This classic dish of noodles, egg, veggies, and bean sprouts is one you encounter in almost all Thai restaurants—it’s a standard bearer. As 48-year-old Chef Pheraphat Phromsom (he goes by Peter) says, “If the pad Thai is good, the restaurant is good.”
But what if you’re miles away from a Thai restaurant and just want to recreate the experience at home? Well, that’s what I set out to do.
I spent some time talking with Chef Peter, who came to the United States from Bangkok via California and now runs the kitchen at 1001 Thai in Easton, PA, my favorite local Thai place. The recipe below is how he makes pad Thai.
Video! How to Make Pad Thai
What is Pad Thai?
Pad Thai is a popular rice noodle dish that is on the menu of nearly every Thai restaurant. It is indeed served in Thailand, usually with tofu. “This is like McDonald’s” for Thai people, says Peter, with a laugh. Which is to say it’s fast food; he says in Thailand it’s street food that cooks quickly in a very hot wok or pan.
Pad Thai is often served with chopped peanuts, bean sprouts, scallions, and sometimes carrots, cilantro and/or a wedge of lime. The sauce is key and is comprised of sugar, fish sauce, rice vinegar, and tamarind.
Pad Thai, more often than not, is served with tofu as its protein; shrimp is not uncommon either in Thailand. “Americans like their chicken, so we serve it that way here, too,” Peter says. In the recipe below I’m using shrimp, but you could really use any protein you prefer.
Pad Thai is Fast Food. Literally.
The only tricks, if there are any, have to do with timing. The actual dish itself takes less than 10 minutes to get to the table, which continued to surprise me, even as I was working on this recipe multiple times. All of a sudden, it’s ready! The key is to have your ingredients prepped and ready—and the table set for dinner.
Adapting Pad Thai for Home Cooking
Pad Thai is also typically made one serving at a time—but the average home cook isn’t going to want to repeat this procedure multiple times for every guest at their table.
This recipe serves four, and I highly recommend making it in two batches. The first time I made pad Thai following Peter’s recipe, that is what I did to serve myself and my two boys, and that seemed workable.
Cooking in two batches ensures the following:
- You have proper sauce distribution.
- The noodles don’t get gummy.
- The flavors can properly integrate when you bring the ingredients together.
No one wants to fight with a giant wad of noodles in a wok—or on their plate. Cooked this way, two servings at a time, it will taste more like the pad Thai you have in restaurants where everything is typically made to order.
Each batch of the pad Thai comes together very fast, so you could either serve a little bit of the first round to those who are waiting, or you could just wait and serve it all together. Personally, I am always a proponent of serving hot food when it’s hot, and Asian restaurants will often bring you food when it’s ready, not necessarily to time it with everyone else’s orders.
What Equipment You Need for Pad Thai
A large wok will make your life a lot easier when it comes to making pad Thai. It’s high on all sides, and you can load a lot of ingredients into it. Woks are also typically made of thin but highly conductive materials, which ensure even cooking over very high heat.
However, if you don’t have a wok, a large sauté pan (nonstick is great) with sides high enough to contain the ingredients will suffice. You need to be able to maneuver the ingredients easily; keep this in mind when you load up the pan. (It’s another reason to do two servings at a time.)
It’s also wise to have a sieve that can easily accommodate noodles as you cook them, and a pot that can easily accommodate your strainer. A standard 8-inch fine mesh strainer, like this one from OXO, should work just fine with a large stock pot.
How to Make Pad Thai Sauce
Pad Thai sauce is made typically with these four basic ingredients: tamarind, sugar, rice vinegar, and fish sauce. This makes a sauce that’s both sweet and sour, but also has some umami, earthy depth from the fish sauce. A good pad Thai sauce shouldn’t impart one strong flavor markedly over the other; it’s a balance.
Tamarind is a fruit that’s commonly found in Thailand and is a key ingredient used to make the pad Thai sauce. It grows in long pods and is often sold as pulp that’s been compacted into blocks, or bricks. To use it, you soak a block of the pulp in warm water for an hour or so or up to overnight. Then, you squeeze the pulp to break it up and push it gently through a fine mesh sieve. What ends up on the other side in your bowl is a dark reddish puree that looks like apple butter but smells way more tangy. It is velvety, sweet, and sour.
However, not everyone has access to this ingredient, plus it’s a little labor intensive for the home cook to prepare, so we developed this recipe using tamarind concentrate/tamarind paste, which is thick like molasses—and sticky like it, too. It’s also more widely available than the pulp, which you can easily buy online or in Asian grocers.
You should also be able to easily find the rice vinegar and fish sauce in the Asian section of most supermarkets.
Adjusting Your Sauce to Taste
Chef Peter cautions that tamarind will vary in taste from package to package or jar to jar. Sometimes it will be more sweet, sometimes more sour. This is why it’s very important to taste as you go when making the sauce—you may find the sauce is too sweet, and if so, add a little more acidity from rice vinegar, or some more fish sauce to give it some umami depth.
Similarly, fish sauce varies from brand to brand. He let me sample two that he had on hand at the restaurant, and one was much more pungent than the other. Golden Boy (the less assertively fishy) is the brand he recommended.
The more you make pad Thai and work with the sauce, the more you’ll be able to tell what your sauce needs, and how you like it to taste.
You can buy pad Thai sauce in a bottle, sure. I’ve even got a small bottle of it in my fridge made by a local condiment company, and it’s pretty awesome in a pinch. However, like most things, it just tastes so much better when you make it yourself.
Whatever sauce you don’t use, you can store in the refrigerator for up to six months in a lidded container. You’ll want to shake it well before using to mix up the ingredients again.
What Rice Noodles to Buy?
The rice noodles are key. You’re looking for long, wide rice noodles (about width of fettuccine), which usually come in nondescript looking plastic bags in the grocery store—they’re fairly easy to find (this is the kind that I used), usually in the international aisle. Asian grocers will have them, too. The noodles you want should be folded in half inside the bag.
Avoid buying shorter, stick-like rice noodles, which come loose in their packaging and are often labeled as “pad thai” or “stir fry” noodles. We’ve found these don’t work as well for this recipe and tend to break apart during cooking.
How to Prep the Rice Noodles for Pad Thai
Don’t bother looking at the directions on the package. They may or may not be in a language you can read (or reliable), and according to my Thai chef instructor, more often than not they don’t offer the best way to prep the noodles. Also, if you take the noodles out of the package and cook them straight away in boiling water, they’re more likely to end up overcooked and gummy once you put them in a hot pan with the other ingredients.
So what do you do? You soak them in cold water, which softens them just enough to cook them into a hot wok or pan with the rest of the ingredients. The noodles take about two to three hours to soften, but you can also set them in cold water in a lidded container, stick them in the fridge, and pull them out the next night for dinner with no problem whatsoever.
Trust me on this. I’ve learned it the hard way, and Chef’s tip about soaking them instead of cooking them first is a real game changer for pad Thai. All you need to do, once they’ve soaked, is quickly dip them in and out of a pot of boiling water to par-cook them (partially cook) before adding them to the pan with the rest of the ingredients.
Putting This Dish Together
When it’s time to serve, you want the noodles to be covered in sauce, but the dish isn’t saucy. The bean sprouts, Chef Peter says, help keep the noodles from sticking together. Serve with wedges of lime and a sprinkle of chopped cilantro and/or red pepper flakes, if you like.
How to Store and Reheat Leftovers
Leftovers keep for three to four days covered, in the fridge. Peter swears by microwaving pad Thai to reheat it. I can attest to this. You don’t even have to add any water to the noodles. I do mine in 30-second increments so it doesn’t make the shrimp rubbery.
This dish does not freeze well, but no one has complained about eating too much pad Thai in my house, so …
WANT MORE ASIAN RECIPES?
- Thai Green Curry with Chicken
- Chicken Pad Thai
- Moo Goo Gai Pan
- Singapore Noodles with Shrimp
- Weeknight Chicken Ramen