When Making Pad Thai, Al Dente Noodles Make All The Difference

Pad Thai is a go-to dish on every Thai take-out menu. However, some prefer the challenge of making it at home. Authentic pad Thai recipes feature a blend of salty, sweet, and sour flavors. Your grocery list is likely to include everything from tamarind to Thai soy sauce, ground shrimp to bean sprouts, fish sauce, garlic chives, and palm sugar — ingredients that all play a small yet irreplaceable role in your pad Thai's finished flavor. But one thing that makes all the difference and is rarely discussed to it's level of importance is how you cook the noodles. 

From the ba mee egg noodles used in khao soi to the fermented kanom jeen noodles found in spring rolls, Thai cuisine uses an array of noodle varieties about as diverse and complex as what you'd find in an Italian kitchen. But, outside of Thai culture, they're not widely known about. In pad Thai specifically, you'll find different widths of dried flat rice noodles — from thin to wide to extra wide. What you choose will not alter the taste of the finished dish; it's mostly based on personal preference. However, the most important thing is that you prepare them correctly. As Kris Yenbamroong of the popular Los Angeles Thai restaurant Night + Market insists: It's imperative that you don't overcook them.

Al dente pad Thai

Speaking with GQ, Kris Yenbamroong warned, "Don't overcook the noodles — some people boil them before throwing them in the wok." But, as he explains, this isn't the ideal way to prepare them for pad Thai. "They get mushy and sometimes break up into little shards," he says. "Pad Thai noodles should have chew." The dried rice noodles that are used in pad Thai only need to be rehydrated — not boiled. That's because the dish uses ingredients that contain liquid, which, when added to a hot wok, create steam that ends up cooking the noodles. So, if they've already been boiled beforehand, they're likely to end up as mush. 

Instead of boiling them, give the rice noodles a nice bath in room-temperature water until they're fully rehydrated before you add them to the wok. For thin noodles, this will take 20-30 minutes, while wider noodles can take up to an hour. (You can do this ahead and keep them in the fridge in an airtight container, as long as they're thoroughly drained.) You'll know they've soaked long enough if you pick them up from the water, and they droop, but you can tell they still have substance. Then, they can go directly into the wok or pan that you're cooking the rest of your pad Thai ingredients in. The heat from the pan will finish cooking the noodles to that chewy, al dente perfection. You might need to add a bit of extra water to create steam — but that amount can vary, so follow a recipe to be sure.