Editor's Note: Say hello to our new Food Lab intern Luke Davin. A line cook at Yuji Ramen and Northeast Kingdom, Luke is also the co-founder of the Eat My Heart Out Storytelling Supper Club. He's been helping out running experiments and testing recipes in the Serious Eats kitchen for the last several months, and will be dropping by with fun recipes like this one from time to time.
As a cook at Yuji Ramen, I serve up my fair share of ramen. But I recently made a bowl for a man from Alabama who told me that while he was familiar with the plastic-sleeve, microwavable variety, he'd never before experienced the real deal. Encountering his surprise and earnest appreciation of our fresh noodles and homemade broth was just as satisfying as a great meal. Still, his talk of instant ramen got me a little misty-eyed. After all, those packages were all I knew of the dish until my mid-twenties, when I picked up and moved from Pennsylvania to Osaka. Time in Japan certainly opened my eyes to the wonders of fresh ramen, but years—and countless bowls of "real" ramen—later, I still have a soft spot for those instant bricks.
So when one of my first assignments as an intern for The Food Lab was to brainstorm new ramen applications for our Ramen Hacks post, I was immediately at home. When I first moved to New York, I was a cash-strapped part-time temp, so I have more than a little experience transforming the instant noodles into a something more substantial (and delicious) than some starch in salty water.
My first idea: Ramen-crusted fried chicken. The dried noodles have so much surface area and crunch, I figured they'd make the ideal coating for some seriously delicious fried chicken.
I initially planned to break the ramen down and use it in a fashion similar to panko. But getting the "brickcrumbs," as I call them, to evenly coat buttermilk-brined chicken thighs while still showing off their wavy form, and then cooking them evenly into a delicious crunch-blanket for a piece of fried chicken took quite a bit of testing and finesse.
At first, in keeping with Japanese karaage-style frying, we tried using potato starch with the ramen crumbs, but struggled to get consistent coating and coloring.
It became apparent that ramen and starch simply don't brown at the same rate. Again, the noodles burned before the starch became properly golden brown. Flour fared no better.
Next, I tried simply breading the chicken with ramen crushed by hand, skipping the starch altogether.
Suffice it to say, it didn't work too well. The noodles didn't provide enough coverage, leading to spots of overcooked, stringy chicken where it came into direct contact with the hot oil. The problem? I wanted even coverage and cooking, but I also wanted whole pieces of noodles. Finally, I decided to kill two birds with one stone. I took half of the noodles and ground them up into a powder in the blender, then tossed that with noodles broken up by hand before coating my buttermilk-coated chicken with it.
It worked like a charm, the chicken coming out an even golden brown, with intense crunchiness from the fried noodles.
Now, what to do with that seasoning packet? A nice dusting over the surface was tasty, but I wanted that flavor built right into the meat. Since I was brining my chicken in a salted buttermilk solution anyway, why not replace some of that plain salt with the flavored seasoning packet instead? The ramen flavoring packets concentrate salt, umami, and cartoon-caricatures-of-meat flavors into a very potent combination.
I stirred a packet into the buttermilk and added a splash of soy sauce for extra flavor before soaking my chicken pieces in it.
After breading and frying, what came out had the strong taste memory of those instant noodles I knew in college, but with a uniquely crunchy texture. The chicken itself was insanely moist and juicy, with great flavor from the buttermilk-packet mix.
To continue with the Japanese theme, I served my ramen-crusted chicken with a pile of thinly shredded cabbage and a lemon wedge for squeezing.