Soba noodles are a type of Japanese noodles made from buckwheat flour, with a nutty flavor and dense texture, used in a variety of salads, soups, and stir-frys, and often served chilled with a soy-based dipping sauce.
- Originate in Japan
- Made from buckwheat flour
- Usually not gluten-free
- Can be served hot or chilled
What Are Soba Noodles?
Soba noodles are a thin Japanese noodle made primarily from buckwheat flour along with a smaller proportion of wheat flour. They have a nutty flavor and dense, slightly chewy consistency, along with a color that ranges from pale tan to brownish-gray, depending on the proportion of buckwheat flour (more buckwheat equals a darker noodle). They can be eaten either chilled, with a soy-based dipping sauce called tsuyu, or hot, usually in a soup or broth. Both preparations are enjoyed year-round, although traditionally the cold version is favored during the warmer months and the hot versions in winter.
Soba noodles originated in Japan, where they are enjoyed everywhere from fine restaurants to street stands, and where they're a traditional New Year's Eve meal. Soba noodles are made by combining buckwheat flour, along with a small amount of wheat flour, with water, mixing to form a crumbly dough, then rolling out that dough into a flat sheet which is then folded and hand-cut into slender strands about the thickness of spaghetti. The noodles can then be cooked immediately, or dried and cooked later. In North America, the dried type is most common.
Although buckwheat is a gluten-free grain, most soba noodles contain some wheat flour, meaning they're not gluten-free. Without gluten, the dough would be brittle, and the noodles would be prone to falling apart, either before or during cooking. A small amount of wheat flour helps the dough come together, makes it easier to roll out, and prevents the noodles from breaking. Most dried soba noodles contain around 20 to 25 percent wheat flour, although it is possible to find gluten-free soba noodles made from 100 percent buckwheat flour.
While traditional soba is made with nothing but buckwheat flour, wheat flour, and water, some versions incorporate other ingredients, such as seaweed, green tea powder, or wild yam flour.
Soba vs. Somen Noodles
Somen noodles are another Japanese noodle that is sometimes compared with soba noodles. And while somen noodles are often served chilled and eaten with a dipping sauce, just like soba, and they have approximately the same thickness, they are actually quite different. For starters, somen noodles are made from 100 percent wheat flour, and they're light-colored, like ramen or udon noodles. And, unlike soba, somen noodles also contain a small amount of vegetable oil.
Additionally, somen noodles are produced by stretching, which provides additional development to the glutens in the flour, giving it a more toothsome mouth feel. In this respect, somen noodles have more in common with udon noodles, although they're much thinner. And, unlike udon, which are sold fresh, somen noodles are mostly sold dried.
How to Cook With Soba Noodles
The two primary ways that soba noodles are prepared are cold and hot. The cold version is made by simmering, then draining the noodles, before chilling them in a bath of water and ice. The noodles are then served on a tray or basket, sometimes atop ice cubes, garnished with chopped nori, a type of seaweed, and a dipping sauce made of soy sauce and mirin. Typical garnishes also include grated daikon horseradish and thinly sliced scallions.
The hot version is prepared with an umami-rich Japanese soup stock known as dashi, made by simmering dried bonito and a dried kelp called kombu. The cooked noodles are served in the broth, along with other ingredients such as fried tofu, raw egg, or crunchy bits of tempura batter.
Once cooked, chilled in ice water, and drained, the cold soba noodles can also be used in a number of preparations, including salads, stir-frys, and as a base or accompaniment for meat or seafood. They're often served as a side dish along with tempura.
What Do They Taste Like?
Soba noodles have a nutty, earthy flavor with a hint of sweetness and a moderately dense, chewy texture.
Soba Noodle Recipes
Here are a few recipes that feature soba noodles.
Where to Buy Soba Noodles
Dried soba noodles can be found at Japanese grocery stores, Asian grocery stores, as well as in the Asian foods sections of larger conventional supermarkets. They're also available online.
Dried soba noodles are best used within about a year of purchasing them, provided they're stored in a cool, dry place, the same way you'd keep dried pasta or rice. If you have purchased fresh soba noodles, they should be used right away, but if you can't, keep them refrigerated and use them within one to three days.