Japanese Soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour (which is not actually a flour but milled berries). “Soba” can refer to the milled buckwheat flour or to the actual noodles. Traditionally, Soba noodles are made from 100% buckwheat flour but because buckwheat lacks gluten, all-purpose flour is added to the dough to make it more pliable.
My kids and I have gotten to the point now where we could make homemade ramen, udon, or egg noodles without too much difficulty. But when we tried to make Japanese soba noodles, the results were disastrous and all went into the trash. Why were soba noodles so difficult to make? What was I doing wrong?
In my attempts to make Soba, I tried adding 20% and then 30% and even 50% all-purpose flour to my buckwheat flour but after tossing two pounds of failed soba noodles into the trash, I was ready to give up!
The dough texture was all wrong and kept falling apart. I couldn’t manage to roll it by hand nor with my pasta machine. When I finally coaxed a few measly strands of noodles from the dough, they disintegrated in boiling water and tasted awful. I suspected the Bob’s Red Mill buckwheat flour I was using was the wrong kind of buckwheat.
Last summer, while in the U.S., I enrolled in a soba making class taught by Sonoko Sakai. Sonoko is a petite and energetic Japanese-American who spent 20 years in the film industry as a producer and buyer. She left that life behind and today is a cooking teacher, food writer and cookbook author. She has a passion for soba and for promoting Japanese food and culture.
My friend and I arrived early to Sonoko’s suburban home cum cooking studio in Los Angeles, California and walked in on other even earlier arrivals already sifting and measuring flour. Sonoko briskly greeted us and sent us to the living room to pour ourselves mugs of refreshing homemade iced tea.
When the rest of the class arrived, Sonoko dived right into educating us about buckwheat. She passed around jars of hulled and un-hulled buckwheat berries. Buckwheat “flour” is made from the milling of hulled buckwheat berries.
“Soba” in Japanese can refer to buckwheat flour or to the actual noodles made from buckwheat.
Soba noodles are traditionally made from 100% buckwheat flour. Because buckwheat is not a grain but a berry, buckwheat “flour” is gluten free and would be perfect for people with celiac disease.
However, 100% buckwheat noodles are hard to come by because it can only be made by specially-trained soba masterchefs and the noodles must be eaten fresh. Soba is possibly the most difficult noodle to make because without gluten, the dough lacks pliability and can be impossible to knead for the average home chef.
Commercially sold soba noodles are made with a combination of all-purpose flour and buckwheat. In the US, soba noodles need only contain 30% buckwheat flour to be legally labeled as soba. Interestingly, the US is one of the top 5 buckwheat growing countries but almost all of it is used as cover crop.
In class, we made soba in the Nihachi style which is 80% buckwheat and 20% all-purpose flour. The buckwheat we used was imported from Japan and the wheat flour was from the King Arthur brand. Since buckwheat has no gluten, it is difficult to roll and stretch and adding a little flour helps immensely. And my earlier suspicions were correct, I was using the wrong kind of buckwheat flour.
Our only supplies in the class was an Ikea cutting board (the kind with the dropped edge so that it wouldn’t slide around), a long wooden rolling pin, a wooden cutting guide, and a soba knife.
The shape of the soba knife was not like any knife I had seen before. I immediately dreamed of owning my own not knowing yet that a good one could cost hundreds of dollars, even thousands. I purchased this soba knife and this cutting guide on Amazon to see if I would get any use out of them before committing to a more expensive set.
Sonoko said that proper soba-making from beginning to end should take 20 minutes. Ha! For sure it took me longer as a beginner but there was of course no pressure in class to do so.
Making soba noodles with Sonoko was such a pleasurable experience. The Japanese have such a wonderful way of doing things with such precision and beauty.
For example, we didn’t just pour water haphazardly onto the dough and mix in a random pattern with our hands. We used our fingers to first “sweep” flour into a well of water until all the water was incorporated and then we moved the dough in smooth circular motions around the mixing bowl so that small flour clumps became large bread clumps until one single large ball of dough was formed.
We divided the large ball of dough amongst us and our first task was to knead the raggedy dough with our hands until it was fairly smooth and formed a flower petal.
Next we transformed the flower into what I call a fruit roll-up, then a mountain, and then a Hershey’s kiss which we flattened into a disk with the palm of our hands. At this point the disk of dough should be seamless and ready to be rolled with the long wooden rolling pin.
I couldn’t get over how easy it was to knead this soba dough. So pliable and soft. Not like the one I tried at home with the wrong buckwehat flour. And the color – so much lighter than my previous failed attempts!
From here things got a little technical and we learned how to roll the disk of dough into a large thin circle which we then formed into a square by slapping the edges onto the table with the rolling pin. To prevent the dough from sticking, lots of tapioca starch was used.
The square dough we folded in fourths and used the wooden soba cutting guide and soba knife to evenly (ha!) cut the dough into strands. Even this cutting process had it’s own unique rhythm: Cut-tap-slide. Cut-tap-slide. Cut-tap-slide.
The speed of how fast soba masters can cut-tap-slide and still have consistently-sized noodles is amazing. Of course I was very slow in the process.
The Soba noodles were cooked in plenty of unsalted boiling water for less than two minutes, drained into a strainer, and then literally roughly scrubbed together in ice water to remove any excess starch (like when you scrub clothes to clean them).
Before cooking the noodles, we gathered in the kitchen to make dashi broth and baked chicken to accompany our soba.
Sonoko taught us which ingredients to use to make up dashi and gave recommendations on where and what brands to to buy.
After the dashi was made, the toppings prepared and the soba noodles cooked, we gathered under the tree-dappled shade of Sonoko’s garden to assemble our bowls of soba.
In beautiful earthenware bowls, we first placed a small portion of soba noodles and then added our choice of toppings: Shimeji mushrooms, sauteed shishito peppers, halved soft-boiled eggs, shredded daikon, julienne carrots, sliced green onions, and baked teriyaki chicken. Finally we ladled cold dashi stock over everything in our bowl.
I was in Soba heaven! The soba was so smooth, the cold dashi was light and refreshing – prefect for the Los Angeles summer.
Before I left, I bough some of the Japanese buckwheat flour from Sonoko in hopes that my kids and I could recreate the noodles at home.
Please visit Sonoko Sakai’s website to see all the cooking classes she has to offer. Maybe I’ll see you at the next one.