The Winner: Sapporo Ichiban!
I love real ramen, but raise your hand if instant ramen noodles were the first dish you learned to cook on your own. Yeah, I thought so. I've been simmering bricks of noodles in small pots of water, or pouring water from a kettle into little styrofoam cups since I was old enough to reach the stovetop. I remember each and every time I learned how to upgrade my soup, from the first sprinkle of scallions (hey, this tastes like real food!), to that first poached egg, to the miso and curry paste stir-ins I picked up in college. It's a dish as familiar to me as ketchup, and one that I am unconditionally fond of.
I was excited for this taste test, to say the least.
Interestingly, instant noodles didn't always have the broke college student reputation they do today. When they were first introduced in the early 60's, their retail price was several times higher than freshly made noodles, making them somewhat of a luxury item novelty.
These days, almost 100 billion packages of instant noodles are consumed annually, making Momofuku Ando's invention one of the most influential Japanese innovations of the 20th century
For this taste test, we wanted to stick with the basics: inexpensive and widely available were our two top criteria for making the cut. All of these noodles are available for under a dollar, and all of them can be found across the country, or ordered from sites like Amazon.
There are way too many flavors out there to try and compare them against each other, so we decided to stick with the most common (for wider variety and more specific recommendations, you can check out these posts from the Ramen Rater). I polled all of my Twitter followers and, aside from the obvious Shin Ramyun lovers (who doesn't love that stuff?), the most popular flavor was good old chicken.
This narrowed the field down to three choices:
- Brand 1: Top Ramen ($.51 per package)
- Brand 2: Maruchan ($.49 per package)
- Brand 3: Sapporo Ichiban ($.65 per package)
All three brands are produced using the "de-fry-drating" method that was original developed by Momofuku Ando of Nissin foods (the manufacturers of Top Ramen) in 1958. They're made by par-cooking fresh noodles in a steamer, then folding them into bricks and briefly deep frying them in order to drive out moisture. Have you ever taken a peek at the fat content in a pack of instant ramen noodles? Most of that comes from the dehydration process, with the remainder coming from added fat in the soup seasoning packet treated with maltodextrin, which suspends it in a dry, powdered form until exposed to heat and water.
The resultant noodles are lighter, last longer, and less expensive to produce and store than their naturally air-dried counterparts. But does this mean they taste better?
Despite the fact that Top Ramen and Maruchan seem to have about half the fat and sodium content of Sapporo, those numbers all even out when you account for the fact that the two former brands seem to think that half a packet is a single serving. What person in the history of the known universe has ever eaten just half a packet of ramen?*
*Further questions: were they cooking for just themselves? If so, did they break the noodles in half and carefully pour half the seasoning packet into the boiling water before meticulously folding the foil pouch back over for their next serving? Or perhaps they called up their buddy and said, "Hey man, I was thinking of opening up this pack of instant ramen. Do you want to come over to finish the other half?" Dear ramen manufacturers: stop pretending. Nobody eats half a pack of ramen. Nobody.
Just because they come out of a plastic sleeve and take 3 minutes to prepare doesn't mean they shouldn't still be tasty, right?
I mean, who are we kidding? Like pizza, even the worst ramen is still pretty darn tasty. It's hard to complain about the comfort that a bowl of salt, fat, and carbs delivers. That said, there's some subtlety at play here. Are the noodles bouncy and slightly al dente, with a slurpable slipperiness but a toothsome bite? Because that's what we want.
Does the broth taste like real chicken? Does it have a good balance of other seasonings? Ramen broths are typically flavored with several types of alliums. Does the broth taste like it might have come in contact with a real onion at some point? How about the sodium content? Are they covering up flaws with a heavy handed dose of salt?
A panel of 17 tasters were asked to taste the ramen and rate each brand on the quality of the noodles, the flavor of the broth, and the overall harmony in the bowl. All ramen was cooked and served simultaneously and tasters were instructed to taste them in random order, as rapidly as possible so that no noodles would overcook in the elapsed time.
The results were nearly unanimous, with all but a handful of our 17 tasters selecting the Sapporo Ichiban ramen as the best. On the noodles, the Sapporo scored a whole point better than its competitors. An examination of the ingredients gives us a bit of a clue as to why: While the Top Ramen and Maruchan noodles are made of primarily wheat starch and seasoning, the Sapporo noodles also contain a small fraction of potato starch and guar gum, both of which help it retain a slightly chewier, "fresher" texture.
But the real difference between the Sapporo ramen and its competitors came down to broth. It simply tasted more chicken-y than the others, with a balanced vegetal flavor that was intense on the onions, with a good amount of white pepper to boot. It almost tasted like real soup!
Even more amazing? The overall average score that our tasting panel awarded to each brand of ramen corresponded very neatly with its price: Sapporo at 65¢/package and a score of 6.6/10, Top Ramen at 51¢/package and a score of 4.9/10, and Maruchan at 49¢/package and a score of 4.4/10. Who knows: if we found a de-fry-drated brand that cost a whole dollar per envelope, would it hit that perfect score?
Read on for some details.
#1: Sapporo Ichiban (6.6/10)
"More onion flavor and depth than the other two" was the main consensus here. The broth was slightly more complex, with a bit of white pepper funk and a touch of sweetness that was lacking in the competitors. The additional starch in the noodles also worked to give the broth a bit of extra body, adding to the impression of real meatiness.
As for the noodles, they were stretchier and chewier than the others, with thick waves that picked up broth nicely as we slurped. Nobody is going to mistake this stuff for real-deal ramen made with fresh noodles, but for a convenience food that comes in at under a buck per serving, it's tough to beat.
Hack it up into a complete meal and you might even ben able to impress some dorm-room company with it.
#2: Top Ramen (4.9/10)
The classic. The taste we grew up with. This is what we think of when we think of instant noodles, and many tasters were kind to it, saying that "the broth tastes like chicken—at least, Campbell's chicken." Indeed, powdered chicken is pretty high on the ingredients list, though it's supplemented with meaty hydrolyzed soy proteins and onion powder.
The noodles were a significant step down from the Sapporo batch, and went from being "chalky" to "too soft" without much of an al dente, chewy stage in between. Still, the overall impression is one that hits home, and that's an important factor to consider for many.
#3: Maruchan (4.4/10)
The knockoff competitor had by far the worst broth of the three, with a flavor that tasted overwhelmingly chemically, with very little vegetable or chicken flavor. Makes sense, seeing that chicken is the second to last ingredient in the list, behind yeast extracts and hydrolyzed proteins. In fact, over 99% of the broth packet is made up of its first three ingredients: salt, sugar, and MSG.
The noodles were about on par with the Top Ramen version, scoring a couple of tenths of a point lower on average. They, too, suffered from the too-chalky-to-too-soft transition issue.
A salty, sweet broth with alright noodles is still something that we'd gladly eat the morning after a long night out (or if we're wise, at the end of the night before the morning after), but for a few pennies extra, you can get something that's so much better.
Skip the Maruchan and Top Ramen, and head for the Sapporo.
Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.
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.