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Lo Mein vs Chow Mein: What is the Difference?

If you have ever perused a menu at a Chinese restaurant, you have undoubtedly come across lo mein and chow mein. Most people understand that these are different types of food but not all of us understand what the true distinctions are between the two.

Many assume that the key difference between the two is the type of noodles used. This makes sense as lo mein noodles have a silky smooth texture whereas chow mein noodles are crispier. However, the main distinction between these is how the noodles are prepared and not the type of noodle used. 

a dish of beef lo mein with broccoli

Mein is the Chinese word for noodles with lo mein meaning “tossed noodles” and chow mein meaning “fried noodles.” With these two different meanings, you would expect the dishes to taste differently. And you would be right!

In today’s article, we will be discovering the differences between lo mein and chow mein so you can order in confidence the next time you’re in the mood for Asian cuisine. We will also discuss how to make lo mein and chow mein with different recipes so you can have a go at home.

What is Lo Mein?

Lo mein, as the Chinese name suggests, refers to mixed or tossed noodles. Lo mein dishes usually include vegetables with some kind of protein such as chicken, pork, beef, seafood, or tofu. 

Lo mein is basically a dry variation of a regular, traditional noodle soup. Chefs mimic the texture of this type of soup by drowning the noodle dish in some sort of savory sauce. 

The noodles used in lo mein dishes are fully cooked and have usually been boiled and then drained. The cooked noodles are then placed into a wok that holds a range of vegetables and proteins. These ingredients have usually been cooked beforehand and tossed into the lo mein sauce.

person cooking with a wok over a flame

The noodles, veggies, and proteins are then gently tossed together until the noodles are heated through. Once the noodles are heated through, additional sauce is sometimes drizzled over the wok and the dish is completed. 

It’s pretty easy to check whether you’re eating a lo mein meal or not. The entire dish is typically covered with lo mein sauce giving it a bold and highly delicious flavor. Also, the noodles tend to have no grease on them. There should also be a large number of veggies and proteins in the dish that have been tossed together with the noodles and lo mein sauce.

fresh lo mein with celery and onion

What is Chow Mein?  

The term chow mein generally refers to fried noodles. However, there are two main types of chow mein dishes. These are:

  • Steamed chow mein
  • Crisp chow mein

With steamed chow mein, the noodles are flash-fried at first. Then, they are stir-fried while simultaneously getting tossed with other ingredients such as meat or vegetables. All of these food items are then coated in a light sauce. 

Crisp chow mein sees the noodles get pressed flat while being fried. This creates a pancake-like dish. Additional ingredients and sauces are then layered atop the noodle pancake.

There is no doubt that the focal point of both dishes is the noodles. This is why any additional proteins or vegetables are kept to a bare minimum so you are not distracted from the delicious, crunchy noodles in chow mein or the smoothness of lo mein noodles. 

The noodles are boiled and then fried in oil on their own before any other ingredients are added to the dish. This allows the chef to focus solely on cooking the noodles to their crispiest best.

plate of crispy chicken chow mein

The sauce used in chow mein recipes is used quite sparingly. As we stated, the noodles need to shine through in this dish so too much sauce could cause too much moisture and result in soggy noodles. Sometimes, a chef may add a darker, thicker sauce to a crispy chow mein. This softens the noodle’s exterior to produce a chewier texture. 

So, how do you know you’re eating a chow mein?

  • The noodles are very crispy (a crispy chow mein)
  • The noodles are oily (a steamed chow mein)
  • There are only small amounts of vegetables and protein in the dish
  • The sauce is applied very lightly so the noodles are not overshadowed

Types of Noodles Used 

Lo mein and chow mein dishes are both made with egg noodles. These are wheat flour noodles with added egg. For lo mein, fresh egg noodles that are around ¼-inch thick are the most preferred type whereas fresh or dried noodles are fine for chow mein

With both dishes, the noodles need to be softened in boiling water before being cooked. For dried noodles, they need to be parboiled in boiling water for around 5 to 6 minutes before being used. Fresh egg noodles only require around 2 to 3 minutes of boiling time. The exact cooking time usually depends on the thickness of the noodles. This is why you should follow the guidelines on the noodles package if they are present. 

nest of uncooked chinese egg noodles

Whether you’re working with dry or fresh noodles, your main objective should be to boil them until they are just about cooked but not too soft. This is known as “al dente” or “cooked to the tooth.”

If you are finding it hard to come across any Chinese egg noodles, Italian pasta such as linguini or fettuccini is a great alternative. For the quickest lo mein preparation, Ramen noodles with a flavor packet can also act as a substitute. While the quality may not be the same, it can still be delicious.

Which is Better? Lo Mein or Chow Mein? 

The only person who can decide which is the better Chinese noodle dish is yourself. It’s simply a matter of personal taste. Some noodle lovers will prefer the crunch of the dried egg noodles in chow mein dishes while others will always opt for a bowl of sauce-soaked, steaming lo mein noodles. 

Don’t forget that the noodle’s texture will often depend on other ingredients in the dish. You should consider pairing softer ingredients with a crunchy chow mein such as mushrooms or bean sprouts. Do the opposite with lo mei and add tougher ingredients such as broccoli, carrots, or celery. 

When it comes down to it, lo mein and chow mein are two of the greatest Chinese dishes ever. Both dishes are versatile and delicious, it just depends on what you’re in the mood for. Hopefully, this guide helps clear up what the difference is between lo mein and chow mein!

Which dish do you prefer? Drop us a comment down below and let us know!

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Written by Brian Nagele

Brian has over 20 years experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry. As a former restaurant owner, he knows about running a food business and loves to eat and enjoy cocktails on a regular basis. He constantly travels to new cities tasting and reviewing the most popular spots.