Just because your instant ramen is boring doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.
The internet is chock-a-block with all kinds of wild and crazy instant noodles, but if you quickly grabbed a mega-pack of one of the bland Brillo pads before you had a chance to peruse some of the tastier ones available, there’s good news. Cheap, bare bones brands may be weak sauce on their own, but they can serve as a decent blank canvas if you’re willing to get a little creative.
Add fresh veggies and meat, stir in some sauces or seasonings, add a little garnish and suddenly you’ve got yourself a pretty decent bowl of noodle soup.
If you’re looking for inspiration, here are some ideas to get you started.
1. Add fresh ingredients
Instant ramen is many things, but substantial isn’t one of them. Even if there are meat or vegetables involved, they’re mostly limited to powdered bouillon and tiny little desiccated bits. Filling it in with some heftier, fresh ingredients makes all the difference in the world.
The main trick here is timing. Meat and vegetables that need to cook longer should be added earlier in the process, while items that cook quickly can go for a quick dunk just before serving.
Add items early if they need to be cooked — think, carrots or meat.
Most instant ramen packets with a powdered seasoning base will instruct you to add the seasoning right at the end. Ignore that. If you’re going to add some vegetables or meat, you want them cooking in a seasoned broth rather than plain water. Bring the water to a simmer, stir in your seasoning packets, and then you can go to town.
Substantial vegetables like carrots, potatoes or broccoli with thick stems can take 15 minutes or more to get nice and tender, but cutting them into smaller chunks or thin slices will help speed that along. This is also a great time to add some thick slices of onion, which will lend their flavor to the broth and get soft as they cook. Or, now is when you can throw in some uncooked meat, cut into bite-sized pieces.
What’s more, items you add now don’t have to stay in your soup. You could try a stick of cinnamon or a couple star anise. Maybe a few cloves of fresh garlic or some slices of ginger. Add them now, and they’ll season your soup while you cook — just take them out before serving.
Add ingredients that need to be warmed when you add the noodles.
Cooking times for instant noodles can vary, but for the cheap brands, you’re usually looking at about three to five minutes — perfect for vegetables that need to be briefly cooked, like snap peas, sliced bell peppers, napa cabbage or greens like swiss chard. You can add these when you add the noodles, and when the noodles are ready, the vegetables will be too.
Now is the time to add proteins that only need to be warmed, like cubes of tofu, spam, imitation crab, or leftovers like shredded chicken and sliced steak. Or, toss in seafood items that only need a few minutes to cook, like fresh or thawed shrimp or fish.
Add delicate ingredients like spinach and corn just before serving.
Some items need just a few moments to cook. Got some fresh spinach? Throw in a handful, stir it up and the hot broth will cook it in the time it takes to bring to the table. Similarly, fresh corn kernels and small frozen vegetables like peas and chopped carrots need just a few moments to thaw and come up to temperature in hot soup. Just don’t use too much frozen fare, or you’ll be icing your soup down rather than the other way around.
2. Sauces can add depth to your broth
Got a pantry and fridge full of sauces? Time to use ‘em.
Want to add some rich, sweet depth to your broth? A dollop of hoisin sauce or oyster sauce will do the trick, or add a touch of tomato paste. For a bit of salty richness, you could add a splash of soy sauce or even Worcestershire. A dab of miso will do wonders for a bowl of instant ramen, especially if you add a pat of butter as well.
Or, you could go a little unconventional and break out that can of coconut milk for some creamy richness. Heck, even a spoonful of peanut butter, particularly when paired with something spicy, can lend an interesting angle.
The key here is not to do too much. Pick one or two flavors and add a little at a time. Also, if you’re using something salty like soy sauce, you might want to leave out some of the seasoning packet so the salinity doesn’t get overpowering.
3. Toss in something for spice or funk
Chile geeks need no prompting, but it goes without saying that you can also bring the heat.
A little dose of chile oil works great, as does a dash of dried chile powder. Asian chile sauces like Sriracha or sambal are a gimme, and if you really want to add some deep complexity, you could add a little bit of gochujang — sweet, fermented Korean chile paste.
Or, go a completely different direction and add some curry. Either a powder or a paste added right at the beginning will do the job, and it goes great with a splash of coconut milk.
If you’re looking to bring a little funk into the mix, a healthy splash of fish sauce is always a great option. A dab of anchovy paste will do the job as well, though you’ll want to use it with restraint. And if you want a lighter broth with a smoky seafood flavor, considering grabbing a bottle of Hondashi — instant dashi that keeps for months in the fridge. Just a little sprinkle of it will give your soup a distinctively Japanese scent.
4. Don't forget the toppings
Raid the fridge, and there’s bound to be something that’ll make a great topping. Think not only about flavor, but about texture as well. Slivered scallions are a time-honored classic, lending a pungent crunch, and mung bean sprouts are another old standby.
But don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Very thinly shredded cabbage or slivers of celery can make a great topping, lending a nice vegetal crunch. Maybe some sliced radishes, jicama cut into matchsticks or a wedge of tomato. Pick something that pairs up with your broth.
Everybody knows what a fresh herb plate can do for a bowl of pho, but there’s no reason not to apply that wisdom here as well. Fresh basil, minced chives, leaves of cilantro — any fresh herb can make a great accent.
Don’t forget citrus! A little squeeze of tart juice or even just a light dusting of citrus zest can brighten a bowl. And if you really want some fire, chopped or sliced fresh chiles will start releasing their essence the moment they hit the surface of the soup.
If you have a bag of bonito flakes, now would be a great time to add a little tuft to lend their smoky tuna flavor.
But don’t be afraid to go unconventional. Preparing a batch of chashu pork might contradict the purpose of convenience ramen, but quickly sizzling up a strip of bacon will achieve a similar effect. Or, if you have bacon for breakfast, save some of the rendered fat and add a spoonful to the soup. You’ll end up with tasty little globules of smoky pork flavor floating gently on the surface.
And particularly if you’re working with a pork broth, you might be surprised by how well grated cheese can pair with ramen. A snowy little pile of parmesan or gouda might be a little mind-bending at first, but trust me — it works.
5. Put an egg on it
Eggs are one of the greatest gifts to ramen, instant or otherwise, and you can use them a bunch of ways:
- Stir it in. Right before serving, you can stir in a whole raw egg and swish it around. It’ll give your soup a luxurious, thick richness.
- Hard boiled. Slice or quarter hard boiled eggs and pop them right on top.
- Nitamago. You know those soft-cooked eggs with a custardy center that you get on killer bowls of ramen? They’re easier to make than you think. Just lower eggs into boiling water for exactly six and a half or seven minutes, depending on whether you like them more custardy or a touch more firm, and then plunge them into an ice bath. When they’re peeled and halved, they’ll have that perfect ramen egg consistency.
- Fry it. Perhaps this crosses the line into actual cooking, but there aren’t many bowls of ramen that a fried egg can’t improve.
Some general advice for cooking ramen:
If you’re swimming with ideas and paralyzed by indecision, just remember a few tips:
- Keep it simple. It might be tempting to toss 20 things in the pot, but remember that less is more. Add a couple of veggies, a squirt of sauce, a topping or two, but the more you add the harder it is to balance the flavors. It doesn’t take much. Just a couple of tweaks will go a long way.
- Taste as you go. Are those carrots ready? Pull out a slice and taste it. Not sure if this sauce will work with your broth? Add a drop to a spoonful and taste it. Is this going to get too salty if I add grated cheese? Add a tiny bit and taste it. If it works, do it. If it doesn’t, don’t.
- You can always add more. Start small before going big. You can always add another dollop of gochujang. You can’t take a dollop out.
- Don’t get discouraged. The absolute worst case scenario is that you ruin a 50 cent packet of cheap instant ramen. Relax. The stakes aren’t high. Don’t be afraid to have fun with it.