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The Food Lab Redux: How to Make the Perfect Bowl of Tonkotsu Ramen
It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.
There's no two ways about it: making ramen—and I'm talking tonkotsu, the rich, creamy pork broth of Japan's Kyushu region that leaves your lips sticky and your belly happy—is not an easy task. Each element takes time to prepare before they're ready to combine in the bowl just before serving, and some of those elements take hours or even days if you want to do it right.
From the creamy pork broth to the soft-cooked egg to the meltingly-tender slices of pork belly chashu, we've painstakingly tested each and every variable to produce recipes that are guaranteed to deliver supremely slurpable bowls to your own table that will rival the best ramen-ya in the world.
For those of you who follow The Food Lab carefully, a lot of this is re-hash, but it's Ramen Week, and I've never actually collected all of these recipes into one single handy guide, so here you go. For those of you that do follow it, there's a little bonus in here for you, too: a brand new recipe for mayu, the deep black burnt garlic oil that you may have come across if you've been to a shop that specializes in Kumamoto-style ramen.
The only issue I have not addressed—and I'm not sure that I ever will—is that of making your own noodles. But there's a reason for that, which you can read on to find out.
Anyhow, that ramen's not going to make itself, so let's get cooking, shall we?
Part 1: The Broth
The noodles may be the most difficult part of ramen to make, but there's no question that the soul of the bowl is in the broth, and there's nothing like the intensely porky, lip-coating stickiness of a properly made tonkotsu-style ramen broth. The best kind has tiny nubbins of pork fat floating around the surface to add extra flavor (and calories) to the mix.
Unlike a European-style broth, which is slow-simmered to keep it clear, Hakata-style tonkotsu broth is cooked at a boil, intended to help emulsify fat, proteins, and other dissolved solids into the soup, which comes out an opaque golden yellow.
I experimented with dozens of cuts of meat before settling on a mix of pig trotters (which sport plenty of rich flavor and a ton of connective tissue to help thicken up the broth) and chicken, a non-traditional choice that nevertheless adds tons of clean flavor and doesn't overshadow the overt porkiness of the trotters.
I found that blanching and carefully cleaning the bones of all excess blood and scum was of vital importance to end up with a broth that was both pale in color and clean in flavor. After the initial blanching and cleaning step, I simmer the bones with onions, garlic, and ginger that I've cooked in a skillet until it's deeply charred—a technique I learned from experimenting with Vietnamese pho. Leeks, scallions, and mushrooms add savoriness to the pot.
It may seem excessive, but 12 hours of slow boiling is the only way to get the richness that your bowl of ramen deserves.
The kicker? A hunk of fresh pork fatback added to the pot as the broth simmers, that later gets finely minced and whisked back into the strained soup right before serving. The fat is there, to be sure—you can see the little bits floating around on top—but it's so tender that you don't feel it on your tongue. Instead, you simply get an unparalleled feeling of rich meatiness. If you could convert the world's juiciest, fattiest pork chop into slurpable, liquid form, that's what you get with each bite of the fat-laced broth.
Part 2: The Chashu Pork
Based on chinese-style sweet and savory roasted pork shoulder, Japanese chashu is made by simmering pork loin or belly in a sweet soy broth for several hours. Dry, stringy, or chalky chashu tends to be the norm, but when a place really nails it, it can elevate a great bowl of ramen to a transcendent one. Transcendent is what we're after here.
There are a few keys to perfect chashu. Rolling the pork belly into a tight cylinder ensures that it cooks evenly and minimizes surface-to-volume ratio, which in turn results in a moister, more tender end product—a quick test showed that when cooked flat versus rolled, identical pieces of pork lost about 18% more moisture!
For cooking, low and slow is the way to go. Simmered gently in a 275°F oven in a Dutch oven with the lid kept ever-so-slightly ajar resulted in pork that was as tender as I like it in about 3 1/2 hours. As for that cooking liquid, I use a mixture of soy, mirin, sake, and sugar, with garlic, ginger, scallions, and a shallot or two thrown in.
The final key is time: let that pork rest and chill in its own cooking liquid. It'll not only come out more intensely flavored and moister, but chilled pork is also much easier to slice.
Part 3: Ajitsuke Tamago (Simmered Egg)
The perfect ajitsuke tamago, which translates roughly to "flavor-added egg" should have a white that's just barely set, with a tender, almost custard-like texture and a flavor that is simultaneously sweet and intensely savory, all sealed around a perfectly liquid yolk that's ready to burst out and enrich your broth.
To get there, you've got to start with perfect soft boiled eggs.
The key to great soft boiled eggs (as I discovered when I studied the subject a few years ago) is to aim for two target temperatures: 155°F for the whites, and under 158°F for the yolks. The trick is to use sub-simmering water at around 190°F and time your cook precisely. I cooked dozens and dozens of eggs before arriving at an ideal cooking time of 5 minutes 45 seconds, though you do have a bit of leeway in that window. Just a bit.
The best liquid to marinate your soft cooked eggs in is the leftover broth from simmering the pork belly, though you can use a simple bath of soy and mirin if you didn't opt to make the pork (though why wouldn't you?)
Here's a trick for evenly marinating buoyant foods: A paper towel draped over the top.
The towel wicks liquid up and around the eggs, making sure that all sides get even exposure to marinade. It's a technique I use all the time for all kinds of preparations—keeping vegetables submerged in their pickling liquid, for example, or keeping peeled artichokes submerged in lemon water to prevent discoloration.
Just like it's possible (but difficult) to spend too much time in the bath, it is possible to overmarinate an egg, which causes the salt in the liquid to start curing it from the outside in. Cured eggs are tough, rubbery, and not at all pleasant to eat. A few hours is all you need.
Part 4: The Mayu
Like rolling in the snow naked right next to a hot tub or moving out to the West Coast (even temporarily), burnt garlic oil is one of those things that seems like an inherently bad idea. That is, until you actually try it. For those of you who like to mix raw garlic into their ramen, I'd suggest giving the mayu a shot. I guarantee that once you go black, you'll never go back.
Mayu can be a little tricky to make—it's all about a controlled burn. As you slowly cook grated garlic in oil, it undergoes the Maillard reaction—the series of chemical reactions that cause foods to turn brown and adds complexity to their flavor as new aromatic compounds are formed.
Normally, the standing wisdom on the Maillard reaction is to get your food as brown as possible without actually turning black—an indication that it's burnt and acrid, and bitter flavors will begin to appear. With mayu, you throw that wisdom out the window and take your garlic well past the stage that a French chef would allow.
But here's the thing: let it get black too fast and you end up cooking all the flavor out of it, leaving you with an acrid, burnt mess. You have to cook it very slowly, removing the garlic from heat as soon as it reaches black, so that some of its flavor can still be preserved.
Some folks cook their garlic in sesame oil from the start. I find that the sesame oil becomes overly bitter if you do this, so I prefer to cook in neutral canola oil, blending in some roasted sesame oil in after the garlic is done cooking to preserve its fresh flavor.
The result is a pitch-black condiment that not only looks awesome floating on top of your soup, but also adds a layer of complexity that you never knew existed.
Part 5: Other Toppings
Trying to talk about every possible ramen topping here would be like trying to write down a list of every character in the extended Star Wars universe on a single sheet of toilet paper. Instead, I'll just talk about a few of my favorites.
- Scallions are essential to every bowl of ramen I've ever truly enjoyed in my life. Without them the soup lacks vibrancy and brightness.
- Menma is bamboo shoots that have been dehydrated and fermented before being reconstituted. They have a uniquely nutty flavor that is not to everyone's taste, but if it is, it's irreplaceable.
- Nori is flat sheets of dehydrated laver, a type of seaweed. It's the stuff that you use to wrap sushi with, and when added to ramen, it's generally stuck to the edge of the bowl so only the edge dips into the broth, releasing some of its ocean-y aroma while still leaving the majority of it crisp and crunchy.
- Sweet corn is tossed into all sorts of inappropriate places in Japan, but one place it does belong: in a bowl of ramen during the height of corn season. For even better flavor, I like to char it up in a hot skillet before adding it.
Don't let this list box you in—your imagination, skill, and access to ingredients are about the only limit of what can be good in a bowl of ramen.
Part 6: The Noodles
Why are noodles listed last here? Because it's only after you have every one of your other ingredients ready to go that you should even consider beginning to imagine to think about cooking your noodles. Once you start them boiling, there's no turning back. Hot noodles wait for no one.
Now, I know this is going to sound like a cop-out to you, but here's the simple fact: making excellent ramen noodles is very, very, very, very hard. Like, takes years of training and special ingredients and tons of testing and experience hard. I'm the kind of recipe writer who does not like to post a recipe unless he's at least 98% happy with the results and at least 95% confident that every reasonable home cook would be able to recreate them. Currently I'm about 65% happy with the ramen I've made in the past and 12% confident that my results could be repeated.
Hence the "I'm not giving you a recipe" cop-out. This may change in the future, but it doesn't seem likely. Most foods are better homemade. Some foods—ketchup, potato rolls, and bagels, for instance—are simply better left to the experts, the people who devote every hour of their lives to perfecting their craft. I have never made a noodle, nor have I ever had a home-made noodle outside of a professional setting, that is as good as the noodles I can buy from Sun Noodles at the Japanese market (we'll be going behind the scenes at Sun's factory later this week). You will not see a recipe from me for them until I can achieve that goal and I can guarantee that my results will be repeatable at home.
When making bowls of ramen at home, I almost exclusively use fresh store-bought ramen. Most Japanese and Asian markets will carry several varieties of fresh and dry ramen. Neither one is inherently superior (just like dry versus fresh pasta), but for a hearty tonkotsu broth, I like to use fresh thin, straight noodles, which are great for sopping up broth between the strands. Look for them in the refrigerated section or in the freezer section.
The only type of ramen to really avoid is the lower end instant kind, which is made by dehydrating noodles through a deep-frying process that leaves them easy to re-hydrate, but with a mushy texture. If buying dried noodles, stick with the straight variety sold packaged in bundles.
Overcooked ramen is considered a capital offense in some communities and many ramen shops will not allow you to take out ramen to go for fear that the noodles will overcook in the hot broth in the time it takes you to get them home. Hardcore ramen eaters will try and slurp up the hot noodles from the broth within five minutes, ordering more noodles to be added to the remaining broth to ensure that they stay fresh and bouncy the whole way through.
Point is, keep an eye on those noodles and please, please, please don't overcook them. And make sure your guests are ready to eat. Like I said: hot noodles wait for no one.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.