Most Americans first come to know ramen as the stuff that comes in a package or cup. Don’t get me wrong–I love instant ramen. It’s delicious on its own, and it can be dressed up in any number of ways, from adding Kewpie mayo to everything bagel seasoning.
The Best Ramen Is Anything but Instant
But I can have that kind of ramen any time. What I miss, living in Kentucky, is the kind of craft (kodawari) ramen I used to be able to get when I lived in New York and Boston—artisanal ramen served up by shops that have dedicated their existence to perfecting every component, using high-quality ingredients and a meticulous attention to detail.
This kind of ramen is on a whole different level from the instant stuff. It is complex, layered, and deeply satisfying. Once you’ve had good ramen, you’ll crave it for the rest of your life.
Thankfully, I came across a book that would help me satisfy these cravings.
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The (Free!) Book That Showed Me How to Get Great Ramen at Home
For those of us who need our craft ramen fix, there’s Mike and Scott Satinover’s Book of Ramen. Mike Satinover, known to his fans and the Reddit community as Ramen Lord, is a marketing research consultant by day. The rest of the time, he’s a ramen fanatic, analyst, and cook par excellence. Years ago, he enlisted his twin brother, Scott, a technical writer with a PhD in mechanical engineering, to help fill in the scientific background behind ramen making.
Sure, a few other English-language books on ramen have been written, but none quite so comprehensive as the Satinovers’. Better still, it’s free. Among American ramen nerds, the Book of Ramen is a foundational text, ideal for anyone interested in making craft ramen at home. It outlines the science and methodology behind making ramen in clear, deeply researched, highly accessible terms, and it includes a generous collection of specific recipes.
The Five Essential Components to Good Ramen
As the Satinovers explain, there are five components to a good bowl of ramen. At its best, ramen is more than the sum of these parts—it’s something infinitely more delicious.
- Noodles. Ramen noodles can be made in a wide variety of styles, but all involve the use of alkaline salts, which give the noodles their distinctive spring, eggy flavor, and yellow color. They can be snappy or chewy, thick or thin, stretchy or resilient.
- Broth. There are two basic categories of ramen broth: chintan, or clear, soups and paitan, or cloudy/creamy soups. Within those categories, though, there’s a ton of variation. You can make either type with pork and chicken, using specific parts of each animal for different effects (feet, bones, and skin provide rich, mouth-coating collagen, for example). And you can add other flavor-contributing ingredients, including anchovies; kombu (a type of seaweed); and aromatics such as leeks, onions, garlic, or ginger. The way you boil and process each broth can also change the texture and flavor of the product. The combinations are endless.
- Tare. This is a flavor concentrate that’s added to the broth, providing saltiness, complexity, and umami.
- Toppings. You can use as many or as few as you like, though ajitama (soft-cooked ramen or soy sauce eggs); scallions; menma (pickled bamboo shoot); and cooked vegetables including spinach, corn, or bean sprouts, are common.
- Aroma oil. A specially made liquid fat, sometimes infused with onions, garlic, chiles, and/or ginger, gives the broth extra richness and oomph and a slicker mouthfeel.
Miso ramen (left) and shoyu ramen (right), made according to Mike Satinover's recipes.
My Ramen Experience
Recently, I took a week to work my way through the Satinovers’ book. Because I was especially hungry for good ramen, I made three types each of noodles, broth, tare, and aroma oil, following Mike’s master recipe plans.
- Shoyu ramen required a broth made from chicken, kombu, and aromatics; a straight noodle; a soy sauce–based tare; and an aroma oil made from chicken fat infused with scallions and anchovies.
- Miso ramen used a chicken-and-pork-based broth, chewy curly noodles, a complex miso tare, and an aroma oil infused with ginger and onion.
- Tonkotsu ramen involved a thick, nearly white broth made from pork bones; an especially firm and chewy straight noodle; light soy sauce tare; and an aroma oil infused with scallions.
- I also made (or assembled) ten different toppings: ajitama, chashu (seasoned sliced pork belly), spinach, corn, gyofun (a spicy, mildly fishy accent powder), mayu (a black garlic oil), bean sprouts, nori, menma, and scallions, using a few on each bowl.
But even if I’d only made one type of ramen, I’d still have the same thought: Good ramen takes a lot of time. Even assembling all of the ingredients can be challenging. Mike’s miso ramen tare alone has 14 different ingredients, including three different types of miso. And then you have to make all the components. The broth simmers for hours (though a pressure cooker or multicooker can cut that time significantly), and the dough has to rest before you press it out into sheets, which in turn may need to rest again for a day or three after being cut into noodles.
None of it is particularly difficult to make, except perhaps the noodles—because the dough contains so little water, you need a lot of elbow grease to force it into a cohesive mass using a manual pasta machine. It all comes together in minutes in the end, but still, getting there is a process. That difficulty level makes sense for a shop that specializes in ramen, making it all day every day, but it certainly is challenging for those of us at home.
When I spoke to Mike Satinover over Zoom, he laughed. “Ramen is hard,” he said. “You have to be okay with the learning process,” especially since making it involves non-Western ingredients and techniques that some of us might not be familiar with. Any tips for ramen newcomers? “Pick a style of ramen and start there. Focus on that, and accept that the first time you make it, it’s not going to be perfect,” he said.
My bowls were far from perfect indeed. But they were good enough to get me hooked on making ramen at home. The noodles alone were revelatory, and well worth the ache in my arms the next few days.
Interested in trying homemade ramen but not sure you want to make quite as big a commitment? Check out the Satinovers' book, and start smaller than I did, as Mike advises. If you want to make all five components by yourself, spread out the work over the course of a week, making the noodles one day, the broth another, etc. Or outsource some of the work. You can buy decent ramen noodles in the frozen section of many Asian grocery stores or online through Sun Noodles.
However you approach it, I think it’s definitely worth doing at least once.