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Almost a year ago, I wrote a basic but thorough guide to making alkaline noodles for ramen. It was designed to offer cooks curious about the process the confidence and information necessary to make their own attempts at home, which is why I tried to keep the process as simple as possible, relying on commonly available ingredients and equipment. I also implicitly cautioned against trying to work with low-hydration ramen doughs, because, when handled improperly, they can break pasta-rolling machines, which can be rather expensive.
At the end of the article, I urged readers to continue experimenting on their own by fiddling with the ratios in the base recipe, since tiny changes in the formula can have a big impact on the results. I also pointed to the many great noodle recipes Mike Satinover, a.k.a. /u/Ramen_Lord, has published over on the ramen subreddit.
But I have made many, many batches of noodles since that guide was published, and almost all of them have used the low-hydration doughs I’d originally cautioned against—that is, doughs in which the water weight is under 40% of the total flour weight used in the formulation. In the process, I’ve developed a method that produces good results with very little risk of breaking your equipment.
Given that, I think it’s time to share this more advanced guide to alkaline noodle–making, one that both lays out this new method in detail and offers a few additional tips, such as ratios for incorporating other flours and using combinations of alkaline salts, all of which will open up a range of possibilities for your own ramen experimentation.
Before we get into it, I want to stress that if this is your first time making alkaline noodles, you should use the original guide and recipe for a 40%-hydration dough, as it’s far easier to work with. If you have some experience, though, this approach will help you produce alkaline noodles on a machine that was designed to create pasta, and it’s easy to replicate.
It is certainly not the neatest or cleanest method—you’ll definitely make something of a mess—but, if executed properly, the noodles it produces will rival fresh noodles you can purchase at specialty markets. You may even prefer them to some of the noodles you can buy at stores.
How to Make Low-Hydration Ramen Noodles
Problems Presented by Low-Hydration Doughs (and Solutions)
Why Sub-40%-Hydration Noodles Are Challenging
The primary challenge the home cook faces when making alkaline noodles is working with equipment that’s ill-suited to the task. Unless you buy a noodle machine specifically designed to handle ramen dough (which is both very dry and quite stiff due to the way alkaline salts affect the dough), you’ll be using a machine designed for fresh Italian pasta. Italian pasta is typically made with a softer, egg-based dough that has been kneaded and rested prior to the sheeting process.
As I wrote in the previous guide:
Noodle manufacturers don’t have an issue with producing a workable dough at lower hydration levels because ramen isn’t produced in the same way one would make, say, fresh pasta: There is no initial kneading step, and all the gluten development happens in the rolling process, wherein the dough is folded over and over itself. Ramen manufacturers rely on the incredible pressure that can be exerted by the rollers on their ramen-specific machines to make those damp clumps of flour stick together and eventually form sheets of dough.
One solution to this challenge for the home cook is to work only with higher-hydration doughs, which is what I opted for in the more basic guide. The other is to somehow make sub-40%-hydration doughs easier for a home pasta roller to manipulate. It’s this latter solution that I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about since publishing my basic guide.
A Night of Rest and Relaxation
At some point, it occurred to me that the main impediment to making sub-40%-hydration ramen was that my flour wasn’t getting wet enough. The challenge of getting dough through the rollers wasn’t that there wasn’t enough total water in the formula; it was that the water that was there wasn’t coming into enough contact with the flour in the formula.
I recalled that even noodle manufacturers, with their incredibly strong rollers, will let their ramen dough rest a couple times during the process in order to let the flour more fully hydrate, both directly after the flour and water have been mixed and after the pebbly dough has been formed into sheets. Typically, these rest periods last only about 30 minutes, and the dough is often covered in plastic to prevent its exterior from drying out while the water and flour in its interior get to know one another a little better.
Because a home cook will be working with a rolling machine that is significantly weaker than the ones used by ramen manufacturers, I decided to counterbalance that weakness by substantially increasing the hydration time for the dough, letting the dough rest overnight after the initial mixing to fully hydrate the flour. I thought this might ameliorate any difficulties with getting the relatively dry dough through the rollers.
I initially tried mixing a 38%-hydration dough, as outlined in the previous guide. Then I balled it up; wrapped it as tightly as possible in plastic wrap (you can, and some do, vacuum-seal the dough to encourage hydration); and let it sit in the refrigerator overnight.
But the next day, I immediately encountered a problem, even though the dough seemed quite well hydrated: Getting the dough thin enough to pass through the rollers proved to be incredibly difficult, with the rollers having to exert a worrisome amount of pressure on the dough to turn it into sheets.
The Limits of the Sphere of Imagination
My next idea came after a particularly wonky noodle-making session. Sometimes, whether because the noodle gods have decided to vex me or because I’m not paying attention, the process of sheeting dough can go sideways. Thankfully, as long as I’m able to manipulate the dough into a manageable, sheet-like shape, it’s fairly easy to recover.
It was the “sheet-like shape” concept that got me thinking: What if, instead of forming the just-mixed dough—really, more a bunch of pebbly flour than a dough—into a ball to hydrate overnight, I formed it into a sheet-like thing instead?
It worked beautifully for the 38%-hydration dough. I mixed up the flour and alkaline water and, when done, spread out the pebbly mixture into an even layer on a sheet of plastic wrap. I then used my hands, enlisting the plastic wrap to aid me in corralling any errant pebbles of dough, to compress the mixture into a thin plank, which I wrapped as tightly as I could with the plastic.
I let it sit overnight, then divided it into portions and ran each portion through my pasta rollers. If anything, it was even easier than the method outlined in the original guide.
Of course, when I tried the same method with a 35%-hydration dough, it did not work as well. When passed through the rollers, the mixture fell to my kitchen floor in small clumps of flattened dough, leaving me with a mess to sweep up.
A Piece of Sheet; or, Live by the Sheet, Die by the Sheet
But, as I was contemplating what to do with the clumps of flattened dough I had managed to save from falling on the floor, I figured it couldn’t hurt to try to force them back into a sheet-like thing. I assembled them on a cutting board and pressed them together as well as I could, then ran the vaguely sheet-shaped object through the rollers. After a few passes, sure enough, the dough came together in an actual sheet.
Sheet in hand, I followed the normal procedure of kneading, doubling it over and running it through thinner and thinner settings, and it behaved as it should—forming long parallel striations running the length of the dough, which is a good indication of both gluten development and organization. After I’d run it through the noodle cutter and allowed the noodles to rest overnight, the result was fantastic: homemade 35%-hydration noodles.
The lesson I drew from this experience was simple: The main thing that matters with low-hydration alkaline noodle dough is forming it into a sheet. If you can manage to get your dough to form a sheet without breaking your machine, the process of kneading it with the machine is basically the same as with a higher-hydration dough.
This may seem like a trivial observation, but it is of paramount importance to this method, and it can come in handy when your noodle dough is falling apart and you’re on the verge of despair. Remember: The sheet is all.
How to Make Low-Hydration Alkaline Noodles
What follows below is the entire method for producing low-hydration alkaline noodles. I’ve tested this method successfully and repeatedly with doughs ranging from 35% hydration to 40% and above. While I’ve found it particularly useful for sub-38%-hydration noodles, it also makes higher-hydration doughs, like those around 42 to 43% hydration, even easier to roll out.
At anything lower than 35% hydration, you’ll encounter other difficulties. It’s not just that the dough might fail to come together into a sheet—remember, the sheet is all!—but also that rollers will have trouble flattening and folding sub-35%-hydration doughs. I firmly warn against going any lower than 35% hydration unless you’re quite bold, quite brave, very familiar with noodle-making, or have money to burn on replacement pasta rollers.
My preferred equipment setup at the moment is a combination of a stand-mixer rolling attachment and a hand-cranked pasta machine for cutting the noodles. I’ll explain why in some detail below. The stand-mixer rolling attachment is particularly useful for lower-hydration doughs because it’s motorized, which frees up both your hands for manipulating the sheet of dough. (If you plan on making noodles with an assistant, it may be less necessary to use a motorized roller.)
Again, a stand mixer or a food processor can be used to mix the dough, but I greatly prefer using the stand mixer. It does a better job of mixing the alkalized water into the dry ingredients, I find it much easier to clean, and it seems to be able to handle larger batches of dough more easily.
You will also need a scale, a paring knife, a jeweler’s scale or measuring spoons that can measure tiny quantities, a bench scraper, and potato starch, for dusting the noodles. (Cornstarch will work, too.)
These instructions are all for a dough formula that begins with 400 grams of total flour weight, which comes out to roughly four generous portions of noodles.
Mix the Dough and Form the Sheet-Like Thing
As outlined in the previous guide, start by mixing the flours, using the paddle attachment of the stand mixer, for a minute or so before adding the alkalized water. Add the water a third at a time, allowing the mixer to run for a few minutes between additions to allow the water to be distributed evenly.
If a small ball of very wet dough forms on the mixer’s paddle, stop the machine, and, with the help of a handful or two of the drier flour mixture, push the wet dough ball off the paddle. Then start running the machine again.
Once the final addition of water has been made and the machine has run for about three minutes, the mixture should take on a pebbly consistency, with larger clumps of dough, usually from near the machine’s paddle, in the mix. You should be able to compress a handful of the mixture into a ball in your hand, and that ball should be easy to crumble apart into pebbly bits.
On a counter large enough to accommodate the dough in a long, sheet-like shape, place a long length of plastic wrap. Transfer the contents of the mixer bowl to the plastic wrap, then form them into a loose rectangle. The size of the rectangle will vary depending on how much dough you’ve produced, but a dough formula using 400 grams of total flour weight will form a rectangle that’s about two and a half feet long and about six inches wide, or the width of your pasta roller.
Using the plastic wrap to help keep the pebbly mixture in place, and using a fair amount of pressure, compress the dough with your hands (I’ve found using a fist to be particularly effective) until it is an even quarter inch (half a centimeter) in thickness. Achieving this thickness (thinness, really) is quite important, as it minimizes the stress on the rollers and will help ensure that the sheet-like thing that passes through your roller comes out as a sheet-like thing on the other side, rather than clumps of flattened dough.
Wrap the sheet-like thing tightly in the plastic, using additional plastic wrap if necessary; try to avoid leaving any air pockets in the package. Place in the refrigerator to rest for at least six hours. It can be left in the refrigerator at this stage for 24 hours, if you need the extra time, but not much more hydration will occur after six hours.
What Kind of Sheet Is This?
After six hours, and about 30 minutes before you want to start rolling the dough, take the package out of the refrigerator; starting with dough that’s near room temperature can facilitate rolling.
While you wait, set up your work area. Grab your pasta-rolling attachment and slot it in the stand mixer, then set up a work surface that you’re comfortable using a knife on (your counter, a large cutting board, whatever).
Open up the package, and divide the dough in half using the bench scraper, then divide each half into half again. As you work with each of these sections, keep the others covered with plastic to prevent them from drying out.
Check that the pasta roller is on the widest setting before turning on your machine, then check it again. This is very important, particularly with doughs that are closer to 35% hydration. Running a sheet that’s too thick through a too-thin roller setting is a sure path to knocking your rollers out of alignment, or, worse, breaking them entirely.
Turn on the machine, and feed the first dough section into the rollers. When I say “feed,” I actually mean “force-feed”; you’ll want to exert a little bit of pressure to push the dough through the rollers. You will also want to keep your other hand free and ready to catch whatever comes out the other end; it could be more sheet-like than not, but it also could just be a bunch of bits of flattened dough. (If you have the counter space in your kitchen, it can be helpful to orient your mixer and roller during this part of the process so that anything that falls will fall on the counter rather than the floor.)
If the dough passes through in what can be described as a single, sheet-like piece, set the rollers to the second-widest setting and pass the sheet-like piece through again. Then lay the resulting sheet-like piece on a work surface and proceed with the next section of dough.
If it passes through as a series of bits of flattened dough, collect whatever you can salvage and bring it over to your work surface. Flatten it, as best as you can, into a sheet-like thing that can pass through the rollers at the widest setting, and try again. That pass should form it into a more sheet-like thing, which you can then pass through the second-widest roller setting. Set that aside on your work surface, and proceed with the next section of dough.
Once you have two of these sheet-like things that have successfully passed through the second-widest roller setting, lay them one on top of the other. Check your pasta roller to be sure that it is set to its widest setting, then check it again. After you’re 100% sure it’s at its widest setting, run the doubled-up sheet-like things through the roller, doing your best to keep them aligned as they go through.
Pass the resulting single sheet-like thing through the second-widest roller setting, then through the third-widest setting. At this point, the thing you are holding in your hand should be a cohesive whole, and not a crumbly, sheet-like mess.
If you are unsure whether it is a sheet, don’t despair; just run it through the process again. Fold the sheet in half lengthwise, pressing down at the seam to ensure it’s as flat as possible, and trim off a tiny bit of each side of the folded seam so that it easily fits into the roller. (See the photo and description in the section on kneading for a more detailed illustration.) Check the roller to be sure that it’s at its widest setting, then check it again. Run the folded dough sheet, seam side first, through the roller, then through the next two narrower settings.
Behold, the Sheet
Here is a sheet of ramen dough:
You can see it is quite ragged, and the surface of the dough is rough and textured rather than smooth, and there are distinct white areas and stripes that show where the flour remains insufficiently hydrated. For all that, it’s still a cohesive whole.
The sheet isn’t important just because it means that the dough’s dry and wet components have become sufficiently mixed. Getting the dough to the sheet stage is also important for properly kneading the dough. The sheet will be elastic enough that it will not break apart under tension, and strong enough to survive manual manipulation, which is crucial if you’re using your hands to feed it through the rollers.
Let’s step back for a second and consider again the way ramen is made by manufacturers. Sheets of dough are placed on large spindles, which hold the dough sheets in tension as they pass through the rollers. That tension ensures that the dough sheets are evenly compressed.
Without that sort of setup (and, to be clear, a lot of dedicated home ramen-makers have setups that mimic that—makeshift constructions that hold spindles of dough above their hand-cranked noodle rollers), the next best thing is to use your hands to create that tension.
I’ve settled on the following method: I use my dominant hand (the right) as a kind of anchor and guide as the sheets pass through the roller. I grasp the sheet in the hollow between my thumb and my palm, align that hollow with the right-hand margin of the roller, and apply slight pressure away from the roller to keep the dough sheet in tension as it passes through. With my other hand, I do my best to support the rest of the dough sheet so that it doesn’t become misshapen.
This is an imperfect solution to the conundrum of providing sufficient, equal tension across the sheet of dough. Even when it’s done correctly, because the tension exists mostly on the right-hand side of the sheet, the left-hand side will become a little uneven, and will often end up longer than the right-hand side, resulting in a misshapen final sheet of dough. This is okay. It will affect the uniformity of the noodles—some will be longer than others—but not in a way that’s detrimental to the final product’s quality.
Knead as Usual
Once you have the sheet, the process is the same as described in the previous guide, although I have made one alteration. Whenever I fold the sheet lengthwise, I press down firmly to compress the seam, and I cut off each corner of the seam. This is because when you fold the dough, it becomes wider at the seam than the width of the rollers. These two cuts make it much easier to fit the dough into the rollers.
Again, though, check to be sure the roller is at the widest setting before rolling the dough through each time. Seriously, check it!
Pass the doubled-up sheet through the widest setting, the next-widest setting, the next-widest after that, and the next-widest after that. Then fold it over lengthwise, press down on the seam, cut off the corners, and repeat the process. This should be sufficient to produce the parallel lines that indicate proper gluten development; if you’re unsure or you don’t see those lines, repeat the process until those vertical lines appear. It shouldn’t take more than four iterations of this process.
At this point, you can fold the dough into a manageable bundle and cover it in plastic. Let it rest for at least 30 minutes to relax the gluten before you proceed to cutting. In the interim, you can knead the remaining portions of dough.
Cut as Usual
Once the kneaded sheet has rested, fold it in half lengthwise, press down on the seam, cut off both corners, then check to see the pasta rollers are on the widest setting. Once you have confirmed the rollers are on the widest setting, pass the folded sheet through again, then continue using thinner and thinner settings until you reach the thickness you desire. How thick to make the noodles is entirely up to you.
When you’ve reached your desired thickness, run the sheet through the cutting attachment. Make sure to use your hand to guide the noodle sheet through the cutter. This is the reason I prefer the hand-cranked pasta machine for cutting, as I find it easier to guide the noodle sheet through when I’m standing over it, using my left hand to keep the sheet aligned properly. The pasta-cutting attachment for your stand mixer will work perfectly well, though.
Dust the cut noodles with potato starch (or cornstarch). This is another major deviation from my previous method, in which I suggested that it’s fine to use additional flour to dust the cut noodles. It is, in fact, not ideal at all to use flour to coat the noodles. Flour-coated noodles tend to have a gummy, sticky exterior after cooking, which results from the flour sticking to the noodles before cooking in boiling water. It makes the noodles clump unappealingly in the bowl, and also makes them much more difficult to fold.
I use a scale to portion out the noodles—I’ve settle on ~120 grams as my preferred noodle portion—but you can simply divide the noodles into portions as you see fit.
Other Noodling Improvements
The original guide to alkaline noodles omitted a few crucial components of noodle-making for the sake of simplicity, in part to reduce the barriers to entry for cooks curious about the process. But if you are interested in exploring lower-hydration noodle doughs, you should also make the investment in potassium carbonate, an alkaline salt that is a key ingredient for noodle manufacturers. Unless you have access to a particularly well-stocked grocery store, your best bet is to buy potassium carbonate online.
In the original recipe and article, I chose to call only for sodium carbonate (baked baking soda), but I did allude to the fact that other alkaline salts can be used in noodle-making, and that these other alkaline salts have different effects on noodle doughs. Sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate happen to be the salts that are most prominently used in ramen, but others are used in other noodles. Sodium metabisulfite, for example, is what gives Lanzhou hand-pulled-noodle dough its ductility, for lack of a better word, and the noodles’ specific, somewhat bouncy texture when cooked.
It’s a little difficult to pinpoint exactly how the two alkaline salts differ in their effects on noodles, particularly when they’re used in combination, but in my experience noodle recipes with a higher concentration of sodium carbonate than potassium carbonate will have a markedly more slippery exterior texture and a little bit of a more bouncy bite, while potassium carbonate–heavy noodles will have a firmer texture and a harder bite.
Different styles of noodles will favor one salt over the other. For example, the conventional wisdom about tsukemen, or dipping noodles, is that the noodles should be high-hydration, thick, and slippery; as a result, a higher concentration of sodium carbonate is usually called for.
I’ve found myself deviating from the conventional wisdom quite a bit, because, while it is more typical for noodles to have a (much) higher concentration of sodium carbonate than potassium carbonate, I’ve found I really, really like noodles made with a higher concentration of potassium carbonate; the firmness produced by the potassium is very appealing to me. But you may have a different opinion, and the main allure of making ramen at home is that you can try different formulas and discover for yourself the attributes you find appealing in a wide variety of noodles.
When using these salts, it can be very useful to have a jeweler’s scale to measure out the vanishingly small quantities necessary for even large batches of dough. Our recommended kitchen scale can measure gram weights, but it isn’t as reliably accurate as a jeweler’s scale. If you choose to use your kitchen scale to measure out the quantities, measure them out several times, just to be sure, and be prepared for some inconsistency in your results.
Another important difference between the previous guide’s recipe and the ones we’re publishing today is the total concentration of alkaline salts. While the original recipe and method call for 2% sodium carbonate, I have since found that 1.5% is more to my taste, generally speaking, so these new recipes reflect that.
But I want to stress that here, as with the ratio of alkaline salts used in any formula, it’s not just about personal preference for a single type of noodle; there is no one right answer for these ratios and concentrations. Rather, there’s a range of possibilities to choose from, depending on what kind of noodles you like and what kind of noodle you want to produce. The only caveat I’ll add to that is that pushing past a 2% concentration for noodles under 40% hydration, and even those above 40% hydration, will give the noodles a distinct sulfurous quality, which can sometimes be desirable, as unappetizing as it may sound.
Different Flour Blends
I have experimented quite a bit with adding other flours—in addition to the vital wheat gluten, which increases the protein content and leads to a better “chew”—to the mix, all with King Arthur bread flour as the base flour. So, along with a very basic 35%-hydration dough, we’ve provided a recipe for a 38%-hydration dough that has a little whole wheat flour mixed in, to give you a base formula to tinker with when adding other flours to the dough.
Generally speaking, to ensure that the noodles you make have a sufficiently developed gluten structure, you’ll want to avoid adding other flours in excess of 10% of the total flour-mixture weight. This is more than enough to add the flavor of that flour to the noodles without affecting the final texture of the noodles. You can also use a mix of flours—I’ve had some success with adding 4% whole wheat and 4% sobako, or buckwheat flour, to a noodle dough.
The main thing to keep in mind when experimenting with flour blends is the fact that small changes in the base formula can lead to very dramatic effects in the final product. A noodle I made with 10% sobako had a very strong buckwheat flavor—too strong for me, but some tasters enjoyed it. These changes don’t affect just the taste and texture of the noodles, but their appearance as well.
A Little More Rest and Relaxation
Fresh ramen made in this way, with these formulas, might rival some of the noodles you can buy from noodle manufacturers, but only if allowed to rest for a sufficient length of time. If used immediately after being cut, these noodles are doughy, too elastic, and wet; if allowed to rest, they’re firm, springy, and dry. For this reason, I urge you to let the noodles rest, either wrapped loosely in plastic or placed in a zip-top bag left slightly open, in the fridge for at least 24 hours, and preferably from three to four days, or up to a week.
Temomi, or Using Your Hands
One other technique deserves a mention here, and that’s making temomi noodles, which means “hand-massaged” or “hand-pressed” noodles. Practically, this translates to “scrunch the hell out of your noodles.”
The process is simple: You compress the noodles firmly, using your hands (again, I’ve found my fists to be quite effective), then shake out the noodles to ensure that the strands aren’t stuck together. You do this repeatedly until the noodles take on a completely irregular consistency, with both short and long stretches of very flat noodles segueing into more tubular stretches, with kinks and folds going in every direction possible.
It may seem perverse to spend so much time and care on producing noodles only to mangle the hell out of them, but, when the noodles are cooked, all those kinks and twists and flat and tubular stretches produce a beautifully complex bite.
While almost any ramen can be altered in this way, the effects are more pronounced in thicker noodles with higher hydration. And, although you can temomi noodles as soon as they’re made, I’ve found it’s better to do this right before cooking. Fresh noodles are a little too wet to temomi efficiently; sometimes the noodle strands wind up impossible to separate after being compressed while fresh.
Go Forth, Noodle, and Let the Noodling Multiply
That’s it; take this information and do with it what you will. I hope it leads to many, many experiments with homemade alkaline noodles, and that you find it useful in producing a bowl tailor-made to your tastes. You can use our recipe for shoyu ramen, shio ramen, tonkotsu ramen, miso tori paitan ramen, turkey paitan ramen, or vegan ramen. Or you can use the methods and techniques outlined in those recipes to produce a bowl that’s entirely your own, all from scratch.
We hope this guide serves as a jumping-off point, and I’d appreciate it if you’d weigh in on whether the method outlined above works for you, or if you have suggested improvements, or even if you’ve stumbled across a formula that you find particularly pleasing.
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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik] This recipe is a more advanced version of our original homemade ramen noodle recipe. If this is your first time making alkaline noodles at home using a pasta machine, please use the first recipe instead. The difference between this recipe and the […]
[Photographs: Vicky Wasik] This recipe is a more advanced version of our previously published recipe for homemade ramen noodles. If this is your first time making alkaline noodles using a pasta machine at home, please use the first recipe instead. If you’ve made the previously […]
A couple of months ago, a bunch of us here at Serious Eats got into a very serious Slack discussion about the merits of room-temperature foods, which Miranda turned into a thorough exploration of the topic. While working on this piece, Miranda asked us to list the lukewarm dishes we have the hots for. Along with the usual suspects of cakes, cheese boards, and marinated grilled vegetables, I started thinking a lot about one of my favorite late-summer meals: Roman-style pomodori al riso, oven-roasted rice-stuffed tomatoes with potatoes.
Rome, like most of central and southern Italy, gets really, really hot in the summer. In the sweltering month of August, the sanpietrini cobblestones that pave the streets of the historic city center often get so hot that they become sticky and melty; it feels like you are walking around with gum constantly glued to the bottoms of your shoes. When I lived there as a kid, most of the city shut down, with Romans decamping to the seaside or mountains for vacation. This period is called Ferragosto, a holiday that can be traced back to Ancient Rome, enacted by Emperor Augustus to celebrate the hard work of the summer harvest.
The people who do stay in the city during the dog days of summer* have to figure out how to eat without heating up their non-air conditioned apartments even further by cooking (central AC is not a thing when you live in a building that was constructed during the Renaissance). For my family, this translated to going out a lot more for casual sit-down pizza dinners (a cruel passing of the culinary buck to the pizzaioli working infernally hot wood-burning ovens), or bringing home prepared foods that didn’t require a lot of cooking.
*”Dog days of summer” also has Ancient Roman roots.
Roman rice-stuffed tomatoes fall in the latter group. They are commonly sold at rosticcerie, little takeout rotisserie spots that are often also pizza al taglio shops, where you can pick up some “by-the-cut” pizza (the Roman version of a slice) as well as a roast chicken with rosemary-scented potatoes glistening with schmaltz on your way home from work.
The best pomodori al riso that I had as a kid didn’t come from a rosticceria though. They were made by Antonietta, the proprietor of our neighborhood fruttivendolo, the fruit and vegetable shop where my parents would shop for produce on days they couldn’t make it to the market. Over time, my mother befriended Antonietta and her husband, Lamberto.
Along with giving my mother guidance on how to cook vegetables like cicoria that we hadn’t encountered when living in New York, Antonietta eventually admitted her to a small circle of locals who were allowed to buy prepared food. She didn’t have a permit to make and sell food on the premises, so she would prepare these items at home, and then keep them stashed out of sight in the back of the shop, bringing them out only for a trusted group of regulars. It was the best speakeasy, rewarding people in the know with aluminum takeout containers of beautiful carciofi alla romana (braised artichokes) instead of moonshine.
In the summer, Antonietta had a clever solution to keep her own kitchen from overheating. She worked out a deal with the bakery across the street from her shop. Once all of the bread had been baked for the day, Antonietta would pop over with disposable baking pans full of rice-stuffed tomatoes and potatoes, and load them into the forno’s wood-fired oven, which is fueled by hazelnut shells left over from Nutella production.
The lingering heat of the oven slowly cooked the tomatoes until they were tender, jammy, and sweet, barely able to contain the tomato- and basil-scented arborio rice stuffed inside. The potatoes propping the tomatoes upright in the baking trays turned creamy and soft, fragrant with olive oil and fresh rosemary, with a hint of smokiness from the oven. It was a perfect dish. I would always ask for the maximum possible allotment of tomatoes that Antonietta was willing to part with when they were available, and would devour at least two of them as soon as I got home with a fresh batch. They taste best when served at room temperature.
So when Miranda asked us to list our favorite tepid foods, I had a lot to say. But my rave review of rice-stuffed tomatoes wasn’t met with unbridled enthusiasm from my coworkers. I get it; it’s not a sexy sounding dish, and most of us have been subjected to bad stuffed peppers at some point in our lives. However, I had won enough stuffed-vegetable goodwill with my Thanksgiving roast pumpkins that people were willing to hear me out on these tomatoes, so I got to work on developing a recipe.
The Problem With Most Pomodori al Riso Recipes: Wishful Thinking
I have eaten bushels worth of stuffed tomatoes in my day, but I had never actually made them myself, because as mentioned earlier, this is mostly a takeout dish in Rome. I scoured Italian cookbooks and cooking websites for recipes, and found a common, simple cooking procedure: The tops of tomatoes are cut off, their guts are scooped out and passed through a food mill and stirred together with raw rice, minced garlic, and chopped basil. The rice is soaked in the tomato pulp, ostensibly so that it can soften and absorb moisture, before being spooned into the hollowed-out tomatoes, which are roasted in a baking dish with potatoes that have been tossed in olive oil.
The rice, potatoes, and tomatoes are supposed to cook at roughly the same rate, and an hour or so later, you pull out a casserole of tender, roasted vegetables. This is what is supposed to happen. But it doesn’t. Starchy and soft vegetables don’t magically cook at the same rate, and grains certainly don’t cook in the same time, as well. Anyone who tries to sell you that narrative is a huckster.
While I had strong suspicions that the recipes that used this one-stop, set-it-and-forget-it cooking method wouldn’t produce great results, I still had to try it. So I set up an initial test, cooking four sets of stuffed tomatoes, using the same shoddy method with different types of rice: arborio, carnaroli, long grain basmati, and jasmine. Pomodori al riso are usually made with risotto-style rice (arborio, carnaroli, and the like), so I made sure to test with them, but then also wanted to see how other types would perform.
None of them worked. Soaking the rice in strained tomato pulp didn’t soften the grains, and they didn’t absorb the tomato juices as advertised. As you can see in these photos, the rice and tomato pulp remain separate even after roasting; the grains are mostly white, surrounded by the tomato pulp. And the grains themselves were all over the place in terms of doneness. The risotto-style grains as well as the basmati remained chalky and hard, while the jasmine rice turned to mush. And this is to say nothing of the tomatoes and potatoes, which were way over- and under-cooked, respectively.
It was clear that the simplicity of this cooking method sounds great in theory, but doesn’t work in practice. Along with all of the textural issues, it was hard to fill the tomatoes with similar amounts of rice after they’d spent time soaking in the tomato pulp. The flavor was off, too: The rice in a good pomodoro al riso is stained a deep rusty red color, with the tomato pulp cooked to an intense, savory sweetness, reminiscent of a Spanish sofrito. But using the simple cooking method, the strained tomato pulp still tasted raw and astringent, more like the topping for pan con tomate. And even after baking, the filling was soupy and loose. I had to go back to the drawing board.
I set up a second round of testing where I pitted four more casseroles of tomatoes against each other. It was clear that I needed to go with a risotto-friendly grain, so I settled on easy-to-find arborio. The rice clearly needed to be par-cooked before getting stuffed into the tomatoes. After settling on arborio as the grain of choice, I tested different methods for cooking the rice short of al dente prior to stuffing and roasting it. For two of the test batches I par-boiled the rice for a few minutes in water and then mixed it with the tomato pulp before filling the tomatoes.
For another batch, I par-cooked the rice for 10 minutes, risotto-style, using the tomato pulp as the cooking liquid. And for the final test batch, I tried the raw rice and tomato method once more to make sure that this was in fact an inferior method, adding more rice this time just in case my first failed attempt was a ratio-related issue.
The risotto method emerged as the clear winner in this round. In 10 minutes, the rice was cooked just enough to get rid of its hard, raw bite, and had absorbed the tomato pulp, which had reduced down to a saucy consistency and was full of sweet tomato flavor. I also solved the problem of the undercooked potatoes by giving them a head start in the oven while I worked on hollowing out the tomatoes and cooking the rice. After a lot of failed roasted tomatoes, I had figured out how to cook a Roman-style pomodoro al riso that would have made Antonietta proud.
How to Make Pomodori al Riso
The process begins by peeling and dicing Yukon gold potatoes into 1-inch pieces, and tossing them with olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh rosemary in a large baking dish. The potatoes go into the oven for a 30-minute roast, until they are tender enough to be pierced with a paring knife.
With the potatoes in the oven, it’s time to work on the tomatoes. Lop the tops off of six beefsteak tomatoes that are just shy of being fully ripe (save your super ripe and soft tomatoes for other recipes: they’ll lose their structural integrity too quickly in the oven). Use a paring knife to carve out the insides of the tomato, and scoop out the pulp with a spoon, making sure to leave enough flesh around the skin so that they don’t collapse.
Next, I season the interior of the now-empty tomato shells with salt and invert them on a wire rack–lined baking sheet to drain them of excess moisture. Set them aside while you process the tomato pulp.
In an ideal world, you have a food mill handy for this part of the process. Passing the tomato guts through a food mill gives you a deep red tomato purée with a more uniform texture and no seeds. But if you don’t have a food mill, you can use a food processor or immersion blender for this step; these electric appliances will introduce air, which makes the purée lighter in color, and some seeds may slip through—a very minor flaw at worst. Season the passed tomato pulp with salt, and measure it in a liquid measuring cup. You are looking for a 3:1 ratio of liquid to rice by volume, so you can make adjustments to the amount of rice you’re using at this point; if your tomatoes aren’t very juicy, you can bulk up the purée with chicken or vegetable broth.
The cooking process for the rice follows the general first steps of cooking risotto. Minced alliums (in this case I use a large shallot and one garlic clove) get lightly cooked in olive oil in a saucier until softened but not brown.
I then add the rice, toasting it for a couple of minutes until the outer edges of the grains are translucent; the sloped sides of a saucier allow you to stir the rice without grains getting stuck in the corners of the saucepan. Before adding the tomato pulp, I add a tablespoon of tomato paste, which gets incorporated into the mix, coating the rice and turning it a rusty red.
It’s then time for the tomato pulp, which is stirred in and the entire mixture is brought to a simmer. After 10 minutes, the rice will have lost its raw bite and the sauce will have reduced and thickened.
Stir in a handful of chopped basil and season the mixture well with salt. If you’re like me, and are always looking to get a leg up on savory punch, you can also add a splash of fish sauce at this point, which heightens the umami power of tomatoes.
I had some extra Colatura kicking around in the test kitchen, so I added a few drops of it to the rice, and it really makes it pop. High-quality Southeast Asian-style fish sauce will work just as well.
It’s time to fill the tomatoes: Dab the tomato cavities with paper towels, and nestle them into the baking dish with the now-cooled par-roasted potatoes, using the potatoes as scaffolding for the tomatoes. Fill the tomatoes with the rice mixture, pop on the tomato tops, and give them a final drizzle of olive oil.
The baking dish goes back in the oven, and the tomatoes get roasted for about 30 minutes, until their flesh is tender and the rice is cooked through. For a final flourish, crank the broiler to high, and slide the tops off to the side of the tomatoes. Broil the whole deal until the top layer of rice on each tomato is ever-so-slightly charred, and the potatoes are beginning to color and crisp.
These are pomodori al riso done right. And now comes the hardest part—waiting for the tomatoes to cool down before you dig in. Trust me, these are best eaten when warm, not piping hot. Cut into them with a fork, pour yourself a glass of wine, and enjoy this light, late-summer, (surprisingly vegan!) Roman takeout classic.
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