There's a wonderful world of noodles out there. Just about every culture under the sun has its own version of this endlessly adaptable staple ingredient. Noodles are one of the great comfort foods wherever they're found, being easy to prepare, versatile and inexpensive. Bean thread noodles are all of these things and more.
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Where and How to Find Bean Thread Noodles
Bean thread noodles are also known as cellophane, glass or crystal noodles because when they're cooked al dente, they become transparent in appearance. They can be found in the Asian foods aisle of your supermarket or at most Asian specialty markets packaged as bundles of dried, opaque strands.
True bean thread noodles use mung bean starch as their source ingredient, but there are variations of starch-based noodles that use pea starch or sweet potato starch instead. For instance, Japanese arusame — also known as "salad noodle" — and the Korean dangmyeon noodle are made from sweet potato starch and are thicker and tougher than bean thread noodles.
The bean thread noodle and its starchy relatives are gluten free and can be prepared using similar methods. Like wheat-based pasta, they can be found in various widths, and the vermicelli width works well in many dishes. Although these noodles can be eaten on their own as a side dish or filling snack, they're more often used as a component of something more complex.
Soaking the Noodles
The most popular method of preparation is to soak the noodles in very hot water. Place a bundle of noodles in a large bowl and pour the water over them to cover. Let them soak for 15 to 20 minutes, testing for mouthfeel before removing and draining them. At this point, you can cut the long noodles into shorter, more manageable segments with kitchen shears.
If you like, you can put a little vegetable oil on the cutting edges to make the slicing easier. Some cooks find it helpful to toss the noodles in a light vegetable oil in order to keep the strands separate.
Ways to Use Bean Thread Noodles
There are many ways to use the prepared noodles. The simplest choice is to toss them with a little sesame oil, tamari, softened white miso, vinaigrette dressing or a concoction of your own. Keep in mind that the noodles themselves have very little flavor but can easily absorb that of adjacent ingredients.
Plain noodles can also come to the aid of your cache of leftover meats and vegetables. Toss the noodles with chopped raw vegetables and light dressing for a healthy salad, or create appealing noodle bowls by chopping and seasoning what you have on hand. Place the noodles on the bottom, arrange the meats and veggies on top and then serve at room temperature or heat it in the microwave. You could also layer the components in a lidded jar and take this quick, tasty lunch to work.
Prepared noodles can be used to bulk out pot stickers, spring rolls and lettuce wraps in order to add texture (or if you're running short on prepared filling). You can even add noodles to scrambled eggs or omelets.
Using Noodles in Stir Fries
Bean thread noodles are a key element in many a stir fry. For example, start with cubed chicken or firm tofu in a marinade mixture of half a cup of chicken or vegetable stock combined with a tablespoon or so each of tamari, fish sauce, mirin and brown sugar (taste to make sure the proportions are to your liking). You can substitute or add other seasonings of your choice, of course – how about trying chili paste, white miso or hoisin sauce?
Let the chicken or tofu marinate in the mixture while the noodles are soaking and then remove from the marinade and stir fry in a little oil. Add the noodles (making sure the strands are separated) together with dribbles of the reserved marinade.
You can make another easy dish by tossing presoaked and drained noodles with ground meat that has been stir fried with minced garlic, fresh chopped cilantro, Thai basil and Thai chili sauce to taste.
Noodles Coming to a Boil
Bean thread noodles may be thin and seem fragile, but they're stronger than they appear, and don't forget that they're also super absorbent. Dry noodles can be added to boiling-hot stock or soup, but keep in mind that they'll suck up a lot of the liquid in the pot as well as a lot of flavor. Measure and season the liquid in your bean thread soup accordingly.
A different approach is to deep fry the dried noodles. Heat the frying oil to 345 degrees, add the noodles and watch them puff up (it won't take long). Remove them and drain them, and you have yourself a crispy treat. You can use them to top everything from salads to casseroles.
Although they contain only small amounts of the nutrients iron, niacin and selenium, bean thread noodles are a great source of complex carbohydrates.