The cult of the New American ramen joint, with its endless wait times and ghostly bowls of tonkotsu broth, has conspired to make the Japanese import feel off-limits to the humble home cook. After all, how could you possibly unlock the mysteries of miso, or crack the secrets of shoyu, when true ramen masters have spent years—if not decades—perfecting the dish?
Maybe you can’t, but that’s okay. “Any home cook can make chicken soup,” says David Koon, co-owner of ramen restaurant Chuko.
According to Koon, it’s important to remember that, ultimately, that’s all ramen is: soup with noodles—preferably soulful and well-balanced, but still simple in essence. So, yes, there is plenty of room to nerd out when it comes to the deep truths about ramen. But we’re not going to—not here, not today.
Let’s just agree that ramen has a storied culture and countless variations, and that it’s easy to get bogged down in head-scratching details when we talk about and eat it at the best establishments. That way, we can move onto the fact that ramen really only has four elements—noodles, broth, seasonings, and toppings. So while the question of the perfect noodle to pair with tonkotsu broth may remain one of the profound mysteries of the world, getting started on making your own ramen is easier than you think—especially with Koon by your side.
Here, we offer a beginner’s guide to making your own ramen. Get comfortable with the basics, then enjoy a lifetime of obsession.
“The broth can be light or heavy, clear or cloudy,” says Koon. “The whole bowl is about balance—the broth balancing with the noodle, the toppings, and the seasoning.” That means you can start with the chicken broth you’re already making and balance it out with other ramen ingredients later. Here’s the way I make broth: put 2 to 3 pounds of chicken bones or chicken wings into a pot with 1 carrot, 1 celery stalk, 2 onions, 2 cloves of garlic, and 3 to 4 quarts of water. After the stock boils, skim off all the scum, cover the pot, and let the pot simmer for 3 hours. When you want to taste the broth to see if it’s rich enough, salt the bite you taste. To turn my mom’s chicken broth into something ready for ramen, I combined pork bones and chicken wings and followed the same directions. And that’s it. “That’s the big secret,” says Koon. “Bones, meat, and you boil the crap out of it.” Afterwards, strain your soup to remove the bones and veggies.
If you want to dive into tonkotsu—the rich, opaque pork broth you see on a lot on menus—Serious Eats has a step-by-step guide. You’ll need a source for pork trotters, which has the collagen and marrow needed to achieve the right level of cloudiness. But before you freak out, remember, tonkotsu is also just a big pot of soup. Koon likes to add aromatics like ginger, scallion, and garlic towards the end of cooking. One potential secret ingredient is apple, for sweetness.
Soup is easy, according to Koon. Making it taste like ramen broth is harder. “The soup is just water,” says Koon. “You have to season it.” You do this by creating a tare, which is something akin to the little packet you get in instant-ramen packages. Salt and soy sauce are good sources of flavor. Miso works too. Garlic mashed with salt is another option. You can ladle the broth into your bowl and add the tare right in, tasting as you go in order to get the balance just right. A meat broth seasoned with soy sauce becomes shoyu, an original ramen staple popular in Tokyo.
“The heavier the soup, the lighter the noodle you want,” is the counterintuitive rule of thumb for noodle-broth matching. It’s the reason why tonkotsu is balanced out with feathery fine strands, while thick miso coats curly noodles best. That’s important information if you’re cooking different kinds of broths and have your choice of noodles at the store. (In New York City, check out Sun Noodle’s new retail ramen kit operation.) When ramen chefs perfect a new broth, they book several sessions with their favorite noodle makers, sitting down again and again to sample how noodles customized with different widths, lengths, curly-ness, and egg-to-flour ratio pair with the rest of the elements in the bowl. But in the end, all rules boil down to taste preference, says Koon.
Cook ramen noodles in a pot of boiling unsalted water for the time specified on the instructions—usually two minutes or less. Then drain them and add to your bowl right when you’re ready to eat.
If you can’t find noodles labeled “ramen,” you can still make a bowl of ramen with any fresh or dried egg noodle you find at an Asian market. Short of that, turn to the package of instant ramen and grab the dried cake of noodles that popularized the dish here in the first place. Toss the flavor packet. Cook the instant noodles quickly in boiling water, then strain, rinse, and drain them before adding to your soup.
4. Seasoned Oil
A seasoned oil is tare’s trusty side-kick in helping you flavor your broth. A good oil will add aroma as well as taste. For an easy solution, simply drizzle in a few drops of toasted sesame oil. To make a knock-out garlic oil, mince a few cloves of garlic and put them in a little bowl. Heat some oil in a small saucepan until it’s very hot—a tiny drop of water should sizzle like crazy. Then pour the oil right over the garlic and let them steep together while you prepare the rest of the ramen. Spoon both garlic and oil into the bowl when you assemble.
To make a soft-boiled egg whose yolk is actually a little more gooey than the one pictured, bring a pot of water to a boil and put whole eggs in for exactly 7 minutes. Then, cool them under cold running water and dry. You can give each bowl just half an egg if you want to maintain the lightness of the bowl.
Pork is traditionally the meat topping you see on soup, and pork belly is especially popular. To get pork belly prepped for ramen, you have to cure, roast, and slice it. David Chang’s recipe is simple and direct (most of the cook time is waiting). Pork shoulder is another option—it’s an economical cut made even cheaper if you use the bulk of the meat and bone to make broth, then slow-roast the rest for the topping. You can throw on shredded chicken or brisket or flank steak, which are less authentic but perhaps more readily available. But probably the easiest and tastiest option of all—the one that doesn’t stray too far away from the essence of ramen but is much quicker than curing pork belly—is stir-fried ground pork. Cook a small amount of oil in a hot pan, then season with salt and bean paste, suggests Koon. Whatever you choose, try to go easy on the meat. After all, this is the kind of balanced meal you should want to eat every day.
7. Other toppings
A handful of green scallions, sliced super thinly on the diagonal, brings a mild onion-y zing to the finished dish. You can also toast sheets of nori and cut them into strips, or sprinkle on Japanese seasoning mixes like furikake and togarashi. You’ll see menma—fermented bamboo shoots—and fish cakes on many menus, but I couldn’t source either easily. On the other hand, I can never pass up thin slices of kimchi, whose spicy brightness balances out almost any bowl that’s accidentally gotten a little rich with pork fat and flavored oil.
To get the right ramen balance—that’s the mantra of ramen, whether you’re obsessive or not—you’ve got to respect the integrity of each element as you assemble. The most delicate ingredient is your noodle, which can easily get too soft. That’s why Koon suggests scooping the noodles into your bowl last. Start assembly by mixing together a serving of broth with your tare to taste, then pile in the noodles and finish quickly with the flavored oil, meat, the eggs, and any other toppings.
9. Speed Eating
Now, you eat—fast. “You want to eat it at its peak, when it’s at its best. If it sits for a while, the noodle starts soaking up the liquid, and they get mushy,” Koon explains. In Japan, ramen is slurped rapidly and at the exclusion of everything else. “The idea is you keep the integrity of the food as it’s supposed to be,” says Koon. “Eating ramen, that’s all you do—you’re not there to talk, or have a conversation. You wait in line, you sit at the counter, you get your bowl, you crush it in four minutes.” Many ramen joints are standing room-only to discourage lingering.
The drawback here is that ramen leftovers are considered worthless. While some American ramen restaurants are stricter enforcers of the no take-out policy than others, at home you avoid the problem entirely by only ladling out as much soup and noodles as you can stomach. Store uncooked noodles and unused broth in the fridge so you can boil them up for a quick, fresh dinner tomorrow.
Slurping noodles carries the aroma of the soup, the tare, and the oil out of the bowl, letting them linger near your nose just seconds before you take a bite. There aren’t too many rules for ramen-eating beyond what’s intuitive—just like ramen cooking. In both cases, focus on what’s in front of you, taste it carefully, and—with each bowl you make and bite you take—you’ll get one step closer to unlocking the noodle soup’s deep mysteries.