Pad thai is—hands down—one of the simplest copycat recipes you can make at home. Our easy pad thai recipe is ready in less than 30 minutes, and it tastes just as good as the dish from your favorite restaurant. It’s the perfect quick-cooking meal for an easy weeknight dinner, and making it won’t break the bank, either. You’ll end up with chewy noodles, crunchy peanuts and tons of fresh veggie flavors, all swimming in a perfectly tangy, sweet-and-sour sauce. Follow the recipe to a T, or make a few substitutions to make it your own. Your choice!
What Is Pad Thai?
Pad thai is probably the number-one-selling dish at sit-down Thai restaurants in the U.S., but it actually has Chinese origins. The dish’s full name—kway teow pad thai—translates roughly to “Thai-style stir-fried noodles.” The cooking method of stir-frying meat, vegetables and noodles together with sauce is more Chinese than Thai. But Thailand unified around the recipe as its national dish in the 1930s when Thailand’s prime minister, Phibun, popularized pad thai. He distributed the recipe for this nutritious, well-balanced and inexpensive meal. Today, it can be found at almost every food cart in the country.
Once you’ve had pad thai, it’s easy to know why it’s so popular. The ingredients sometimes vary, but it almost always contains rice noodles, peanuts, scrambled eggs and vegetables stir-fried in an unforgettable sauce. It’s full of fresh flavors, and the sauce has the perfect balance of sweet, sour and savory tastes.
Tips on Selecting Ingredients
The most important ingredient in pad thai is the noodles. You can lighten-up the dish by using zucchini noodles instead, but rice noodles have the perfect chewy texture that brings the meat, vegetables and sauce together. Look for packages labeled rice stick noodles, banh pho or thick-cut vermicelli.
Another key ingredient in pad thai is tamarind, a sweet-and-sour fruit that’s used to make Worcestershire sauce. It’s difficult to find, and it’s hard to use the entire jar if you do find it. So we left it out and use lime juice instead, which is the perfect replacement for tamarind’s sour flavor.
Finally, let’s talk fish sauce. It’s made by fermenting salt-packed fish (like anchovies), and its flavor is hard to describe. Undoubtedly fishy, yes, but also sweet, savory and a little bit funky. You can skip it if you like and use extra soy sauce instead, but your pad thai will lack depth. We like the Red Boat brand best because it’s gluten-free and made with clean ingredients, but any fish sauce will do in this recipe.
Chef Tip: How to Cook Rice Noodles Perfectly
Rice noodles are a bit trickier than flour-based noodles. They’re pretty delicate, and they’ll turn to mush when mishandled. Luckily, preparing rice noodles is pretty easy, so long as you don’t let them sit in hot water for too long.
For starters, you won’t actually cook the noodles—all they need is a quick soak in hot, boiling water. Place the noodles in a large bowl, trying your best not to break them. Then, pour enough boiling water over the noodles to completely submerge them. After a few minutes, gently agitate the noodles using chopsticks or a fork to break the noodles apart.
When the noodles look limp and softened, give them a taste. They’re finished when they no longer contain the raw taste of rice flour. For thick noodles, this process can take as long as ten minutes. Keep in mind that you’ll want to slightly undercook the noodles for pad thai, since they will continue to cook when you add them to the stir-fry.
When you’re happy with the taste and texture, drain and discard the soaking liquid. Rinse the noodles with cold water to stop the cooking process. If you’re not using the rice noodles immediately, toss them in a little sesame oil to keep them from sticking.
Essential Tools You’ll Need
Any large, wide skillet will work for making pad thai. If you plan to make stir-fries on a regular basis, now is the time to invest in a wok. Carbon-steel woks ($60) are the most traditional, but they require an initial seasoning process. They also won’t work on electric ranges or induction cooktops. Stainless-steel woks ($60), on the other hand, don’t have to be seasoned and can be used on any type of cooktop.
The only other tool you need is a wide spatula. You can get an official shovel-shaped wok spatula ($11), or you can use a spatula you already have on hand. Just make sure it’s not flimsy, like an egg spatula, and it can handle the high heat of the wok.
How to Make Easy Pad Thai
- 4 ounces uncooked thick rice noodles
- 2 teaspoons canola oil
- 1/2 pound pork tenderloin, cut into thin strips
- 2 shallots, thinly sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 3 cups coleslaw mix
- 4 green onions, thinly sliced
- 1/3 cup rice vinegar
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 3 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon chili garlic sauce
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- 2 tablespoons chopped salted peanuts
- Chopped fresh cilantro leaves, lime wedges and fresh bean sprouts
Yield: 4 servings
Step 1: Cook the noodles
Prepare the noodles according to the package directions. Try not to break them as you place them in a large bowl, and be sure to use fully boiling water to rehydrate them. When the noodles are tender but slightly al dente, drain and discard the hot water. Rinse the noodles in cold water to stop the cooking process.
Editor’s Tip: If you’re not using the noodles immediately, toss them with a little sesame oil to keep the noodles from sticking to each other.
Step 2: Stir-fry the vegetables
Now comes the fun part: stir-frying! Heat the oil over high heat in a large nonstick skillet or wok. Add the pork and stir-fry until it’s lightly browned. Remove the pork and set it aside. Without wiping out the pan, add the shallot and garlic and cook until they’re tender and fragrant, about one minute, stirring constantly to keep the garlic from burning. Then, make a well in the center of the onion mixture and add the egg. Stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes, until the egg is completely set.
Step 3: Add the sauce and finish the dish
From here, the dish is nearly complete. Add the coleslaw mix along with the green onions, vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce, chili garlic sauce, lime juice and peanuts. Stir-fry for about a minute, until the sauce is lightly bubbling and the coleslaw is wilted. Return the pork to the pan and continue to cook until it’s heated through. Finally, add the noodles and cook briefly to allow the flavors to come together.
Portion the stir-fry into four bowls. Garnish each dish with cilantro, additional peanuts, lime wedges and bean sprouts.
How to Make This Recipe Your Own
Pad thai is so easy to modify, so feel free to make it your own! Instead of using pork tenderloin, try shrimp, pressed tofu or chicken instead. You don’t have to add any protein at all, either. Vegetarian pad thai tastes great, too, so don’t be afraid to add sugar snap peas, zucchini, mushrooms, chopped bell peppers or anything else that sounds good.
When it comes to the sauce, you can make it sweeter by adding hoisin or brown sugar. Or make it extra spicy by amping up the chili garlic sauce or adding red pepper flakes. The possibilities are limitless, so have some fun with it.
This easy pad thai dish is pretty healthy. Each 1-1/4 cup serving contains 361 calories, 8 grams of fat (2 grams saturated fat), 78 milligrams cholesterol, 53 carbohydrates (23 grams sugar, 2 grams fiber) and 19 grams protein. It does contain a significant amount of sodium—1669 milligrams, which is almost 70% of the American Heart Association’s recommended daily intake. If you’re looking to reduce sodium in your diet, you can halve the quantity of the fish sauce and soy sauce.
To lighten up the dish, try using zucchini noodles instead of rice noodles. You’ll miss out on their delightful chewiness, but the dish itself will still taste great. You could also reduce the amount of sugar, although you’ll also want to cut out some of the vinegar so the sauce isn’t too tangy.
While cooked pad thai is good in the refrigerator for about three days, it’s not our favorite leftover. The noodles will continue to take on liquid as the dish sits, resulting in a super mushy, kind of soggy mess. If you want to make enough to create leftovers, we recommend storing the noodles separately. Instead of tossing them with the stir-fry in the last step, toss them with sesame oil and store them in an airtight container. The next day, heat up the stir-fry and add the noodles for the last minute to heat them through.
What to Serve with Pad Thai
You don’t need to serve anything with pad thai—it’s a great stand-alone dish—but that doesn’t mean you can’t. We love serving pad thai with vegetable side dishes like Asian-style green beans or Thai asparagus, kale and mushrooms. You could also amplify the fresh vibes with a vibrant fruit salad or a cooling cucumber side dish.