Not all ramen is created equal.
This much Bay Area diners know from eating out at the seemingly infinite numbers of ramen restaurants now populating our cities. But the ramen available in restaurants isn’t always great, and the good spots are often packed, leading to long lines and hungry bellies. My favorite way to tackle this problem is, of course, to make ramen at home.
It is not a quick task. Most DIY ramen recipes take a couple of days of cooking time — a good ramen broth, in particular takes at least 6 to 8 hours of simmering. And then there’s the toppings, like chashu and soy-eggs, which both require time. Fortunately, none of this work is difficult. In fact, the hardest part about making ramen at home (besides managing your cooking schedule) is sourcing good noodles.
High-quality ramen noodles have a distinct chewy spring and a definite wheaty sweetness. It’s hard, if not impossible, to recreate such noodles at home. Sure, recipes exist, but they require alkaline salts and high-pressure extruders. I recommend skipping this step and buying ramen from the store.
There are three different categories of ramen noodles available: fresh, dried, and fried. Fresh noodles are most often sold frozen, and these are usually your best bet for quality. Dried noodles can also be good; some look like Italian pasta, and others are sold in individual serving cakes. Fried noodles are what I used to think of when I thought of ramen, that college-student staple sold in cakes with MSG-laden seasoning packets. If you’re looking to avoid fried brands of dried noodles, just look at the nutrition facts. Fried noodles will have somewhere around 8 grams of fat per serving; non-fried noodles will have closer to zero.
On the seasoning packet note, most ramen noodles, from fresh to fried, are still sold in individual packages with accompanying seasonings. I recommend buying the number of portions you need and toss the seasoning packets. I’ll have detailed directions for making your own, far better, soup from scratch soon.
I tried six different brands and styles of ramen noodles available in the Bay Area. I boiled each noodle according to the package directions and tossed them in a drizzle of sesame oil to prevent sticking. I tasted the noodles plain, on their own, with no other seasoning or broth. They widely ranged in price; some were worth the extra cost, and others were, well, not. Here are my picks, from best to worst:
Okay, I’m going to be honest here. Sun Noodle swept away the competition, hands-down. There is no better noodle you can buy in stores. The company is based in Hawaii, with two other ramen factories in Los Angeles and New York. Many top ramen shops around the country use Sun Noodle — Shiba Ramen in Emeryville and Momofuku Noodle Bar, for example — and there’s a good reason why. Sun Noodle makes several different styles of noodles to suit different broths. Tonkotsu and miso ramens need different shape noodles, for example. All of their noodles, though, have a perfect springy texture that stretches just a bit as you slurp them. More importantly, Sun Noodles taste homemade. They’re a little sweet, with a strong wheat flavor. Plus, they hold up very well in hot broth. I used the shoyu style noodles when serving my homemade ramen and the noodles never turned mushy. The only drawback? Sun Noodle is on the pricey side (around $2 per portion), especially if you try to order them online. A better bet is to seek them out in a grocery store (Berkeley Bowl or Tokyo Fish Market).
Another good bet are the dried ramen noodles from Hakubaku. This Australian company makes straight, slightly sweet noodles that also hold up well in broth. Hakubaku’s noodles, like Sun Noodle’s, are made with alkalizing salts, so the cooked noodles have a springy chew. These noodles hold up well in hot broth, and also work well in stir-fries (if you’re looking for more versatility in your noodle purchases. Any drawbacks? They’re a bit more like spaghetti than what you’d get at a ramen shop, but they’ll do if you don’t want to spring for Sun Noodle.
Shirakiku Non-Fried Ramen (any style)
Shirakiku ramen noodles look like classic instant ramen — they are a crinkled noodle, formed into a dehydrated cake and sold with an accompanying powdery seasoning packet. However, instead of being fried, they’re air-dried. Shirakiku indicates this preparation method on the package, so they’re easy to distinguish. The noodles themselves are fine; they have a neutral, slightly bland wheat flavor. However, they’re thin and very easy to overcook. If you buy this brand, make sure to cook them for only a minute or two before serving in broth.
These are the only ramen noodles I found that are made nearby. Yamachan’s factory is in San Jose, and it makes a wide variety of noodle soups. The noodles are fresh, and sold frozen, and they’re similar in appearance to Sun Noodle. However, I found the texture of the noodles to be unpleasantly sticky and a bit slimy. The noodles also have a bit of chemically aftertaste; it’s quite apparent when eating the noodles plain, but I imagine it would disappear into the background when eaten in soup. They’re a little bit harder to find — I was only able to source them from Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley. You should also be able to order them online through the company’s website. A final note for gluten-free readers: Yamachan lists gluten-free ramen noodles on their commercial products section. I’d be willing to bet you could order some if you called and asked.
Koyo’s noodle style is similar to Shirakiku — they’re sold dehydrated and not fried, and they are sold in individual serving packets. Because Koyo is made from organic flour, they’re a bit more expensive than Shirakiku ($1.29 versus $0.99), and in this case, the price isn’t really worth it. I found the noodles to be very bland and mushy once cooked. They’re not terrible, but they’re far from your best bet. If you do buy Koyo, keep an eye on the noodles as they cook and keep the boiling time to a minimum.
Sapporo Ichiban Japanese-Style Noodles
Sapporo’s noodles are a classic. I wanted to compare a fried noodle to dried and fresh, and Sapporo’s consistently come up at the top of instant ramen taste-tests. They are, however, far inferior to fried and fresh noodles. Sapporo noodles stay a bit more firm than Koyo, but they have a distinct fried flavor, and they’re oily out of the package. If you insist on fried ramen noodles, you’ll probably like these. For the rest of us, I’d advise spending a few more cents for a better (and healthier) product.
- Sun Noodle is available at Berkeley Bowl, Tokyo Fish Market, and Amazon ($3.59 for two servings).
- Hakubaku Organic Ramen is available at Berkeley Bowl, Safeway, Asian supermarkets, and Amazon ($2.99 for three servings).
- Shirakiku Non-Fried Ramen is available at Berkeley Bowl, Asian supermarkets, and Amazon ($0.99 for one serving).
- Yamachan Ramen is available at Tokyo Fish Market and on its website ($3.59 for two servings).
- Koyo Organic Ramen is available at Berkeley Bowl and Amazon ($1.29 for one serving)
- Sapporo Ichiban Japanese-Style Noodles are available at Berkeley Bowl, Asian supermarkets, and Amazon ($0.69 for one serving)