Contrary to the name, Asian rice noodles don't cook at all like classic pasta noodles. Rice noodles, or rice sticks as they are sometimes called, actually should not be boiled at all to cook. While this concept can be trying for even experienced chefs, it really isn't too tricky. Different techniques should be used for different dishes, and with a little practice perfect rice noodle dishes can be attained by novice kitchen dabblers and experts alike.
For Salads and Spring Rolls
The quickest way to prepare rice noodles for using cold is to cook them in hot water. Fill a pot with enough water to theoretically submerge the noodles, but keep the dry noodles on the side until you are ready for them. Bring the water to a boil and remove from heat. Add the rice noodles and allow to soften for 30 seconds, then stir with a fork to break apart and separate. Let them soak for another 3 minutes, until pliable but al dente. Rinse thoroughly in a colander with cold water until they are completely cool to prevent further cooking and unwanted sticking. These rice sticks are now ready for use in a cold salad or spring roll.
Stir-fries and Other Pan-fried Dishes
The surest way to turn rice noodles into a gooey glob is to overcook them, and that can be tricky with sauteing since they need to first be softened and then pan-fried. The trick is not to cook the noodles to soften them the first time around. Place the dried noodles in a large bowl and cover them with cool water for anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the thickness of the noodle, soaking until pliable and al dente. These noodles are now ready to be added directly to your stir-fry and cooked in a pan for 3 to 5 minutes with other ingredients and sauces.
Soups and Curries
Add rice noodles directly to soups or curries at the end of the cooking time. Prepare soup or curry as you wish, leaving the uncooked rice noodles to the side but cooking everything else to desired doneness. Turn off the heat completely, then add the rice noodles, cover and let sit for 3 to 5 minutes before serving.
Tips and Tricks
Keep the noodles moving and coated with enough oil or sauce to prevent sticking and clumping while pan-frying. Rice sticks should never be boiled because they quickly loose their body during the cooking process -- it is crucial not to overdo it. When rinsing for salads or cold dishes, lift and toss while rinsing under cold water, then spread out on a clean cloth or paper towel to remove extra moisture and prevent sticking. Cold noodles can also be tossed with oil to help avoid stickiness. The most important method to prevent clumping and mushiness is to cool them down quickly and thoroughly.