Classic Pad Thai
I find most restaurant Pad Thai to be too sweet. The key to a flavorful, well-balanced sauce is to mix your own. Find out how easy it is and how to make an authentic street vendor Pad Thai.
Our Sunday morning mountain bike rides along the cliffs in Santa Cruz almost always end with lunch at our friend’s favorite Thai restaurant. He orders a veggie curry, my husband stir-fried broccoli and I, always the wild card, order based on my cravings which usually involves some form of noodles. Inevitably, I end up with a plate of green beans with tofu because the Pad Thai at this restaurant is way too sweet.
Positive Pad Thai experiences have been few and far between, the last one a distant memory. I must admit, however, that I’ve never been to Thailand so I may not know how an authentic street vendor Pad Thai should taste but my taste buds say that the key ingredient, tamarind, should be more prominent than sugar which most plates I’m served tend to be full of.
I decided recently that it was time to give Pad Thai a go at home and I always knew that when the day came I would be using Chez Pim’s method as my guide. In her detailed 2007 post on preparing the popular Thai street vendor noodle dish she supports my notion that Pad Thai is not supposed to be very sweet. Rather, there should be a happy balance between salty, tart and sweet.
Tips for Homemade Pad Thai
In reading her post, I walked away with two important lessons:
1) Mix the sauce ahead of time. Pad Thai sauce has only a handful of ingredients which are easy to find these days. Mixing them ahead of time rather than adding each component to the pan speeds up the cooking process significantly and allows for perfectly balanced flavors with each batch.
2) Prepare Pad Thai in small batches. This is key. Rice noodles like to stick together so extra room for the noodles to move around in the hot pan as they’re tossed in the sauce and other ingredients helps to prevent them clumping. Depending on the size of your pan, one or two servings at a time is best and when the sauce, noodles and accompaniments are pre-prepared, the assembly and time in the pan go very quickly.
With these two important tips I ended up with my own version of a winner by reducing further the amount of sweetness and saltiness from her recommended starting point and by bumping up the tamarind component to my liking. You can make it your own, too.
Pad Thai Sauce Essentials
Authentic Pad Thai sauce requires four ingredients to have the perfect balance of salty, tart, sweet and spicy (if you like heat).
- Tamarind Paste/Concentrate (Tart): The tamarind fruit grows in a pod and has a unique flavor. A combination of sour and sweet depending on its stage of ripeness when you use it, the packaged, concentrated ingredient most cooks use (I use this brand) adds a soft and smooth tart flavor that I like in some of my favorite dishes. I grew up eating fresh tamarind and for Pad Thai I can’t think of a suitable substitute, though I’ve seen a few recipes using vinegar.
- Fish Sauce (Salty): If you’re vegan Pim recommends this sauce as a substitute. For traditional fish sauce, the saltiness varies widely from brand to brand so use my recommended amount as a guide rather than a rule. If the sauce you mix is too salty it’s easy to remedy by adding more of the other ingredients.
- Sugar (Sweet): Traditionally, palm sugar is used but plain granulated sugar works, too. This is the component that usually dominates most restaurant Pad Thai I’ve tried so the beauty of making your own sauce is that you can as little or as much (if you prefer sweet) as you like.
- Chili Powder (Heat, optional): Thai chili powder is the traditional ingredient but I found the neutral quality of ground cayenne pepper to be a suitable substitute. I was inspired to add chopped Thai chilies in my recipe and my husband and I liked it. You can leave the heat component out altogether.
How to Prevent Rice Noodles from Sticking
I’ve used rice noodles for years but this was my first time using Thai rice stick noodles. After a clumpy mass of noodles from my first batch I understood the wisdom in Pim’s recommendation to prepare Pad Thai in small batches. They need that space in the pan to move around, and, after watching several Youtube videos of street vendors preparing it in Thailand, also a lot of oil. In my attempt to minimize the latter, I took some extra precautions when preparing my noodles. They still required some oil but it doesn’t all end up in the final dish. These tips are noted in the printable step-by-step recipe at the end of this post.
- Add a little oil to the water while soaking the noodles. Rice stick noodles seem to want to just clump together so a little oil added to the water as they soak helps.
- Rinse, drain and toss the softened noodles in oil. Rinsing the soft noodles washes away some of the starch that binds the noodles. Tossing them in oil helps with residual sticking issues as the noodles sit on the counter waiting to be used.
- (As an alternative, I’ve also seen a recommendation to boil noodles briefly and drain them, much like the way Italian pasta is prepared. I’ve not tried boiled rice noodles–I always soak them–but this is an option for you to consider.)
- (Update 4/9/19) The simplest and most effective method is a combination of the two: boil the noodles with a splash of oil in the water; rinse in cold water, drain well then toss in a little oil as they wait to be used. This way there was absolutely no sticking and tossed easily in a hot pan. I have updated the printable recipe with this method.
Once the sauce and noodles are prepped, assembly is quick and easy. All that is required next is a quick toss in a very hot pan, some garnishes and you’ll be tasting your new favorite Pad Thai recipe. I used tofu here but use shrimp, chicken or beef if that is what you prefer. The key is to making the Pad Thai sauce your own and use as little or as much of it as you like. The sauce will keep in the refrigerator so make a larger batch and you can enjoy Pad Thai throughout the week like we’ve been doing. I’ve mentally crossed Pad Thai off my restaurant list because homemade is so easy–I had no idea. I shouldn’t have waited so long to to try it.
Classic Pad Thai
Authentic Pad Thai is very easy to prepare. The key is to prepare the sauce and other ingredients ahead of time. The rest is quick cooking time and simple assembly.
Pad Thai Sauce (enough for 4 servings, 1/4 cup per portion)(See Note)
- 3/4 + 1/8 cup tamarind concentrate
- 1//4 cup fish sauce
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or chili powder)(adjust to your taste)
Noodles and Accompaniments (See Note)
- 8 ounces Thai Rice Stick Noodles (See Note) I used thicker noodles
- Boiling Water
- 4 ounces firm tofu, drained and diced in cubes
- 3 stalks green onions, cut in two inch pieces
- 2 eggs, lightly whisked (usually one egg per serving)
- garlic powder (or chopped fresh garlic)
- crushed peanuts
- Lime wedges
- chopped cilantro (optional)
- vegetable oil (or light olive oil)
Prepare the Sauce
Combine the tamarind concentrate, fish sauce and sugar in a bowl and taste for any adjustments. Add sugar in small increments if you prefer a sweeter sauce. Add cayenne pepper (or chili powder or chili sauce) according to your heat preference. Stir together and set aside.
Prepare the Noodles
Bring a pot of boiling water to a boil, add about one tablespoon of oil and toss in the rice noodles (8 oz for two and 16 oz for four). Boil the noodles for three to five minutes, until pliable but slightly undercooked (al dente). I used thicker, linguine sized noodles so I needed four minutes. If you use thinner noodles check them at three minutes.
After boiling, drain the noodles into a colander and rinse with cold water. Drain well then toss in a small splash of oil. Set aside.
Cook the Pad Thai (I use an 8-inch nonstick skillet)
Cook the diced tofu (or whatever protein you plan to use) in an oiled pan, sprinkle garlic powder according to your taste or add fresh garlic. Cook until the tofu is lightly golden. Remove from pan and set aside.
It’s best to cook pad thai in single serving batches or up to two if you have a larger skillet. While the pan is still hot, about medium heat, add one or two portions of the sauce and one or two portions of noodles (one handful or 4 ounces per person). Add more oil and/or sauce if the mixture looks too dry and toss quickly so the noodles get coated with sauce to prevent sticking.
After one or two minutes slide the noodles to one side of the pan and add the eggs (one for one serving and two for two servings). Cook for thirty seconds to one minute until the egg begins to set, scramble the eggs into smaller pieces with your spatula as it cooks.
Add the bean sprouts (as much or as little as you want), green onions, tofu, crushed peanuts and toss together. Garnish with more peanuts, lime wedges and cilantro (optional). Serve immediately.
Sauce: Use my proportions as a starting point. Mine is heavier on the tamarind flavor. Adjust the sugar and fish sauce according to your preferences. The sauce keeps so if you don’t use it all refrigerated until next time.
Noodles: Each serving is about four ounces, about a handful of noodles once hydrated. The sauce is enough for four servings so you can double the noodles (to 16 ounces) and accompaniments to serve four. I don’t recommend pre-soaking the noodles if you won’t use them the same day as they are prone to sticking.