In his search for an easy way to make pro-grade ramen at home, J. Kenji López-Alt also stumbled onto a way to keep all-American pasta salad from getting mushy. And the answer to both was in his kitchen all along.
López-Alt, a James Beard Award-winning food science writer and author of “The Food Lab,” wanted a way to replicate the springy, slippery texture and eggy color he loves in authentic ramen noodles without having to head to the Asian market every time he got a craving.
The noodles get their distinctive texture from the addition of kansui, an alkaline salt, though in the U.S. baking soda often is substituted. Both up the alkalinity of the noodles which, when heated, changes their texture and color.
Though the baking soda or kansui typically are mixed into the dough, López-Alt found he could replicate the effect by boiling conventional Italian angel hair pasta in water mixed with baking soda—2 teaspoons per quart of water.
But turning pasta—thicker noodles work, too—was just the start. The leftovers prompted another revelation: When chilled, pasta boiled with baking soda retained it shape and texture better than conventionally cooked noodles. And when used in a classic pasta salad, those noodles didn't turn mushy from absorbing the dressing.
The reason? The baking soda diminishes the flour's ability to absorb liquid, which helps keep the noodles firm. Less liquid also means less gluten development, which produces a chewier texture.