3 Ways Instant Ramen Noodles Can Become a Real Meal

Cooking for One

A package of instant ramen is perhaps the biggest cliché item in the solo cook's cupboard. It often symbolizes depression or extreme indifference, the meal one cooks when one has hit rock bottom. Of course, none of this is necessarily true. Ramen can be delicious and good for you as well as a quick, fun thing to make. Read on for a review of the three ways a single diner can approach instant ramen.

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There are three basic ways to think about instant ramen. The first is cooking and eating ramen straight up from the package with no embellishments. The second is tossing away the flavor packet that comes with the package and starting from scratch.

The third meets somewhere in the middle, using the flavor packet but adding additional vegetables and proteins, and each can be a real meal, a quick one. Let's take a look at each iteration.

(Cost information cited from Emma's post Make or Buy: Ramen Noodle Soup.)

1. Straight-Up Instant Ramen
There's not much to explain here. Just boil some water, dump in the noodles and flavor packet and there you are: Instant dinner. Available for the stovetop and the even more convenient microwave.

Pros: It's super cheap ($0.12 per serving), super quick (ready in 5 minutes) and leaves very little to clean up — just a spoon if you go the microwave route. Straight-up instant ramen is comfort food and for some, the first thing we learned to cook. Like the 'blue box' of Kraft Mac'n'Cheese, instant ramen is a dish we tend to grow out of but visit every now and then. Like mac'n'cheese, this is also the kind of meal that needs to be balanced with something else: a green salad, a piece of protein on the side.

Cons: Usually super high in sodium, full of chemicals, low in nutrition, instant ramen is not that good for you and is not something you would want to eat day in and day out.

2. From Scratch Instant Ramen
In this version, the flavor packet is tossed and just the noodles are used in a homemade broth. Fresh vegetables, hard boiled, eggs, slices of meat can be added.

Pros: Done right, this approach can elevate the ramen into a healthy and delicious meal, closer to what ramen was before the instant flavor packet was invented. It's still cheap at about $2.70 per serving and still quick at less then 20 minutes from start to finish.

Cons: More prep to clean up and dishes to wash; while $2.70 per serving is still inexpensive, it's a far cry from $0.12. It takes a certain level of cooking knowledge to pull it off and a few of the ingredients (dash granules, miso) may be difficult to source for some.

3. The Enhanced Ramen
Here, the flavor packet is kept but vegetables and proteins are added.

Pros: In all ways, this version meets the Instant and Scratch in the middle. This is a great way to wean yourself from the instant-only approach by adding flavor and nutrition with very little extra time and money needed.

Cons: The flavor packet is still high in chemicals and sodium (although you could use less as you are introducing flavor through the veg and protein.)

For me, the scratch version is the way to go. It's not that difficult to create flavor through the dashi, miso and soy (items I keep on hand) thus making the flavor packet unnecessary. It's worth it to make the small extra effort to make this tasty dish more delicious and nutritious. And there are so many different ways to play this out: different proteins like pork, shrimp, tofu, different vegetables like peas, cooked greens, carrots; different flavorings like ginger, lemongrass, chili.

How do you make ramen at home? Do you keep a few packages of the instant stuff stashed in the back of your cupboard for emergencies?

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A scene from Tampopo, a classic Japanese movie with ramen at its heart.

More on Ramen From the Kitchn:
Make or Buy: Ramen Noodle Soup
On Starting Somewhere: Ramen
What's the Difference? Soba, Udon, and Rice Noodles
Good Question: How Can I Make Healthier Instant Ramen?

More on Ramen From Around the Web:
Ramen Hacks: 30+ Easy Ways to Upgrade Your Instant Noodles from Serious Eats
4 Ways to Make Ramen from Macheesmo
David Chang's Momofuku Ramen with Pickled Shiitakes from Food Nouveau

(Images: gori910/Shutterstock; withGod/Shutterstock; Tampopo, via Wikipedia)

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