Cooking can be frustrating.
“Why doesn’t this taste right?”
“Did I use a tablespoon instead of a teaspoon?”
“Did I add too much salt?”
“Did I leave the meat in the oven too long?”
That’s one of the advantages of having instant ramen for lunch or dinner: no frustration. (The price is another advantage, of course.)
You just boil the water, put the dehydrated noodles in for three minutes, add the stuff in the seasoning packet – and you’re done.
Perfect ramen, every time.
But…is it really perfect?
Instant ramen noodles straight from the grocery store aren’t very good for you. They’re loaded with calories, carbs, unhealthy fats and salt – with no real nutritional benefits that might offset those drawbacks. They’re not particularly filling, so you could end up searching for another unhealthy snack sooner rather than later.
Just as importantly, though, ramen always tastes the same. Sure, you can alternate the chicken noodle and soy sauce flavors, or give shrimp-flavored ramen a try. But instant ramen generally simply tastes just like the dehydrated noodles and flavor packet that you make it from.
In short, it’s not healthy, and it’s not “real food.”
You can, of course, make healthier, more delicious ramen if you make the noodle soup completely from scratch.
But there’s good news: it only takes a few extra minutes to improve the store-bought stuff dramatically.
Here’s how to make instant ramen better.
What’s In a Package of Instant Ramen?
Have you ever looked at the ingredient label on that package of Maruchan or Top Ramen? The experience is an eye-opener.
The most immediate problems are the preservative tBHQ used in the dehydrated ramen noodles, and the MSG in the seasoning packet. tBHQ can cause all sorts of health problems if you eat too much of it, and since it’s used in lots of packaged foods, it adds up fast. MSG can cause a bunch of temporary but unpleasant symptoms known collectively as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome; they certainly don’t affect everyone, but it’s not uncommon.
Look past the tBHQ and MSG and you see a laundry list of other preservatives and artificial ingredients, particularly in that packet of flavorings and seasonings. Even if they’re not dangerous to eat, they’re certainly not good for you.
And then there’s the nutritional information on the label: 380 calories, 50 net carbs (about one-fifth of an entire day’s recommended allowance), eight grams of saturated fat (35% of an adult’s daily maximum), and about 1600 milligrams of sodium – 70% of the recommended daily maximum. That’s not great, to put it mildly.
Those numbers wouldn’t necessarily be a deal-breaker if instant ramen was a complete, nutritious meal. But it’s not. Packaged ramen contains almost no protein, vitamins or minerals, so it’s really nothing more than empty calories that do nothing for your health.
Buying fresh noodles or making your own healthy broth for a bowl of ramen would solve many of those problems, but that’s time-consuming and brings us back to the “cooking frustration” we mentioned at the start.
There’s an easier way. It won’t miraculously make the dehydrated noodles and seasoning packet healthier, but it will add enough nutritional value to your ramen soup to largely offset much of its drawbacks.
Improving Instant Ramen with Add-Ins and Toppings
The best hacks are easy to pull off, and most of these instant ramen hacks will take only a couple of minutes.
Traditional Japanese ramen contains much more than the noodles and broth that you create by rehydrating instant ramen. “Real” ramen has a wealth of proteins and vegetables added in or used as toppings, and it’s easy to do the same thing at home – if you view instant ramen as a starting point rather than a finished meal.
Adding extra, healthy ingredients will exponentially increase the nutritional value of the soup, while providing a ton of freshness and flavor that can’t be replicated simply by boiling dry noodles and opening a packet of powder. In other words, it will be the best instant ramen possible.
The protein that’s most frequently added to ramen is a cut of pork known in Japanese as chashu, slices of roasted or braised pork that usually come from the fatty pork belly and may be marinated before being cooked. If the pork is cubed rather than sliced it’s called kakuni. (One of the best varieties of ramen is tonkotsu ramen, whose broth is made by boiling pork bones until the collagen has dissolved and become gelatinous.)
One of our ground rules, though, is that it should take less than a few minutes to dress up a bowl of instant ramen – and most people are more likely to have leftover home-cooked (or takeout) chicken in their fridge than leftover pork. That’s just fine; chicken is the second-most added ramen protein, and a slice or two of cooked chicken will contribute lots of protein and taste. Shredded chicken is good too, as is shredded pork, and they’re easier to eat with a spoon or chopsticks.
What about beef? No problem. Many restaurant ramen bowls contain beef, shellfish, white fish or even duck, and they’ll all fulfill the mission of making the soup healthier, tastier and just plain better. Vegetarian or vegan? Cubes of tofu will also work.
We should mention one more protein which is traditionally dropped on top of ramen: eggs. Some people prefer soft-boiled eggs with runny yolks that mix in with the broth, other like them hard-boiled, some scramble an egg and add it afterward, and there are those who break a raw egg into the ramen and let it cook as you stir the broth. It’s the egg itself that’s traditional, not the cooking method, so go with whatever you enjoy. (It can be used for non-traditional ramen, too; just ask Kylie Jenner.)
Adding Asian vegetables will naturally make your ramen seem more authentic, while adding another layer of texture and nutrition.
Bean sprouts, Chinese cabbage and bok choy are obvious choices; the cabbage and bok choy add freshness if they’re raw, but will be easier to eat if you cook them a bit first. Other options that are terrific additions are nori (crispy seaweed), kimchi (fermented cabbage) and menma (fermented bamboo shoots), but you probably don’t have them in your kitchen unless you regularly prepare Asian meals.
What most people do have in their kitchen are mushrooms, garlic and onions, all of which are traditional and delicious ramen ingredients. Wood ear, enoki and shiitake are the mushrooms most often found in Japanese ramen, but any variety will work just fine. Garlic can be minced, chopped, grated, or added in the form of garlic oil, and the onions (needless to say) will be easier to eat if they’re chopped first. There’s nothing wrong with stir-frying any of these veggies first, either.
Greens like spinach aren’t common add-ins, but they’re usually handy and will add bulk and freshness to a bowl of ramen. And don’t neglect that can of corn that’s been sitting on the back of a shelf; the sweetness of corn is often used as a counterpoint to more-savory miso or shio ramen. It will be delicious in a bowl of Maruchan or Top Ramen, too.
Want to be really traditional? Chop some scallions (green onions) and toss them into your ramen before digging in. Chives will serve the same purpose. Other common ramen toppings are sesame seeds, valued for both their texture and their aroma, and parsley, which adds an attractive green finish to a bowl of noodle soup. (Cilantro is a good alternative garnish.)
But who says you have to be traditional to make instant ramen better? Almost any sauces or condiments you have on hand will spice up your soup, sometimes literally. We’re talking about sriracha or hot sauce, sesame oil, fish sauce, or – if we have to even say it – soy sauce.
Ramen can always be improved by adding something as simple as the everyday spices that you use to cook with or that you regularly sprinkle on your food. Garlic or onion powder, red pepper or chili flakes, basil or oregano, curry powder or cumin, and even spices you wouldn’t think of like cinnamon, can improve the somewhat-bland flavor of instant ramen. Just skip the salt; there’s already more than enough salt in there.
Try Something New With Your Instant Ramen
Every one of those add-ins and toppings will elevate a bowl of instant ramen, but even “spicing up” the soup can grow old if you eat a lot of it.
Here are some “other” things you can do with your Maruchan or Top Ramen to turn it into a virtually-new – and fantastic – dish.
- Bacon: No pork in the refrigerator? Fry up a little bacon and add it to your ramen instead, for the same savory flavor. Late night and you want noodles for breakfast? The bacon plus an egg or two will turn ramen into a breakfast of champions.
- Chicken or beef broth: Rehydrating ramen noodles in boiling water will make them edible, but not tasty. Trying boiling the noodles in broth instead. Alternate suggestion: add some stock or a couple of bouillon cubes to your ramen bowl for added flavor.
- Make yakisoba stir fry: Don’t be intimidated; it’s not as difficult as it sounds. Just boil the noodles, and then stir-fry or sauté them with any of the add-ins and seasonings you’d usually put into your bowl of ramen. If you don’t want to waste the seasoning packet, you can toss it right into the stir-fry. Another option: bake the noodles and use them as a “nest” for other tasty ingredients.
- Use miso paste instead of seasonings: We’ve talked about the fact that the seasonings that come with instant ramen aren’t very good for you. Instead, try mixing the noodles with a spoonful or two of miso paste for a rich, savory, Japanese umami flavor. (Yes, we know you probably don’t have miso paste in your pantry, but it’s worth finding at the supermarket or on Amazon.)
- Use pho noodles: While we’re on the subject of substitutions, try using Vietnamese pho noodles instead of the dehydrated ramen noodles that come in the package. Pho noodles are softer and will provide a nice change of pace to chewy ramen noodles. (Or use rice noodles for ramen you can eat on the keto diet.)
- Add peanut butter: That’s not as crazy as it sounds. Mix a dollop of peanut butter with sesame oil, rice vinegar, garlic, ginger and soy sauce, then pour it over ramen noodles and top the bowl with scallions, and you’d almost think you were eating a gourmet Thai dish.
- Add coconut milk: Here’s another Thai inspiration: mix the noodles with coconut milk and sugar, along with fish sauce and curry paste (if you have them). Yum. In more of an Italian mood? Try mixing the noodles with pesto instead.
- Make it cheesy: It may not seem traditional, but everything – including ramen – is better with cheese. Sprinkle some Parmesan on top, add crumbled feta to the broth, or just put a slice of American cheese on top and let it melt. You’ll be surprised at how good it is. (Hesitant about the American cheese? Don’t be; it’s how famed Korean chef Roy Choi likes to make his ramen.)
Don’t Forget the Butter: Choi also adds butter to his ramen, and you can too. In fact, you should definitely try it, since butter will make the broth creamier, richer, and even more of a yummy comfort food.
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