Soba noodles are made with buckwheat flour and water, to which wheat flour can be added as a binder. This nihachi-style soba recipe uses 80 percent buckwheat flour and 20 percent wheat flour. It is a classic blend that works beautifully. The wheat acts as a binding agent and provides a good chew, while the buckwheat gives it the hauntingly nutty fragrance. You can make soba with 100 percent sobakoh (buckwheat flour), if the buckwheat is fresh and very slowly milled in a stone mill.
Japanese artisan buckwheat miller Yoshitomo Arakawa has dedicated more than 30 years of his life to milling buckwheat flour. He directs the operation of more than 100 stone mills, each producing as little as five pounds per hour—very slow compared to the stone mills in the United States that mill grains more than 10 times that speed. But this slow milling is a gentle process that ensures freshness and good flavor. Since buckwheat is grown in this country and there is a growing demand for good soba noodles, I hope to see a market for that kind of flour in the near future.
You will find that some special tools come in handy if you want to pursue the artisan style of noodle making, particularly a soba bocho (soba knife) for cutting the noodles long, a memboh (rolling pin), and a koma-ita (cutting guide), which works like a ruler. If you don’t have these tools, you can use your kitchen knife and a ruler. The thickness will be different from authentic soba noodles, but the flavor will be there. Sobakoh and authentic tools for making noodles are available at Japanese markets and online. You can also use a pasta machine, but I do encourage you to try making it by hand. Use the grams on the digital scale to measure the flour.
Makes 3 to 4 servings
- Rolling pin
- Koma-ita (cutting guide) or ruler
- Soba bocho (soba knife) or other large knife
For the soba:
- 3 1/3 cups soba-grade buckwheat flour (sobakoh)
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour or whole wheat flour (preferably Sonora wheat or Pasayten wheat varieties)
- 1 1/4 cup filtered water
- 1 cup tapioca starch
- 2 quarts ice water
Cover the underside of a large bowl with a damp paper towel so the bowl doesn’t move. Sift the buckwheat and all-purpose flours into a large bowl. Set aside 2 tablespoons of the water and put the rest in the bowl. Work the water into the flour in a swirling pattern. Quickly toss together the flour and water, using your fingertips, until well combined. If you have any flour on your fingers, scrape it off and add it back into the dough. Continue to work the dough until it forms a crumbly mass.
Working quickly and using the palms of your hands in circular motion (Wax on! Wax off!), knead the dough until it becomes smooth, shiny, and with no visible cracks. If the dough feels dry, add a tablespoon of water, and continue kneading until the crumbly mass becomes little dough balls. Gather the small balls and shape them into one large ball. Knead the ball until it is semi-firm and smooth (it should feel like your earlobe), not sticky. Press the ball into a disk about 1 inch thick. This will take about 5 minutes. If the dough still feels dry, add an additional tablespoon of water but don’t be tempted to add any more. You don’t want a wet dough.
Sprinkle the cutting board and the dough with a pinch of starch. Using a rolling pin, roll the disk into a rectangle shape about 18 inches square and 1/8 inch thick. Feel the entire surface of the dough to check if there are any thick areas. Do not flip the dough while you are rolling it out. You want the dough to have an even thickness.
Generously sprinkle the tapioca starch over half of the dough and fold the other half on top of it (the dusting starch will keep the dough from sticking to itself). Generously dust another half of the dough, perpendicular to the rectangle you just folded, with tapioca starch and fold again. You will be shaking off the starch after the noodles are cut, so don’t worry about overdusting.
You now have a “stack” of dough that is 4 layers deep. Starting along the short, folded side of the dough, use a ruler and knife (or cutting guide and soba knife) to slice it into thin noodles that are even in size, about 1/8 inch thick (the thickness will vary from person to person). The idea is to handle the noodles gently (being careful not to squash them) and shake off the dusting starch by tapping the noodles on both ends. Transfer the noodles to a baking sheet, laying them flat. Do not bundle the noodles like you would with pasta or udon, or they will break. When the pan is full of noodles, cover it with a dish towel or plastic wrap and keep refrigerated until you are ready to cook the noodles. They are best made and eaten on the same day, but they will keep for up to 2 days in the refrigerator.
To cook the noodles, bring a stockpot of unsalted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Gently drop the noodles into the boiling water, making sure the water stays vigorously boiling so the noodles don’t stick together. Do not use ramen baskets. Cook only 2 servings at a time, so the noodles can swim in the pot, but do not stir. Cook the noodles until al dente, about 90 seconds (if they are thin like spaghetti) to 3 minutes (if they are thick like linguini). The timing will vary depending on the thickness of the noodles.
Scoop the noodles with a large sieve in one scoop. Transfer the noodles to a strainer that is set in the bowl of water to stop the cooking. Remove any surface starch by giving the noodles a vigorous rinse under cold running water. Drain and then rinse the noodles once more. Drain thoroughly by hitting the side and bottom of the strainer but don’t toss the noodles. Serve immediately, in a soup, or with dipping sauce, or in a salad. The noodles are best eaten fresh. Cooked soba noodles do not hold up in the refrigerator very well.
From “Japanese Home Cooking“ by Sonoko Sakai, copyright 2019 Sonoko Sakai. Photographs copyright 2019 by Rick Poon. Reprinted in arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, Col.