In theory, no one would fault you for playing it by the book when it comes to prepping a 50-cent package of instant ramen. After all, boiling noodles, mixing them with water, sprinkling and stirring in a flavor packet, and calling it dinner is a fool-proof process that's been a dorm-room antidote for nearly half a century

But there’s more than one way to be right, and these noodles have bigger potential than their package can convey. Engineered to be crisp and rich (they’re actually deep-fried before being packaged), the three-ounce rectangle can be the base of enhanced bowls of soup or crunchy summer salads, as well as the entryway into decidedly non-Japanese quick meals like mac ‘n cheese. Instant ramen is a reliable cheap-o fall back option, sure, but its true hidden strength is its versatility. 

The appeal goes even deeper than taste, according to instant ramen lover Justin Warner, author of The Laws of Cooking: And How to Break Them. “Instant ramen provides not just a gustatory backbone to a meal, but an emotional one as well. I think any good meal starts with confidence,” he says. “[And] most of us are confident when it comes to making instant ramen.”

With Warner’s help, we get to find out just how many ways ramen can be re-mixed from ordinary pantry filler into inspirational meals—all without requiring complicated cooking methods. One easy first step for experimentation, according to Warner, is to try different brands: “Branch out from Nissin. I like Shin Ramyun as my every day,” he says. The rest requires just a bit of imagination, and a willingness to accept instant ramen for what it truly is: great. 

Here is the complete guide to cooking with instant ramen.