We Tasted 17 Store-Bought Soba Noodles, and This Was Our Favorite
Mutsuko Soma guides us through the basics of soba for delicious at-home noodles.
Even after watching her grandmother make soba throughout her childhood, it took Food & Wine 2019 Best New Chef Mutsuko Soma two years in an intensive soba course in Tokyo to learn how to make these notoriously challenging, low gluten noodles. If you, like the rest of Team Food & Wine, felt your stomach rumble at Jordana Rothman’s description of Soma’s soba at her Seattle restaurant Kamonegi in our July issue, but you also, like us, have no imminent plans to visit Seattle or enroll in a two-year noodle-making course, then you will need to turn to packaged soba to satisfy your craving.
Since soba is notoriously finicky, we figured that different brands of noodles would yield wildly different results based on the percentages of wheat flour to buckwheat flour, as well as any additions that brands might add to improve texture and flavor. To figure out what we should be looking for in the perfect noodle, we called Soma, who told us the key to soba is largely in the texture.
“Soba is not so smooth," she said. Buckwheat is not a grain, it’s a fruit seed, so it’s a little bit coarser in texture than regular wheat." Traditional soba like Soma’s is made with 80 percent buckwheat and 20 percent wheat, so the flavor and texture of the buckwheat are pronounced. Since buckwheat is gluten-free, the noodles need some wheat to form gluten bonds and hold the noodle together. For a dried noodle to hold together, you need even more gluten, so there’s a higher percentage of wheat of wheat in any soba you’ll find dried in a grocery store.
“If you go to the grocery store, you’ll see lots of dried soba noodle packages, and those mostly contain wheat instead of buckwheat,” says Soma. “If you’re looking for a high-quality soba noodle, it should say buckwheat as the first ingredient, not wheat. It’s a law in Japan that you have to use more than 30 percent buckwheat flour to label something as soba. If it’s not 30 percent, we can’t call it soba.”
Armed with this information, we hit the grocery store aisles. Across several local and national grocers, Asian grocery stores, and a Whole Foods, we found 17 different types of soba noodles, but struggled to find noodles that met Soma’s requirement. The soba that is largely available in the U.S. is majority wheat – all the soba we tested listed wheat before buckwheat in the ingredient list, and only one included percentages – the Eden Organic brand (available at Whole Foods) uses 70% organic spring wheat flour and 30% organic buckwheat, plus sea salt. Not a single brand we tested listed buckwheat as the first ingredient.
We were surprised to notice that several of the brands we purchased included either yam flour or tapioca in addition to buckwheat, wheat, salt, and water. Since there were only a sum total of six ingredients across every brand of noodle, we wanted to know what these ingredients bring to the table.
We contacted Shirakiku, a Japanese company that produces two of the varieties that we liked. According to them, yam and tapioca are binders that help keep the noodles together, without overwhelming the flavor of buckwheat the way that regular wheat might. The outcome is a slippery, flavorsome noodles. It might be less traditional, but it protects the integrity of the noodle, they told us.
The taste test:
For our taste test, we quickly cooked the noodles in unsalted, then rinsed them in ice water and tasted them as quickly as possible, dipped in the sauce from Soma’s recipe. Soma recommends cooking the noodles only 3 to 5 minutes, no matter what the package says. She then rinses them until any gooey texture is gone, and plunges them into ice water to chill.
Despite following this protocol, we found that soba noodles do not have a very long shelf life. Almost every type got sticky and clumpy within 30 minutes. Be sure to cook these noodles right before you sit down to eat if you want to enjoy them with only the dipping sauce. For noodle salads and other applications, a splash of sesame oil after rinsing would keep them from sticking.
Ultimately, we love Kabuto Zaru Soba and Shirakiku Japanese Zaru Soba for soba noodle salads or other non-traditional applications. If you’re pining for something closer to Soma’s take on the traditional soba noodle, look for Wei Chan Organic Buckwheat noodles or Shirakiku Hana Tororo Soba.