In the wide world of ramen, shio ramen is something of an enigma. A bowl of ramen can usually be broken down into five basic components: broth; noodles; tare, which is the seasoning or sauce that serves as a ramen’s flavor base; aroma oil; and toppings. And even though that bowl might be primarily made up of noodles and broth—chicken broth or pork broth, or a dashi made with a variety of dried-fish products—the most common way to identify it, generally speaking, is according to the most overt flavor in its tare.
There are three main kinds of tare: miso; shoyu, or soy sauce; and shio, or salt. If the predominant flavor in the tare is soy sauce, it’s a shoyu ramen; if it’s miso, it’s a miso ramen. Shio ramen, on the other hand, is defined primarily by what it’s not: If it doesn’t taste like either miso or soy sauce, it’s most likely a shio ramen.
Saltiness isn’t its distinguishing feature, since all ramen is quite salty. Rather, a shio ramen is one in which the main contributor of salinity to the flavor base is salt—not miso or soy sauce. Beyond that, almost anything goes.
While there are many good, humble bowls of shio out there, many ramen chefs see this as the most difficult type of ramen to make, since they can't rely on incredibly flavorful miso and soy sauce to provide the dimension their broth might otherwise lack. At the same time, because it can take enormous technical skill to produce abundant flavor in a broth that will take most of its seasoning from salt—which enhances flavors, but doesn't necessarily provide much on its own—the shio style encourages experimentation and creativity in ways the other styles do not.
A good example of this openness to innovation is the success of Ivan Ramen, the ramen shop opened by the American chef Ivan Orkin in Tokyo in 2006. Orkin's specialty was a shio ramen that combined more customary elements of so-called kodawari, or "craft ramen"—blended broths, a focus on good ingredients, a reliance on a variety of fish products for deeper flavor, sound cooking technique—with a few twists, like using rye in his noodles and sofrito in his tare, and adding half a roasted tomato as a topping.
It was a bowl of noodles that was different from anything else that existed, but, in part because all of these innovations worked in the context of shio ramen, it was widely celebrated. (The other part was that it was pretty delicious. You can make something quite similar to the original bowl using the recipe in Orkin's Ivan Ramen cookbook (Amazon $17), or, for those who live in or visit New York City, try it at one of his restaurants.)
Experimentation isn't just for ramen-curious Western chefs. One of the most famous shio ramen shops in Japan is Motenashi Kuroki; its chef, Naohito Kuroki, uses the understated simplicity of shio ramen to embrace a kind of seasonal cooking that isn't usually associated with ramen. He's published a cookbook, whose title I've ham-fistedly translated asThe Pursuit of High-Quality Seasonal Ramen: Motenashi Kuroki’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, that includes recipes for the standard bowls he offers year-round, but also groups of ramen recipes specifically tied to every month of the year, with seasonal toppings and custom-made noodles for each.
That's not to say that shio ramen has to be fussy to be good. One of my favorite bowls of ramen in the entire world is the shio tanmen at Hokuto, a ramen shop around the corner from my grandmother's house in Fukushima.
It's a humble bowl befitting a humble shop, and yet it's beautiful: a clear broth, heavy with dried-fish flavor, and thin, straight noodles, pressed by hand into a bundle of textures of pleasing irregularity. A mound of stir-fried vegetables is all that's on top—squares of cabbage leaf, slivers of chewy wood ear mushrooms, and tender-crisp mung bean sprouts, smoky with wok hei and laced with intensely garlicky lard.
When it's served, you can add a drizzle of rice vinegar—himitsu aji, or "secret taste," one of my cousins has called it. When you do, the whole bowl comes into tighter focus, the acidity offsetting the garlic and charred cabbage and fat, and the deep savoriness of the light broth reveals itself like the moon emerging from a bank of clouds—radiant, yet subdued.
What Makes a Good Bowl of Shio Ramen?
I have to admit that I've never been particularly drawn to shio ramen as a dish to make at home. It always seemed like something that was best left to ramen shops and people with cheffier inclinations.
It wasn't just the limitation on using soy sauce and miso, which I knew meant it would be very difficult to make a bowl that wasn't two-dimensional. There was also the visual element. Because of its apparent simplicity, a lot of ramen chefs view making shio ramen as both a technical challenge and an aesthetic one, and thus pay a lot of attention to both the flavor and the appearance of their broths. Again, I'm speaking generally here, since a shio ramen can have any kind of broth—cloudy, clear, thick, thin—but some of the finest examples of shio ramen out there have broths that are incredibly clear.
The clarity of a broth is directly tied to the way it's made, which brings me to another reason I've shied away from doing a shio. For one thing, clear broths (called chintan in Japanese) have relatively low amounts of gelatin—gelatin in broth will refract light, which contributes to opacity. They also tend to have a bare minimum of particulate matter, which means, essentially, that they are relatively bland (the clearest "broth" of all, of course, would be water). Combine a clear broth with a proscription against using flavor bombs like soy sauce and miso, and you've got a pretty complex flavor problem to solve. The easiest way to solve that problem is to use MSG.
MSG use is widespread in Japan, both in homes and in restaurants, but it's particularly useful in ramen that takes its primary seasoning from salt, like clear shio ramen or milky-white tonkotsu (pork-bone broth). But what if, for whatever reason, you don't want to use MSG?
Though I have no issue with it in general—I add MSG to tomato sauce, curries, et cetera—I try to develop my ramen recipes without it, mostly for the challenge. In the case of shio ramen, however, the amount of effort required to produce a good bowl without MSG seemed unreasonable, even for the rather committed home cook. Or, it did until a couple months ago, when I stumbled upon a method for producing a shio tare, which then inspired me to figure out how to use it to make a relatively simple but good bowl of shio ramen that was MSG-free.
The main goals I had in mind were: as clear and pretty a broth as I could manage, no MSG, and a lot of flavor. And I believe I've gotten there, mostly by leaning on the talent and ingenuity of Stella and Daniel.
How to Make a Shio Tare That Brings Big Flavor
I came up with my tare idea because I had a ton of lemon rinds.
I'd made a double batch of Kenji's tahini, which requires the juice from about four lemons, and I wanted to use the rinds rather than just throw them away. Typically, when I have leftover lemon rinds, I make Stella's lemon syrup, but at the time I had a bunch of lemon syrup in my fridge already. I ended up tossing the rinds with salt instead of sugar, as a kind of experiment.
The salt worked in a very similar way to the sugar, drawing out any latent liquid left in the lemon rinds. When I poured this liquid off, then squeezed the rinds to get all the liquid out and express some of the oils, I was left with a supersaturated salt-lemon solution. When added to a pressure cooker chintan ramen broth that I happened to have on hand, it made for a nicely seasoned bowl of soup with a hint of lemon flavor, although it was a little one-dimensional.
I improved on that initial salt-lemon solution by using kombu (kelp) to add a big hit of umami without resorting to MSG. I soaked a square of kombu in it overnight, then took out the kombu and made a quick kombu dashi with fresh water; when the dashi was cool, I stirred it into the salt-lemon solution and used the resulting mixture to season a bowl of ramen broth. Again, it produced a tasty soup, but, while not as one-note as the original attempt, it was still a little lacking in complexity of flavor.
I experimented with using a more complex dashi as a component of the tare, in order to introduce other flavorful compounds that would complement the glutamates in the kombu—inosinates from katsuobushi and niboshi, and guanylates from dried shiitakes. I also tried using different citrus fruits, a combination of citrus fruits, and combinations of citrus fruits and other fruits and vegetables, like tomatoes and alliums. Finally, I tried using different proportions of salt to the total weight of vegetable and fruit matter.
In the end, I preferred the simpler tare made from the lemon-salt solution with kombu dashi, in part because I found it to be incredibly versatile, as useful for salad dressings and other soups and braises as for seasoning ramen broth. And while medleys of various fruits and vegetables produced workable tares, they were also a little muddy in flavor. I found I preferred using a single citrus fruit, whether lemon or lime, as the base flavor.
My tare was set, but I still needed to further improve my final bowl of shio ramen. It was time to focus on the broth.
How to Make a Clear, Flavorful Ramen Broth
Although we've published a method for making a clear chicken stock for ramen in a pressure cooker, one of the best ways to make a clear stock is on the stovetop at normal atmospheric pressure (sea level, to be clear; sorry, mountain folk).
This is because a pressure cooker extracts a lot of gelatin from a chicken carcass in a short period of time due to the high temperature the interior of the pot reaches when under pressure. A broth cooked at low temperature for a long time on the stovetop will extract far less gelatin, which corresponds to an increase in its clarity. A low temperature is ideal for the clarity of the stock because the liquid stays below a boil, and thus more still; the more still it is, the lower the risk that fat and proteins will get churned into it.
The downside is that a low temperature also means slower flavor extraction. If you want a rich, clear broth, you're looking at about six hours of sub-simmering time at about 180°F, or 82°C, carefully attending it all along to ensure the pot doesn't accidentally creep up into a boil. Even if I thought I could reliably hold a large pot of water at 180°F, I didn't feel like babysitting a warm chicken bath for six hours, and I didn't think many home cooks would, either.
But, leaning on an observation Daniel made while testing out chicken stock recipes, and on some of the recipes in the Motenashi Kuroki cookbook mentioned above, I came up with a method for making a flavorful but clear broth on the stovetop in just three hours.
In his testing process to determine whether skimming stock improves the clarity of the final liquid, Daniel observed that forgoing skimming actually led to clearer stock if the stock was kept at a bare simmer. He theorized that the foam, scum, and other impurities that rise to the surface of the pot actually perform a sieving function similar to that of an egg-white raft in a traditional consommé, bonding to other bits and pieces floating around to create the stockpot equivalent of those trash continents plaguing the oceans.
While using my laughably bad command of the Japanese written language to read the Motenashi Kuroki cookbook, I noticed that for one of his chicken broths, Kuroki uses ground-up raw chicken bones and meat to produce a crystal-clear broth, which essentially combines broth-making and clarification into one step: By grinding up the chicken, you get maximum surface area for flavor extraction, and the makings of a pretty sweet protein-clarification raft at the same time.
To do it, you put ground bones and meat in a pot and cover them with water, then stir the whole mixture constantly while bringing it to a simmer, which prevents anything from sticking to the bottom of the pot. You then keep the mix at a very low simmer, just enough to keep the meat-and-bone raft afloat, for three hours.
Since grinding a whole chicken, bones and all, isn't something most home cooks are likely to want to do (or subject their pricey appliances to), I decided on a two-pronged approach. I cut up a whole chicken into parts and put everything but the breast meat in a pot. I then cut the breast meat up into manageable portions and toss them in a food processor, pulsing until the mix has the consistency of ground beef.
I then add the ground chicken breast to the pot, fill it with water, and bring it all to a simmer, stirring occasionally to break up the ground meat. I maintain a very low simmer (around 205°F/96°C) by setting the stockpot a little askew on the hob, which creates a convection effect: The part directly above the hob is hotter, so the hot stock rises, hits the surface of the liquid, begins to cool, and begins falling on the side of the pot farther away from the hob. This convection movement brings particulate matter up to the protein raft, which traps it, then sends the liquid back down to be heated again. It's like a one-pot pump filtration system.
After three hours, I gently scoop out the top layer of ground meat and fat and set it aside; the meat can be strained from the fat, which can then be used to make an aroma oil. Then I strain the stock into a bowl filled with finely chopped leek, onion, and carrot, along with minced garlic and ginger, much as I do with my pressure cooker chintan broth. I add a square of kombu and let it all steep for about 45 minutes, or until it's cool enough to strain, decant into containers, and store in the fridge.
The reason I don't simmer the vegetables in the stock is because of the color they impart. Above, you can see a comparison between stock simmered with vegetables (left) and stock in which vegetables have been steeped.
The result of this process is a chicken broth that, when hot, is very clear, very yellow, and infused with vegetable flavor and a hit of glutamic acid from the kombu. (The leftover chicken carcass can be used to make a niban paitan broth.)
But even though the broth is clear and nice-looking, it's still a little too gelatin-rich for the clarity I want. It also doesn't have any of that great dried-fish and mushroom flavor. So I have to make a second broth that's both gelatin-free and full of flavor, and, of course, that means I have to make a strong dashi.
I soak some kombu and a few dried shiitakes in about a quart of water overnight. The next day, I bring the mixture to a simmer in a pot, shut the heat off, and add a big handful of katsuobushi. After a few minutes, I strain it out, which leaves me with a little under a quart of hondashi spiked with shiitakes. (I always save dashi-making ingredients to make a niban dashi, and you should, too. For more information about that, again, you can read our larger guide to dashi.)
I combine the dashi with the chintan chicken broth in a 1:2 ratio, resulting in an even clearer broth with layers and layers of flavor. That broth, seasoned with the shio tare, is light on the tongue and on the eye, with a hint of acidity from the lemon and the katsuobushi and lots of interesting but unplaceable tastes in the mix.
Why Not Just Season the Broth Directly? And Other Lingering Questions
One of the most frequently asked questions about making ramen at home is why there's so much emphasis on keeping the broth and the tare separate. This question carries some added significance for bowls of ramen in which the broth is blended; since you're blending two components together anyway, why not add the tare, too?
The easiest answer is that this is what ramen shops do. Not only does keeping the salty component of the soup separate from the broth make it easier for a ramen shop to send out consistently seasoned bowls, it also allows them to use one broth for several styles of ramen. Thus, a very clear chicken stock can be used for either a shoyu or a shio ramen, depending on which tare they add to it.
This is the main reason I think home cooks should mimic ramen shops in this regard, particularly since tares can be refrigerated for a long time, with only a little degradation in the quality of the flavor. If you make a cup of shoyu tare one week and a cup of shio the next, you can have your choice of types of ramen for a couple of months, so long as you have some kind of broth or stock on hand.
Blended broths are a different matter, solely because dashi doesn't keep that well in the fridge—specifically dashi made with dried fish. Fushi, the large class of Japanese dried-fish products, particularly katsuobushi, impart a slight acidity to dashi, and that sourness can become more pronounced over time. Similarly, if a dashi isn't used within a day of being made, its flavor and aroma become dull.
Luckily, a good dashi takes all of about 10 minutes to make (provided the cook cold-soaks the kombu overnight), so it isn't too inconvenient to incorporate the dried-fish element in freshly made dashi as part of the broth blend, rather than incorporating the dried-fish element into the chicken stock.
How to Make a Bowl of Shio Ramen, and How to Improve It
To make the bowl of ramen, all you need is some noodles (you can make your own noodles or buy them at a store—we recommend Sun Noodles, which we used for all of these photos); an aroma oil (you can use the one from the chintan shoyu recipe, or use schmaltz or lard, if you have it); and some thinly sliced scallions. You can also add any toppings you might have on hand, like a marinated egg, or a mound of garlicky stir-fried vegetables, à la Hokuto.
The recipes I've devised here don't produce the most complex bowl of shio ramen, nor is it the best shio ramen a home cook could make. But there are many, many ways in which you could personalize the recipes and make them tastier, or more attuned to your preferences.
The easiest alteration is to add some MSG to the tare, which would immediately make it more delicious. By the same token, if you're interested in giving it a heftier umami punch, you could make a dashi with a variety of dried seafood—scallops, shrimp, sardines, even peanut worms—and use that instead of the hondashi spiked with shiitakes that I used, or use it instead of the straightforward kombu dashi that I use in the tare.
You could add a small amount of fish sauce to the tare, or even a small amount of soy sauce or miso, if you like, so long as they don't overpower the overall flavor; you could even add some XO sauce, too. If you want a more pronounced chicken flavor, and don't care about clarity, add the dried seafood to the tare and use a full-bodied chicken stock.
As with any other bowl of ramen you make at home, in the end, it’s what you want that matters.