get developed during sheeting. An overdevelopment of gluten will make it more difficult to process the noodles later on. Salt and alkalines toughen the dough and allow for the addition of slightly more water. The water temperature should be between 25-30 °C. If the temperature gets higher than 30 °C, the dough will get sticky and hard to work with.
2. Dough Resting: The mixed dough should be rested for 10-30 minutes before sheeting. This will give the water time to penetrate into the dough particles evenly resulting in a smoother and less streaky dough after sheeting.
3. Dough Sheet Forming and Compounding: The dough is divided into two pieces and passed through the pasta machine. The surface of the sheets will at first be rough and the sheet strength will be weak. The two sheets are then compounded and passed through the machine again to form a smoother and stronger sheet. Then, the roll gap is adjusted to about half its initial width and the dough sheet gets passed through once again.
4. Dough Sheet Resting: The dough sheet is often rested in between sheeting to mellow the tensed gluten structure.
5. Noodle Sheet Reduction: The dough sheet gets passed through the pasta machine until it is thin enough.
6. Slitting and Waving: The noodles are cut into their desired shape and sometimes waved. Instant noodles are a famous variety of waved noodles.
7. Noodle Aging (optional): Japanese raw chukamen noodles are aged (not dried) for several days in the fridge before boiling. The raw chukamen noodle texture becomes harder and less cohesive after aging for one or more days in the refrigerator. This aging effect is due to the decrease of air pockets in the noodles. Three days of aging produces a product with enhanced noodle transparency, hardness, and springiness.
One thing that is very important to note here is that the gluten alignment in the dough sheet is developed in the direction of the rolls by the sheeting process. This contrasts with the multidirectional gluten development that happens in hand-kneaded noodle dough. Repeated sheeting can increase the density of the noodles by pressing out gas, thus improving the physical integrity of raw and dry noodles.
Please always keep this in mind when you make noodles with a pasta machine. Don’t knead the dough before rolling. Only mix and hydrate it. You don’t want the gluten to align multidirectional. These multidirectional strands are hard to break up. It’s tough mechanical work to realign them in one direction.
In the table below are typical formulations for three Asian noodle types. Please note that noodle doughs with a hydration level lower than 40 % are very tricky to work with and often require a professional-grade noodle machine. If you want to attempt these noodles with a conventional pasta roller at home, it’s necessary to increase the hydration level of the dough so that it becomes workable.
|Ingredient||Chinese Noodles||Japanese Salt Noodles||Alkaline Noodles|
|Wheat Flour [%]||100||100||100|
|Potassium carbonate [%]||–||–||0.5|
|Sodium carbonate [%]||–||–||0.5|
And because the word noodle is a very general description, I’d like to give you a typical formulation for wonton wrappers, the wrappers used for many Chinese boiled or fried dumplings which are also considered to be a noodle.
|Kansui (1:1 mixture of potassium and sodium carbonate)||0.5-0.8|
|Chemical leavening (eg. baking powder, baking soda) (optional)||1|
|Potato starch (optional)||10|
The production process for these wrappers is pretty straightforward as can be seen in the flowchart below. If you have a pasta machine, it’s very easy to make the wrappers at home.
How to make European noodles
European noodles can, of course, also be made with the roll pressure stretching method. However, industrially produced Italian-style noodles are typically made by extrusion. The process for extruded pasta is very straightforward:
1. Mixing the dough ingredients: Traditionally, semolina is used to produce Western-style noodles. The first step in semolina noodle production is to hydrate the semolina. As water is added during wetting and the gluten moisture content rises to around 33 %, the semolina will undergo a glass transition and turn from a brittle glass into a flexible rubber. In this rubbery state, the gluten can encapsulate the starch and the dough can be molded to form the required pasta shape. It is important to notice that this first step is just a mixing and hydrating step. The dough doesn’t get kneaded to fully develop the gluten network yet.
2. Transport through the vacuum screw to the extruder: This is the step when the gluten network gets fully developed. The mechanical work put into the dough by the extrusion screw will cause the dough to form a continuous gluten network. Of course, because of the large mechanical work required, the dough temperature rises sharply. However, it shouldn’t exceed 55 °C to prevent the gluten from turning stiff and gelatinizing.
3. Extrusion of the noodles or pasta shapes: The dough is forced through the desired die at a high pressure that is usually generated by the extrusion screw in a continuous process. It’s very important that the gluten network of the dough isn’t overdeveloped when it gets extruded as this will cause the pasta to break. Industrial noodle dough typically has a moisture content of about 30 % so that an insanely high pressure between 80 to 120 bar is needed to extrude the pasta.
4. Noodle drying: The noodles are carefully dried in a controlled time-temperature environment so they don’t crack after drying. Rapid dehydration at higher temperatures results in a greater moisture gradient between the surface and core of the noodles which increases the potential risk for cracking. Nevertheless, noodles are typically dried at high temperatures in the food industry. If the noodles are dried above 55 °C the gluten will transform into a tough and chewy gel. This will create a permanent protein network around the starch granules and increase the strength and integrity of the noodles. Less starch will thus leak into the cooking water which will make the noodles firmer and give them their characteristic ‘al dente’ bite.
If a product in Italy is labeled as ‘pasta’ it is required by law to be made from semolina flour. Durum and soft wheat are two different plants. The main difference between their milled kernels is their physical state. I know that not everyone reading this blog studied food science, but the only important thing you need to know is that durum wheat is a ‘glassy’ material whereas soft wheat is a ‘floury’ material.
Semolina kernels have a different protein composition and thus give rise to stronger water bonding, firmer dough, and more resilient dried products. Semolina noodles don’t lose a lot of mass and firmness during cooking. However, dried pasta from soft wheat flour quickly becomes mushy, sticky, and tends to release a lot of starch into the cooking water which is why Asian noodles haven’t been dried traditionally. Dried soft wheat noodles suck.
Of course, sheeted noodles made from soft wheat flour also exist in European countries. They’re especially popular with home cooks here. And, of course, extruded noodles also exist in Asia. I don’t want to overgeneralize but I thought that the division in extruded and sheeted noodles would give the post a better structure.
With all that said, I didn’t cover egg noodles, spelt noodles, rice noodles, starch noodles, or steamed noodles in this post. The topic of noodles is just too complex to compress it into one single post which is why I will introduce you to the production of specialized noodles another time on this blog. Until then, I hope that you gained a better understanding of the wheat noodle production process.