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Perhaps the most iconic item in thrifty cooking, instant ramen is a staple in pantries and dorm rooms worldwide. The dried noodle brick and seasoning packet are as cheap as they are prolific, but don't mistake ubiquity for boredom. Instant ramen is an empty culinary canvas just waiting to be painted.
Remember: In our quest to elevate the humblest of quick dishes, we shouldn't begrudge plain old instant ramen. The dish has certainly has earned its place in the annals of cheap cookery.
Sauces & Oils
Sauces, oils, and spices represent the entry level of elevated instant ramen. These are basic ingredients that you can keep in the pantry for several months at a time, breaking them out when you want to enhance an otherwise completed dish.
Bear in mind that these are only a handful of the many possibilities at your disposal when it comes to sauces and cooking oils. Don't be afraid to go nuts; instant ramen is really, really cheap, after all.
Chili paste is sort of like Sriracha's cooler older brother. Used in moderation, this spicy-sweet condiment is good for a safe, familiar kick. Used liberally, you're looking at a five-alarm ramen experience.
Our favorite brand is Huy Fong, which can be found pretty much everywhere.
There are many different variations of Ponzu sauce, but most commercial varieties are pretty similar. It's a thin, savory, soy-based sauce blended with one or more types of citrus (usually lemon). Ponzu is probably best known as the dipping agent for dumplings, but a few dashes in a pot of ramen will add some complexity to the broth.
Alternatively, a quick squeeze of a lime or lemon is an effective way to jazz up a bowl of ramen without affecting the overall flavor profile too much.
Toasted Sesame Oil
Sesame oil adds a nutty, complex note to a bowl of ramen without being overpowering. That said, it's easy to go overboard with this one, so play it safe and introduce it just a little bit at a time.
Speaking of sesame, topping ramen with a few teaspoons of whole sesame seeds gives the dish some of the same nuttiness while adding texture to the noodles.
Perhaps the only food more ubiquitous than instant ramen in American kitchens is the humble egg, and wouldn't you know it? The two go spectacularly well together.
One popular approach is to dress the dish with a soft-boiled egg. Achieving a proper soft boil is trickier than a hard boil, but the end result is way more scrumptious.
While a hard-boiled egg's yolk is uniformly solid, a soft-boiled egg is slightly, well, soft. And runny. When halved and dropped in the broth, the egg releases a silky trace of liquid yolk that provides a richer, creamier mouthfeel.
To soft-boil an egg:
- Carefully place it in a pot of boiling water.
- Boil for 6 minutes
- Remove from boiling water and submerge in ice water for 1 minute
- Remove eggshell
Another tried-and-true method is a simple egg drop, which produces wisps of ribbony egg goodness throughout the bowl—not unlike Chinese egg drop soup.
You can either crack the egg directly into the pot or lightly scramble it in a separate bowl beforehand. In either case, it should be added to the pot towards the end of the boil and stirred in only one direction.
Meat & Veggies
Okay, we're admittedly reaching the point where you might as well be making ramen from scratch. But for the good of humanity, let's soldier on.
Meat gives a bowl of instant ramen a much-needed dose of protein, and vegetables provide color, crunch, and contrast. A blend of both are ideal, of course, but no one's keeping score.
Thinly Sliced Meats
Cheap, thin cuts of beef and pork can be added to the broth raw, in what I like to call "the phở method." I prefer pork and especially beef to be in the medium-rare territory, so I always keep a watchful eye on the pot so as not to overcook anything.
They're probably going to get thrown out eventually, right? Why not toss in that rotisserie chicken or leftover pork chop? Just let 'em heat through and you're good to go.
Leaves & Sprouts
Sometimes all you need to liven up a dish is a little roughage. Leafy greens like cabbage and spinach can be added after the cooking process is complete, and raw sprouts (like bean sprouts and clover sprouts) can also be tossed in after the heat's been turned off, so they maintain their crunch.
Yes, stir-frying requires a second pan. Whether or not that flies in the face of the spirit of instant ramen modification is a decision I leave up to you.
Nevertheless, snap peas, peppers, broccoli, onions, and corn are great candidates for a toss in a hot pan before being added to some ramen. Be sure to slightly undercook them, as the heat from the ramen will keep the process going once they're added to the broth.
Herbs and Other Small Green Things
Though they're not strictly traditional, fresh herbs like cilantro, basil, and oregano can add some kick to your bowl, depending on the flavor profile you're going for. Sliced green onions are also an excellent choice, as are strips of dried seaweed, or nori. But avoid cramming too many herbs into a single meal; you want the flavors to be in harmony, not in competition.
Of course, there are plenty of other, more exotic instant ramen recipes that don't even qualify as ramen.
Plenty of folks like to take the noodle brick and break it up over a garden salad. Others like to discard the seasoning packet and water entirely and make a DIY carbonara. And it only gets wilder from there.
The options are infinite, the flavors unimaginable. Ramen can be whatever you want it to be. But for starters, maybe just add an egg to your next bowl?