Here’s a quick guide to bean-thread noodles, also known as cellophane noodles and glass noodles, among other names — with how to buy and prepare them, with links to recipes. You may find them marketed as mung bean noodles (or mung bean vermicelli), glass noodles, Korean glass noodles (japchae), saifun, or harusame.
Np matter how they’re labeled, these fine, transparent cellophane noodles are made of a plant-based starch — traditionally mung bean starch. Other types of starches might be used as well, including tapioca and sweet potato starch (as is the case with Korean japchae noodles).
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll refer to them as bean-thread noodles here. Silky and almost gelatinous in texture, they’re commonly used in the cuisines of China, Korea, and Japan.
They’re also a staple in other Southeast Asian cuisines, including, Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese, and the Philippines. You’ll find lots more details about bean-threads here.
Bean-thread noodles and rice noodles are often confused for one another. Bean-threads are not fine rice noodles. They’re often shelved near one another, especially if supermarkets carry them both in the Asian foods section. They’re both pale in color, very thin, and and can almost be used interchangeably.
There’s a difference in texture — bean threads, as mentioned, are silky and pleasantly slippery; rice noodles are starchier and if overcooked can even be a bit sticky.
Are bean-thread noodles good for you?
Bean-thread noodles are gluten-free. If you’re super-sensitive, you need to make sure they weren’t packaged in a facility that uses wheat.
Bean-threads aren’t by any stretch a nutritional powerhouse! They’re used in small quantities to give visual and textural interest to dishes. Use them to add interest to vegetable-packed dishes, and the dish as a whole will offer plenty of nutrients! They’re lower in fat and calories than ordinary pasta, but they also don’t provide any fiber or protein to speak of.
Bean-threads provide an array of B vitamins and some minerals. You can learn more about their nutritional content here.
How to buy and cook bean-thread noodles
Bean-threads are available in natural-food stores and Asian groceries, and increasingly in the International foods aisle in supermarkets. These noodles start out looking white and pretty opaque, then become clear when cooked.
Often packaged in 5- to 8-ounce boxes, and divided into 2-ounce bundles, these noodles are quite tough when uncooked. So it’s not recommended (indeed, it’s almost impossible) to break them by hand. Almost unmanageably long from the get-go, they become easy to cut into shorter lengths once cooked.
There are two ways of cooking these noodles, though these are guidelines; it’s always best to consult package directions and follow them.
First method: One method is to presoak bean-threads in warm water for 20 to 30 minutes. Then, cut here and there with kitchen shears to into 3- to 4-inch lengths, immerse in a pot of boiling water, simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, and drain.
Second method: Another way is to simply immerse the bundle of noodles in cold water in a saucepan, bring to a boil, then remove from the heat, cover, and let sit for 3 to 5 minutes, or until done, but still nice and firm. Drain and rinse briefly under cool water. Place on a board and cut here and there to shorten. Or, use kitchen shears; cut here and there until the noodles are a more manageable length.
Fried noodles: A popular way to prepare bean-threads is to deep-fry them, which makes them puffy and crispy. I’m not one for deep-frying, so get full instructions on how to make fried bean-thread noodles (as well as rice-sticks) here.
How to use bean-thread noodles
It’s the silky texture and the transparency of the noodles that make them a lively change of pace, since their flavor is quite bland. They’re most successful in dishes with flavorful sauces, or in well-seasoned, brothy soups.
Add the cooked noodles to your recipes at the end of cooking time; if allowed to simmer further for any length of time, they become overcooked very quickly.
Team with mushrooms: Bean-thread noodles are good in dishes combined with earthy mushrooms, such as shiitakes or oyster mushrooms. Spicy Garlic Shiitake Mushrooms and Glass Noodles demonstrates this beautifully.
Add to stir-fries: Add cooked bean-threads (from one or two bundles) to stir-fried vegetables whose crunch provides a good textural contrast, such as snow peas or bok choy. Add at the last minute so that they don’t get overcooked. Here are two try: Vegetable Stir-Fry Mung Bean Noodles and Filipino-Style Stir Fried Cellophane Noodles (also known as pancit).
Add to soups: Similarly, add cooked cellophane noodles to brothy Asian-style vegetable soups or miso soups at the last minute for a lovely textural element. You can’t go wrong with Asian Vegetable and Glass Noodle Soup.
Curried flavors: Bean-thread noodles absorb flavors like crazy, and are compatible with curry seasonings. Curried Coconut Bean-Thread Noodles is one tasty example.
Incorporate into cold dishes and salads: Combine with crunchy vegetables and sesame-ginger salad dressing for a deliciously different kind of cold dish. This easy Thai Glass Noodle Salad is one tasty example.
Summer rolls: Vietnamese-style summer rolls are often made with rice-flour wrappers, and bean-thread noodles inside. See a link to a recipe in the listing, following. Here’s a recipe for Vietnamese Spring Rolls (Summer Rolls) with Spicy Peanut Sauce.
A Clay Pot Specialty: Clay Pot Glass Noodles are a Southeast Asian classic.
Recipes using bean-thread noodles
Quick Asian Noodle Bowls: Featuring bean-thread noodles, these broth-y bowls might just become your go-to recipe when you crave a warming Asian-style dish in minutes.
Vietnamese Bean-Thread Noodles with Tomatoes & Cabbage: A pleasing composition using a minimum of exotic ingredients, this vegan riff off of Vietnamese bean-thread noodles highlights fresh tomatoes and basil, bolstered with lots of cabbage.
Orange Bean-Thread Noodle Salad with Crisp Vegetables: Flavored with an orange-infused sesame-ginger dressing, this bean-thread noodle salad is a perfect accompaniment to your favorite tofu or tempeh dish.
Korean Glass Noodle Veggie Stir-Fry: From The Forked Spoon, ditch take out with this Korean Glass Noodle Veggie Stir-Fry. Simple ingredients, loads of veggies and just 25 minutes start to finish.
Vegan Pad Woon Sen: From My Pure Plants, this vegan take on a classic Thai recipe, shredded vegetables like carrots, cabbage, oyster mushrooms, mung bean sprouts are stir fried in a sweet and salty sauce and served with glass noodles and tofu scramble.
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