I must confess to eating this entire bowl of soba by myself. I didn't share. I didn't look up from the bowl. I just inhaled. Fresh buckwheat soba is an entirely different food group from the dried soba we usually buy at the store. It's like night and day. The nutty aroma of the buckwheat, the perfect chewiness of the noodles, the way they slip perfectly around a chopstick — fresh soba needs little more than some dashi and a splash of soy sauce to be the perfect meal. Here's how you can make it at home.
Food writer and soba-making expert Sonoko Sakai was an invaluable source while I was putting together this lesson on making soba at home. She is the program curator for Common Grains, an organization dedicated to educating people about Japanese food and culture, and she teaches workshops on making soba, udon, onigiri, and other Japanese foods in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. If she is teaching a workshop near you, I highly recommend taking it. Thank you, Sonoko!
A second thank you to Sheri Codiana, who is a student at the San Francisco Cooking School and invited me over to make soba after Sonoko taught a workshop at her school. She is also today's hand model. Thank you, Sheri!
What is soba?
Soba is a Japanese noodle traditionally made with 100% buckwheat flour — this kind of all-buckwheat soba is called juwari soba. However, since the buckwheat seed contains no gluten at all, this makes it very tricky to work with as a flour, especially when attempting soba at home. Professional soba makers have years of experience and special equipment at their disposal that we home cooks do not.
Ni-hachi soba is another style that is made with roughly 80% buckwheat flour and 20% wheat flour. This is the kind of soba that Sonoko teaches in her workshops and the kind that we're making here. That little bit of wheat flour helps hold the soba dough together and gives it some elasticity while rolling it out.
Can I make gluten-free soba noodles with 100% buckwheat?
You can...but it's tricky. Not only does a dough of 100% buckwheat flour tend to crumble and break while you work it, but it also dries out incredibly quickly and the resulting noodles are very fragile. Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills recommends using boiling water when making soba with 100% buckwheat to gelatinize the buckwheat starches and help the dough hold together. Roll the dough a bit thicker than recommended in the recipe below, and once made, cook and eat the noodles immediately before they dry out.
Where can I find buckwheat flour for soba?
The buckwheat flour for making soba noodles — called sobakoh — needs to be specially grown, harvested, and milled. Unfortunately, not all buckwheat flours (or the flour you mill yourself) will work. The best flours available to us in the United States are those from Anson Mills and Cold Mountain. Links to purchasing Anson Mills' flours are below; Cold Mountain brand buckwheat flour can be found at many Asian and Japanese markets.
Do I need a pasta roller or special equipment to make soba?
Nope! You can make soba with just a mixing bowl, a rolling pin, and your upper arm strength. Sonoko makes her soba dough entirely in a mixing bowl, but I found it helpful to knead it for a few minutes against the counter. If you have a pasta roller, you can also divide the dough into four sections and use your roller to make and cut the sheets of soba.
One thing that I do want to emphasize is that this recipe works best if you can weigh your ingredients. I've provided rough volume equivalents, but weighing them gives more accurate and consistent results.
Whether your weigh or scoop your flours, let how the dough feels in your hands be your final judge — if it seems dry and floury, add a little water; if it seems overly sticky and gloppy, add a little flour. Factors like humidity and the dryness of the flour can affect the exact amount of flour and water used from batch to batch.
How do I cook fresh soba noodles?
Cook the noodles for just 60 seconds, then drain and immediately rinse under cool water. Use your hands to lift and gently shake the noodles as you rinse them; this helps remove the starchy film that the noodles develop during cooking. After rinsing, shock the noodles in bowl of cold water will ice cubes. Drain and serve immediately, cold or room temperature. The noodles are fantastic just dipped in a simple bowl of dashi. I also like to toss them with soy sauce, sesame oil, chopped green onions, and a sprinkle of chili flakes.
Soba is a noodle that's meant to be cooked and eaten right away. That said, you can freeze the raw noodles for up to three months. Let them defrost in the fridge before cooking.
Sources for Sobakoh and Soba-Making:
Ni-hachi soba is another style that is made with roughly 80% buckwheat flour and 20% wheat flour. That little bit of wheat flour helps hold the soba dough together and gives it some elasticity while rolling it out.
How to Make Buckwheat Soba Noodles from Scratch
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Adapated from Sonoko Sakai's recipe for Ni-Hachi Style Soba Noodles
What You Need
2 generous cups (280 grams/9 1/2 ounces) stone-milled buckwheat flour from Anson Mills or Cold Mountain
1/2 generous cup (70 grams/2 1/2 ounces) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (175 grams/6 ounces) filtered or mineral water
Buckwheat starch or tapioca starch, for rolling the soba
Measuring cups and spoons
Combine the flours: Weigh the two flours. Sift them through the strainer into a large mixing bowl.
Add the water to the flour: Measure the water and pour it over the flours.
Knead until a crumbly dough is formed: Work the flours and water together with your hands and then knead it in the bowl until it come together into a rough and slightly crumbly dough. If the dough feels dry or you can still see dry flour after a few minutes of kneading, then add water a tablespoon at a time until all the flour is integrated. Conversely, if the dough feels very wet and sticky, add all-purpose flour a tablespoon at a time until it becomes a workable dough.
Knead the dough on the counter until smooth: Turn the dough out onto the counter. Continue kneading until it holds together easily, does not crack while kneading, and becomes smooth. You should not need to add any more flour at this point. The dough will be very dense — use all your strength!
Shape the dough into a disk: Shape the dough into a pointed cone, like a mountain peak. Press straight down on the peak with the palm of your hand, squishing it into a disk about 1/2-inch thick. The bottom should be very smooth. This step helps ensure that the dough is even and in a uniform shape before rolling.
Roll out the dough: Sprinkle the counter with a little starch and place the dough on top. Sprinkle the top of the dough and the rolling pin with starch. Begin rolling out the dough, working from the center of the dough outward in long, even strokes. Gently tap the edges of the dough with your rolling pin to shape them into straight lines as you roll, gradually shaping the dough into as close a rectangular shape as you can make it. Use more starch as needed to prevent sticking.
Continue rolling the dough into a rectangle longer than it is wide and 1/16-inch to 1/8-inch thick (as thin as possible!). It's ok to move it around on the counter and flip it over as needed. Keep in mind that the vertical width of your dough will be the length of the final soba noodles.
Fold the dough: The next step is folding the dough in order to make it easier to cut straight, thin noodles. Spread a generous handful of starch over half of the dough. Fold the dough in half, like closing a book. Spread the bottom of the dough with more starch and fold the top down. Spread starch over the entire surface of the dough and fold the top down again. You should end up with a tidy rectangular package.
Slice the soba: Place a pastry scraper, ruler, or other thin, flat utensil over the top of the folded dough. You will use this as a guide when cutting the noodles. Using your chefs knife, begin cutting the noodles 1/16-inch to 1/8-inch thick — the same thickness as your dough. Move the pastry scraper back with every cut to help you cut noodles with an even thickness. Toss the cut noodles with a little more starch to prevent sticking. Cook or freeze the soba within a few hours.
→ Make-Ahead Moment: At this point, the soba can be frozen for up to 3 months. Thaw in the fridge before cooking.
Cook the soba: Set a strainer in your sink. Fill a large bowl with cold water and ice cubes, and set this near the sink. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt the water generously and drop in the soba. Cook for 60 seconds, then drain through the strainer in the sink. Rinse thoroughly under cool water, lifting and gently shaking the soba until the cooking film is rinsed away. Immediately dunk the soba in the bowl of ice water. Drain and serve with dashi, soy sauce, and sesame oil, or use the soba in any recipe.
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(Images: Emma Christensen)