Learn the science behind:
It’s one of the quickest, and cheapest, meals around. All you need is access to hot boiling water. Yes, we’re talking instant noodles. Invented in Japan, but popular all around the world, they’re a life and time saver for millions of people.
But why do these noodles cook so quickly and easily? It’s because of a simple trick. They’ve been pre-cooked and then dried again. Let’s have a closer look at how they made that happen!
This article is a collaboration with Rochelle Kwan, a food science student, currently living in Hong Kong. Thank you Rochelle for doing a bunch of instant noodle research!
How instant noodles are made
Dried noodles, instant noodles, ramen, and fresh noodles pasta. They all describe very similar, but slightly different products. All start out as a dough made from mostly (durum) wheat flour and water. By rolling or extruding the dough, it’s shaped into long strands, noodles. You can directly cook these noodles, by boiling them in water, or, like many manufacturers do, dry them to store them for a long period of time. Cooking these noodles doesn’t take very long, depending on the size and shape, most noodles will be cooked within 10 minutes or so. The exception to that rule are instant noodles, they cook almost instantaneously, often in less than 2 minutes! Also, whereas most noodles will swell at least slightly during cooking, instant noodles don’t.
Instant noodles are pre-cooked
When a noodle dough cooks, it absorbs water. This enables the starches in the dough to gelatinize. During gelatinization starches absorb water, causing them to swell and even burst. It’s a crucial process to properly cooking not just noodles, but also potatoes and many other starch-based products. Gelatinization of starch causes the shape and consistency of a noodle to change. It will thicken slightly and the noodles might even stick to each other. None of this happens though when you cook instant noodles and that’s because the gelatinization process has already taken place in the factory. Instant noodles have been pre-cooked!
Instant noodles aren’t just noodles
Most people don’t just refer to the noodles themselves when talking about instant noodles. The type of packaging and additional sachets are just as important! Most instant noodles contain additional dried garnishes, as well as a powdered soup base for flavor and/or some spicy condiment. Another crucial element, especially for cup instant noodles, is the packaging. By packing the noodles in a heat-proof cup, the whole ‘dish’ can be made within that one cup, without needing any extra bowls. It’s what truly makes it an on-the-go dish!
Instant noodles start out as ‘regular’ noodles
Just like ‘regular’ noodles, spaghetti, and other similar products, making instant noodles starts by forming a dough of water, flour, and other relevant additives such as salt. Often, the dough goes through a ripening process, which causes partial gluten formation, strengthing the dough. Ripening also ensures even hydration of dough as uneven hydration leads to a weak or irregular protein structure that causes a decrease in the quality of the final product. Next, the dough is rolled using compound rollers, to further gluten formation. The stretchy network is accountable for the elasticity and extensibility of the end product. Lastly, the dough is rolled, and split to create the noodle shape.
But are pre-cooked
Next, instant noodles are cooked, mostly through steaming. Once cooked, the noodles go through cutting, folding, and dividing into individual portions which makes it convenient for packaging in the later stages.
Cooked noodles spoil rapidly. The high amount of water makes them a perfect breeding ground for spoilage microorganisms. Instant noodles though can be stored for months, if not years, on end. Manufacturers achieve this long shelf by removing most of the moisture from noodles.
Whereas freshly cooked noodles are flexible, dried noodles become hard and brittle. This is typical for a low-moisture product, just like potato chips or crispy chicken skin. To ensure that the noodles fit in the final package, manufacturers need to control the shape during drying. Many instant noodles are dried in a wavy pattern, or delicately rolled up to fit in their final cup or pack. This has an additional benefit: it allows the noodles to easily re-absorb water when consumers prepare the noodles. Ensures very fast and even cooking!
There are two different ways to dry noodles:
- The ‘traditional’ method of deep frying the noodles.
- Or a slightly more recent invention, using air drying.
The original drying method: Deep-frying
One way to remove moisture from food is to heat the product to well about the boiling point of water. At these temperatures, water evaporates and thus leaves the noodles. Deep-frying noodles is the ‘traditional’ one way to do so. During frying, water molecules are forced to migrate outwards from the center, while evaporating on the exterior surfaces. The noodles get fried in oil of 140-160ºC for a couple of minutes to reduce the moisture content from 30-40% to as low as 2-6%. An added benefit of frying instant noodles is the formation of porous, honeycomb-like structure in the noodle, because of the vaporization of water. This feature further improves cooking efficiency for the final consumer by shortening cooking time during rehydration.
The deep-frying process needs to be controlled well. Excessive oil uptake not only increases the production cost but also reduces shelf life as oil is prone to getting rancid over time, giving a non-appealing off-flavor to instant noodles. In order to minimize the risk of rancidity, instant noodles must be cooled down before moving onto the packaging phase as cooling is able to prevent oil rancidity and ultimately prolong shelf life.
Blow-drying noodles for less calories
Nowadays, manufacturers may also dry noodles using industrial blow drying equipment. Hot air is blown past the noodles for 30-60 minutes. This causes water to slowly evaporate from the noodles. The noodles don’t get as hot during this process which is why it takes significantly longer. Also, the final texture of noodles dried this way will be different. They won’t have that porous, honeycomb-like structure, so they’ll take a little longer to cook than deep-fried ones. But, the noodles do contain considerably less fat, making it a lower-calorie option. Also, they aren’t as prone to turning rancid over time, resulting in a longer shelf life.
Research is on the way to develop, new better ways of drying noodles without oil. Microwave and infrared drying may be potential future candidates but are still in the developmental space.
Rehydration for consumption
Once dried, cooled, and packaged with its flavorings, instant noodles are ready to head out into the world. When you buy a pack, or cup, of instant noodles, all you’ll have to do is add some hot, boiling water. No ‘real’ cooking takes place. That is, no chemical changes occur. Instead, all you’re doing as a consumer is reversing the drying process. The noodles re-absorb the water, and they’re ready to go. Without any stickiness, or changes in shape. A true on-the-go meal.
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