Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Pad Thai Recipe

I got on a Thai food kick about 2 years ago when my husband and I went to Santa Fe, New Mexico on our honeymoon trip. Although that's about the last place I would expect to fall in love with Thai food, we found an awesome Thai restaurant in downtown Santa Fe that got me hooked! I started cooking Thai food at home and haven't looked back. Pad Thai is a classic Thai dish many Thai food aficionados can't help but love. I'd like to share with you a Pad Thai recipe plus some things I've learned over the past 2 years as a non-Asian obsessed with Asian food. Because I'm assuming you're not from Thailand either, I'm going to try to tell you how to do it the easiest way you can while still being authentic.

90% of the Pad Thai making process is gathering the right ingredients, as they make or break the dish. The rest is technique, so be sure you read the whole post before you skip down to the recipe. The dish itself comes together in less than 5 minutes. Literally! That's why it's so important to know what you're doing before you start. After you get it down, it's a super easy, quick lunch. In Thailand, street vendors actually serve this as a midday fast food meal. You can watch some very informative videos of that here.

I stirred it before I took a picture because I was too excited to eat it. Sorry. Bad blogger!

The basic ingredients in Pad Thai sauce are fish sauce, tamarind concentrate, and palm sugar. The trick is to find the perfect balance of saltiness (fish sauce), sourness (tamarind) and sweetness (sugar). That's why there are no suitable substitutes for the first two ingredients. You can substitute brown sugar for palm sugar, but palm sugar has a distinct flavor if you're willing to go to the Asian market and grate the sugar pucks. It's hard work, though, so I use brown sugar. Fish sauce can be bought in small, overpriced quantities at the regular grocery store or cheap in a large container at the Asian market (hint, hint). Tamarind concentrate comes in a blue and white plastic can. It's a liquid, not a paste. With the paste, you'd have to water down the paste, squeeze it with your hands, and throw away the pulp. The liquid version is already prepared. Tamarind concentrate (the liquid, not the paste) can be bought at the Asian market and at some Walmart locations. I also add oyster sauce as a way to thicken the sauce and add the extra flavor.

As far as technique, the key is to keep the pan hot—much hotter than you're probably used to—and keep everything moving. "Season" your wok before you begin by heating it up to HIGH, adding vegetable oil and wiping it across your wok with a balled up towel. The thin layer of oil will prevent sticking and will give you a higher quality dish. Asian woks are traditionally over a fire, so with an electric stove (which gives intermittent heat), it's difficult to keep things as hot as they should be. Don't fear it. Just be prepared with a cup of water, extra oil, and all of your ingredients handy. Because of the nature of this kind of cooking, reaching into the fridge for a forgotten ingredient will likely not be feasible, so have them already organized on your counter.

Also, cooking Pad Thai is a little bit like making pancakes: you do it one serving at a time. If you tried to do more, your noodles would get irreversibly sticky, clumpy, and ruined. All of the below instructions are for one serving. Just multiply the ingredients for however many people you'll be cooking for, and be sure you buy enough.

(Want to read more about technique? I learned a lot from this article.)

  • A frying pan 
  • A spatula or two for cooking with (to make sure nothing sticks to the pan)
  • A pot and water to boil the rice sticks in
  • A colander to drain the rice sticks
  • A bowl of cold water to transfer the cooked rice sticks to (edit: probably unnecessary. Do it to cool the noodles off, but you don't have to leave them in there. Honestly, people do rice noodles all different ways. The point is that you want to fry the noodles before they've become al dente.)
  • A pair of pasta tongs (or your hand)
  • A small saucepan for sauce (I also use a rubber spatula to get the last serving of sauce out)
  • A cup of water (keep near the stove)


Garnish (prepare first)
  • Crushed peanuts (I buy unsalted peanuts from Wal-Mart and go at them in a sealed bag with my glass measuring cup)
  • The green parts of 1 scallion, sliced diagonally (don't throw away the white part!)
  • Crushed red pepper (or any kind of dry chili powder)
  • Lime wedges

Pad Thai Sauce (recipe source):
  • 3 tbsp tamarind concentrate
  • 2 "big" tbsp brown (or palm) sugar
  • 3 tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tbsp oyster sauce

The Pad Thai:
  • Vegetable oil (or other flavorless oil)
  • 1/2 shallot, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • The white parts of 1 scallion, sliced
  • 1 egg
  • Bean sprouts (canned or fresh)
  • A handful of cooked rice noodles (Medium-sized flat rice sticks, sold at Asian market. You can also use Small flat ones. Flat noodles fry best.)
  • Thawed frozen shrimp, tails removed (may use fresh shrimp also, but all fresh meats must be cooked beforehand)


  1. Chop the shallot, garlic, and scallion—keeping in mind the number of servings you're doing—and prepare the shrimp or meat. 
  2. Gather all tools and ingredients and categorize them on your counter space. Set garnish aside or on table. The Pad Thai ingredients above are organized by order of use, so you can organize them that way if you want. 
  3. Bring water to a boil (enough to cover your rice sticks) and remove from heat. Soak the rice sticks in the warm water for 5-8 minutes. Keep checking your noodles and stop before they're al dente. Lift one up and hold it horizontally about 2 inches from the end of the noodle; it should be soft but not yet droopy. It's important not to overcook rice noodles or the Pad Thai will be sticky. Drain rice sticks in a colander. (Different noodle packages will have different instructions, so whether you soak them or cook them, go by the 2 inch droopiness test.)
  4. Multiply sauce recipe based on how many people you're serving and bring it all to a boil over medium heat in a saucepan. Cook until it's the consistency of a glaze, making sure the sugar is dissolved (the fish sauce may be's a side effect of its awesomeness).

Now for the fun part!

Pad Thai Instructions:
  1. Heat a small amount of vegetable oil in your skillet on MEDIUM heat. Add shallot, garlic, and green onion and cook until fragrant. 
  2. Turn the heat up to HIGH and add the egg, breaking the yolk with the spatula. You can mix it with the other stuff. When fully cooked, remove all of it from skillet and place on plate or bowl. Tip: You can add firm, sliced tofu at this point if you want.
  3. Take a handful of rice noodles from the bowl of cool water and place them in the hot skillet. This is the most important step of Pad Thai. Do not add too many noodles—just a handful. Put in about 1/4 cup water and gently move them around horizontally with the spatula. Make sure the noodles move independently without sticking together. Let the water burn off completely as you fry your noodles, taking care that they also don't dry out and/or get sticky. Move noodles to side of skillet.
  4. Add bean sprouts and shrimp or cooked meat and move around on skillet with the spatula until heated (about 1 minute). If you're using fresh bean sprouts, people usually eat them raw in Pad Thai.
  5. Return the egg, garlic, shallots and scallions to the skillet and mix everything together by turning it with the spatula. Add the sauce and mix it in by turning with the spatula. Your Pad Thai should be a rich woody brown without excess sauce. As soon as the sauce covers all the noodles, dump the whole mess onto a plate or into a bowl. 
  6. Add green parts of scallions, crushed peanuts, crushed red chiles, and lime wedges as garnish.

  1. Are your rice noodles clumped together? It's most likely you overcooked them in the pot at the beginning, although it's also possible they overcooked in your pan.
  2. Is your Pad Thai too light? A number of things could have happened: You added too many rice noodles to the pan, your sauce is watery because you didn't cook it to the consistency of a glaze, or you didn't have enough sauce for the amount of noodles you prepared. It's also possible that all of your water from the noodles didn't burn off, possibly because your pan was not hot enough.

Questions? Ask. I hope I have an answer. I'm not a pro—I don't claim to be—but I have a passion for Pad Thai and I've done a lot of trial and error in order to attempt to perfect a recipe, at least one that works in my household. That said, if you have any suggestions or corrections, I welcome them!

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