Guest Post by Matthew Partidge @errantsscience
One of the key reasons noodles are the unstoppable food item they are is that they are deceptively simple to cook. You take the noodles, put them in boiling water... wait... and eat!
As simple as that sounds, I’ve eaten (or tried) to eat so many poorly cooked noodles. I’ve had noodles so undercooked that they crunch and others that have lost everything about them that makes them a noodle. Some of that is my fault (boiling water is hard) and some of that is all about how the noodle itself is made.
Noodles are basically starch-based. The starch in raw noodles is tightly packed; the addition of water and heat breaks apart the bonds inside the starch and it starts to swell, allowing the water molecules to squeeze inside and expand the starch. Essentially the starch goes from being a hard powdery thing to a delicious-tasting gel.
But that instant noodle drying step is one of the biggest differences between different instant noodles. It turns out there are a lot of different ways to dry a noodle.
The most common method for this is to boil the noodles in hot oil. Sounds a bit medieval but boiling them in oil pushes the water out of the gel like noodles and replaces it (partially) with oil. Oil is a great conductor of heat so this method is very quick (1-2 minutes) with the side effect of making your noodles a bit oily. This is how one of the best known brands of noodles are made... the ones that come in a pot *cough*.
The other method (and arguably better method) is to air dry the noodles to remove the water. This is done by tossing the noodles around (gently) in very hot dry air which blasts out the water. This leaves nice hollow spaces ready for water to flow quickly back into the noodle giving them that squishy texture. Because there’s no oil around, this method has the advantage of not adding any unwanted extras to the noodles leaving them naturally low fat. This is the method used by Mr Lee’s.
You can also cheat when making your instant noodle. You can add gelling-agents, stabilisers and a million other fancy food science things to make perfectly homogenous noodles. Some noodle companies even fill their pots *cough* with noodles that are made in moulds to ensure there’s no chance of accidentally letting us catch sight of a non-conforming noodle and get upset. Mr Lee’s make their noodles by cutting them out of sheets which again is somewhat more time consuming and introduces more noodley variation but also produces a more natural noodle with character.
Lastly comes the extra flavouring of the noodle. Noodles are typically served with a soup or broth that gives them lots of scrummy taste. Plain noodles can taste great but noodles cooked with veg absolutely taste better.
Making things taste nice is again where there’s a lot of diversity in instant noodles. As anyone that ate food in the 80s will know you can make foods taste of practically anything if you add the right long complicated list of E numbered additives. These additives aren’t bad per se (some E numbers are even given to simple natural ingredients) but they can be used to the extreme.
For example in a totally generic pot *cough* of chicken and mushroom noodles you could add together 5 different powdered flavourings out of a jar and mix them with some concentrated mushroom juice (!) and call it good. You’d get something that tastes a bit like chicken and a bit like mushrooms but you’d probably be confused as to how they managed to do that and sell it as ‘vegetarian’.
Alternatively you could spend the time actually developing methods (such as freeze drying) to take real chicken and real vegetables and drying them so that they come alive and release their delicious flavours into the noodley soup when you prepare them. The second method is more time consuming for Mr Lee’s to make but you do end up with a chicken-flavoured noodle that actually contains chicken!
Making instant noodles is a diverse world of food science with competing noodles trying to make instant noodles the cheapest possible and others making instant noodles as real as possible. Both have their place but personally given the choice between a mould-produced noodle that was dried in boiling oil and mixed with not-chicken flavourings, or an individually cut noodle that was air dried and mixed with real chicken I think I’ll take the second one.