The Food Lab: Make Your Own Just-Add-Hot-Water Instant Noodles (and Make Your Coworkers Jealous)

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

These DIY instant noodle jars are packed with fresh ingredients and go from fridge to ready-to-eat in just two minutes with a kettle of boiling water. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt. Video: Natalie Holt]

Thinking back on it, I must have cooked more instant ramen than any other food in my life (with the exception, perhaps, of chocolate chip cookies). It's what I cooked when I was home alone as a kid. It was a staple that took me through college. It's what I make for myself when I come home too tipsy to do anything but boil water and knock back some aspirin. Its potent broth has nursed me through countless hangovers.

To put it bluntly, instant noodles occupy a particularly warm, salty soft spot in my heart, and I'd be willing to bet that this is the case for a large number of you out there as well.

But for all of their pleasures—the MSG-packed broth; the little freeze-dried nubs of vegetables; the slippery, way-too-soft noodles—instant noodles, even the best of them, could never be considered healthy or satisfying in any form other than the basest. Wouldn't it be great if you could get all of the convenience and pleasure of instant noodles—the portability, the just-add-water cooking, the lunch-sized portions—but pack them full of fresh vegetables and real, honest-to-goodness flavor?

Here's a secret: You can, and it's easier than you think.

I often get unduly excited by good food and clever ideas, even (or especially) when they aren't my own. The original inspiration for this recipe came last week as I was unpacking one of my 37 boxes of cookbooks after my cross-country move. I accidentally dropped my prized signed copy of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Veg, and it flopped open to a page I must have just glossed over in the past. On that page, Hugh has a recipe called DIY "Pot" Noodles (what we call Cup Noodles or instant ramen over here).

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The idea is simple and genius: Combine par-cooked noodles, a bit of vegetable base, some raw sliced veggies, and a few seasonings inside a jar. Add boiling water, wait a few minutes, and you've got yourself a lunch with all the appeal of instant noodles, but with actual flavor and freshness trapped under that lid.

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For the last couple weeks, I've taken that idea and run with it, experimenting with different types of noodles, different flavor combinations, different meats and vegetables, and different methods of storage, all with one goal in mind: to change the way you think about brown-bagging forever.

Today, I'm going to keep the talking to a minimum. I'll walk you through one flavor (Spicy Kimchi Beef Flavor), give you basic instructions for the other three flavors (Chicken and Dill Flavor, Vegetable With Sesame-Miso Soup Flavor, and Thai Coconut Curry Shrimp Flavor), and leave you a few helpful tips for designing your own instant pot noodles, because really, this is a method more than a strict recipe.

How to Make Spicy Kimchi Beef Flavor Instant Noodles

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This pot of noodles is largely inspired by Shin Ramyun, the spicy Korean instant noodles flavored with kimchi and beef. We already have a full-fledged make-at-home recipe. Here's a much faster, more portable version.

Add the Main Ingredients

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For this flavor, we're using beef base, shiitake mushrooms, beef jerky, kimchi, chili-garlic sauce, scallions, and noodles.

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Choosing a high-quality flavor base is key here. You can use the powdered stuff, but you end up with a pot of noodles that doesn't taste all that different from actual instant noodles. Better is to use a moist base made with a high proportion of real meat, like Better Than Bouillon. I use about a tablespoon. (The soup also gets plenty of seasoning from the kimchi and chili-garlic sauce.)

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For soups, I like to use old kimchi that's super sour, along with plenty of its pickling liquid. Chili-garlic sauce adds heat and garlic—you can use as much or as little as you'd like.

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Thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms get layered on next.

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I tried beef a few different ways, including raw slices—I disqualified those, as I made a rule of having no raw meats in order to increase the shelf life of the uncooked jar—ground and precooked, and precooked and sliced. None worked particularly well in terms of balancing flavor with convenience. It wasn't until I hit the checkout lane at the supermarket one day that I saw the solution staring at me: beef jerky.

I cut it into cubes and added it to the pot. As the cubes soaked in the boiling water, they reconstituted into something not like fresh meat, but entirely delicious in their own way. You can even get extra cheeky and use flavored jerkies (try teriyaki in here).

The beef gets cut into little squares and layered on top of the mushrooms.

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You should have a relatively dry surface at the top, ready to receive the noodles. The first few times I made these pots, I was layering ingredients, including wet ingredients, directly on top of the noodles, which ended up saturating them. Instead, it's better to lay the wet stuff down at the bottom, then add the noodles at the top. Even if they get shaken around a bit on your way to work, a couple of hours in contact with the wet ingredients won't hurt them.

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Add the noodles to the pot. A wide variety of noodles will work here, including precooked ramen or precooked Chinese-style egg noodles (both are generally available in Asian markets). If you can't find precooked wheat-based noodles, Thai- or Vietnamese-style thin rice noodles, the kind you get in a bowl of pho, are available dry and will cook perfectly in the hot water.

If you're willing to go through a little more effort, you can also par-cook fresh ramen or pasta in boiling water, drain it a moment or two before it is fully cooked, shock it under cold water, and toss it with a bit of oil before packing it into the jars.

Build the Flavor Pack

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The other big dilemma I had was that my fresh elements—my chopped herbs, sliced scallions, and other "finishing" flavors—were all getting soft and losing their brightness as they steeped in the boiling water. To solve this problem, I decided to store them separately in a zipper-lock bag.

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Make sure to remove all the air by sealing the bag most of the way, rolling it up tight, then closing the seal.

Tuck in the Flavor Pack

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Tuck the Flavor Pack* into the small space at the top of the jar.

* Patent pending!

Seal and Store

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Seal up the jar and store it in the refrigerator. Because all of the ingredients are either fresh vegetables, cooked noodles, dried meats, or very salty flavor bases, the jar will have quite a long shelf life. I kept a few for over a week (the herbs suffer the most), but anywhere up to four days is when they're at their best.

Once you take them out of the fridge, these pots should be safe to sit around at room temperature for up to about four hours (and probably way, way longer). If you have a mini fridge at school or at the office, it doesn't hurt to throw them in there, though.

Pack It for Lunch and Add Boiling Water

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When you're ready to eat the noodles, open the jar up and set the Flavor Pack to the side. Add boiling water straight out of a desktop water kettle. (If you have a hot water dispenser nearby, that'll work, too; your local deli can probably also give you some hot water out of the coffee machine.)

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Close the lid and seal it off. Now comes the hard part.

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Sit and wait for all the ingredients to reheat. If you're anything like me, you'll be peering into the sides of the jar like it's the world's coolest aquarium.

Open, Add Flavor Pack, and Eat

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Add the contents of the Flavor Pack to the top of the bowl, and stir to combine, making sure to get all of the flavor base and juices from the bottom of the jar.

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Eat your lunch, and watch as your office mates peer over the cubicle walls to see what the heck you've brought in today. (Feel free to send 'em this way to spread the love!)

How to Make Chicken and Dill Flavor Instant Noodles

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This version starts with chicken meat I picked off of a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket, along with chicken base, sliced onions, frozen peas, and cooked noodles. The Flavor Pack gets filled with minced dill.

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Finely cut frozen vegetables work really nicely in these pots, because they are generally par-cooked by blanching, which means that all they need to do is thaw in the hot water.

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I don't recommend pouring boiling water right next to your laptop like this, even if it is for a fully staged "Let's pretend I'm at work" photo.**

** Come to think of it, since I work from home, I'm always at work.

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Yum. I also made a version of this using par-cooked egg noodles, for a more traditional take on chicken noodle soup. It beat the pants off of the stuff from a can (duh).

How to Make Vegetable With Sesame-Miso Soup Flavor Instant Noodles

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This one is very similar to Hugh's original recipe, though I've bumped up the flavor of the vegetable base with some grated ginger, miso paste, soy sauce, and sesame tahini. For the vegetables, I'm using a mix of julienned carrots, sliced shiitake mushrooms, and torn spinach.

The noodles in this batch are the precooked Japanese ramen packs that come in ready-to-fry yakisoba kits.

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For the Flavor Pack, I go with thinly sliced scallions, as well as some pickled ginger to double up on that ginger flavor.

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So good!

How to Make Thai Coconut Curry Shrimp Flavor Instant Noodles

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This is about as complicated as these get, and most of these ingredients are pantry staples (at least, 'round my parts they are).

The flavor starts with chicken base mixed with Thai red curry paste, some chili-garlic sauce (for extra heat), a dash of fish sauce, some brown sugar, and a bit of coconut milk. Cooked shrimp and thinly sliced mushrooms go on top, followed by a nest of rice vermicelli.

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In the Flavor Pack, I use a mix of scallions and chopped cilantro, along with a wedge of lime to be squeezed into the soup after cooking.

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This is probably my favorite flavor of all. It comes out really nicely balanced, with hot, sour, and sweet flavors.

How to Make Your Own Flavors!

It should be pretty obvious by now how the game is played, but here are some things I've learned in the past couple weeks:

The Jars

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You can use any type of heatproof resealable jar. A one-pint Mason jar would be a good choice. I got these little clamping jars with gaskets for 75 cents apiece at Ikea.

The Flavor Base

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I'd never really used Better Than Bouillon in the past, but it was by far the best concentrated soup base I tried out of the half dozen or so I could find in the area. It makes sense—real meat and vegetables are high up on Better Than Bouillon's ingredient lists, compared to most powdered bases, which are primarily salt and MSG-like glutamates.

The key to really good flavor is to use the base as the background, bumping it up with other flavorful sauces and pastes. Miso paste, curry paste, and sesame tahini are three good ones. Any number of Chinese-style sauces, like chili-garlic sauce, black bean sauce, or Sichuan chili bean paste, work well. A touch of sugar can balance out heat. Freshly grated ginger and garlic will add freshness and bite. Soy sauce and fish sauce bring a powerful umami punch to a pot. Canned tomatoes or chipotle peppers are nice for a non-Asian flavor. Just make sure to scale back the soup base when you add other salty ingredients.

Adding Noodles

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Rice noodles are the best choice.

Don't try to use uncooked ramen or Italian pasta—the water doesn't stay hot long enough to cook them, and they end up gummy and mushy!

  • The easiest noodles to use are the rice vermicelli sold under Thai and Vietnamese brands. Wider, pad thai–style rice noodles also work.
  • For wheat-based noodles, I recommend par-cooked noodles sold in the refrigerated sections of Asian supermarkets. Generally, these noodles are meant to be fried, so they'll be sold as fried lo mein or as yakisoba.
  • You can par-cook fresh or dried ramen, udon, soba, or Italian pasta. Cook it until it's slightly underdone, shock it in cold water, toss it with a little oil, and you're good to go.
  • Shirataki and other no-cook noodle alternatives work well.

Adding Meats and Other Proteins

Stick with fully cooked, cured, or dried meats. My favorites (and the easiest) are picked roast chicken, beef jerky, cooked shrimp, canned tuna, chunks of cured meats like chorizo or pepperoni, bacon—because it's thin, bacon can actually be added raw and will cook in the boiling water—firm or fried tofu, smoked salmon, or finely flaked and rinsed salt cod.

Adding Vegetables

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The thing to remember is that nothing really cooks when you add the hot water. Things absorb water and can be slightly softened, but that's it. Make sure you stick with vegetables that can be eaten raw. For firmer vegetables, like carrots, cabbage, leeks, larger mushrooms, and the like, either grate the vegetables on the large holes of a box grater or cut them into thin, julienne-style matchsticks. More tender vegetables, like mushrooms or tomatoes, can be cut into bite-size pieces. Leafy greens, like kale and spinach, should be trimmed of any thick, fibrous stems and can then be simply torn. Frozen vegetables, like peas or corn, can be added directly from the freezer, though, if you plan on cooking the pots immediately, it's best to thaw them under the tap first so that you don't lose too much heat when you add your boiling water.

The Flavor Packs

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This is where your fresh elements come in. Think chopped fresh herbs, citrus that can be juiced at the end, and pickled items, like capers or pickled ginger. Sliced chilies and scallions are also great.

Of course, you don't have to stop at Asian flavors just because real instant noodles usually do. The chicken and dill flavor above is great, but why even limit yourself to pasta? Some shredded chicken in a chicken base, with drained canned beans, perhaps a bit of grated Parmesan, some tomatoes, slivered beans and carrots, and torn kale, all flavored with chopped rosemary and lemon zest in the Flavor Pack, sounds pretty great, doesn't it? Or what about a just-add-water version of the hot dog and sausage soup my mom used to make, perhaps upgraded with some smoked kielbasa, shredded cabbage, and carrots?

You get the point. There's a lot of potential here. (Or, as we say at my place now, cuptential.)***

*** Ugh, just shoot me now for that terrible pun.