It seems like real-deal ramen has become a thing, which is cool. Ramen is great. Here’s an especially cool thing about ramen, though: we all get to say we were down with ramen before it was cool, because we were all slurping down bowls of ramen when it was just about the least cool thing imaginable. Behold!
“Oriental flavor” Top Ramen. Truly the least reputable thing ever eaten by man. I ate a lot of ramen. I ate so much ramen, in fact, that my ramen-eating reached into the avant-garde: I spent a summer in such profound financial and culinary desperation that I made and ate ramen burritos. Daily. Imagine a human body being forced to find fuel and nutrients in such a thing. My God.
Maybe we all stop eating ramen bricks once we either scrape together enough money that we no longer have to eat ramen bricks, or come to realize that ramen bricks are, nutritionally, roughly the equivalent of eating sheets of computer paper soaked in hypertonic saline solution. Whatever. Before I scaled back my terrifying consumption of ramen bricks, man, I really liked eating ramen bricks. I did.
And so it’s been great to see real deal ramen come back around, and not as a 99-cent brick of reconditioned industrial byproducts, but as a respectable foodstuff made with care by serious people, and slurped down in full view of the public. It’s been an opportunity to see just how ramen gained the cultural foothold necessary to eventually make the leap to disreputable homogenized disaster-food in the first place.
I’m happy to say, then, that making real-deal DIY ramen isn’t a whole lot more expensive than just buying a pantryful of the bricks. I’m even happier to say that real-deal DIY ramen is breathtakingly rich, and salty, and indulgent as all hell, in the grand tradition of the bricks. Had it been a delicate consommé, I might have actually cried. Hey, let’s make some.
Here’s what you’ll need: some collagenous, gelatinous animal parts; a big yellow onion; some garlic; a big hunk of ginger; a big handful of mushrooms; some leeks; some good soy sauce; a tub of miso; a huge stock pot.
It’s possible you may need to do a little hunting around to find the right animal hunks for this broth. Weenie-ass French-style broth may require nothing more ambitious than some chicken parts or a couple picked-clean beef bones, but this ain’t that—we want this goddamn broth to be rich enough to blow our hair back.
In order to pull this off, we need animal parts that will do two things: lend deep, assertively meaty flavor to our broth, and give it a thick, decadent, downright unctuous mouthfeel. Because here’s the thing: back in college, ramen’s cheapness made it a food of convenience, but what made it acceptable as a diet staple—in a way that, say, lima beans just weren’t—is how unnaturally satisfying it was. And that’s saying something! All it was was reconstituted powderized bouillon and a brick of crooked noodles! Where Top Ramen did it with enough salt to flash-cure a brontosaurus, we’re gonna do it with bitchin’ second-class animal hunks. We can (and will) balance out our broth’s more ridiculous qualities with other ingredients, but first and foremost, we’re looking for animal hunks that will drive our broth right to the brink of indecency.
What we want, then, are pork trotters and oxtail. Pork trotters are pigs’ feet, and they can often be found helpfully cut into disks. Be-disked trotters will be a lot more manageable than whole pigs’ feet, so it’ll be worth asking your butcher to do you a solid on this one, unless you’ve got a good, charmingly chaotic “international grocer” stocked up with the good shit. Oxtail is the name given to cross-sections of the tails of cattle. Oxtail is less decadent than the traditional veal osso buco, but that’s okay: first of all, we’ll soon be boiling this thing down to nothing, and second of all, it’s not veal, which is a good thing to not be. Veal, that is. I’m saying veal is bad, here.
Pork trotters and gnarly cow tail will interact in our broth similarly to how ground pork and ground beef interact in meatballs: the pork will lend a brighter umami, while the beef will be dark and iron-y. There’s balance there, but not so much that we’ll be neutering the essential holy crap this is really fuggin’ meaty-ness of either of them. And what the two cuts have in common is enough bone and cartilage and marrow that they’re sometimes uncomfortable and tedious and even a little gross to eat as just cooked hunks of animal protein. For our purposes, though, all those rough bits are perfect: first of all they’re cheap, but also, as they break down in the cooking, our broth will become thick and heavy with gelatin and collagen. As a result, when you take a sip of your broth, the mouthfeel will not be very different from, say, heavy cream, or olive oil, two things one does not normally drink by the mouthful, mainly because of the time one’s mother-in-law caught one gulping down heavy cream at 2 a.m., and shook her head with an expression of resigned sadness on her face, and one was forced to move to the Yukon.
Unlike weenie-ass French-style stock-making, we’re less interested in carefully extracting aroma and flavor from these animal hunks than we are in breaking them down as far as they will go, so that, in addition to aroma and flavor, they impart texture upon the end product. And so, unlike weenie-ass French-style stock-making, instead of slooooooowly bringing our water to a simmer and keeping vigil over it like a goddamn obsessive, we’re gonna boil the hell out of this shit, slap a lid on it, and then keep it boiling until all that’s left in the pot is a handful of bare grey bones. Fuck yeah!
So! Drop six or eight pork trotter disks and three or four oxtails into your hugest stock pot, cover them with water, and crank the heat all the way up to the highest setting.
A lot’s gonna happen in these first 10 t0 15 minutes of boiling. Right away you’ll notice a lot of grey, nasty-smelling gunk accumulating on the surface of your boiling water. You’re gonna need to skim that shit off there, because it looks like pond scum and smells like dog breath, and you’re crazy if you think I can tell you what it tastes like. If this were weenie-ass French-style stock-making, you’d do something cute and gentle like roll up a bunch of paper towels and soak the gunk off the surface, being careful to not stir or otherwise disturb the delicate stock underneath. Screw that. Grab a big-ass spoon or ladle and haul that gunk out of there, being not at all careful about the water beneath it. Literally the only thing of consequence that has happened in these few short minutes of boiling is the release of this nasty gunk, so don’t worry at all about disturbing the water underneath. If you need to add water back to the pot to cover your animal hunks after skimming, go for it.
Okay. You’ve got a huge pot of cloudy but de-gunked boiling water breaking down your animal parts. Let’s get your aromatics in order. Cut a giant yellow onion into halves, put the halves on a cookie sheet with a few inches of ginger and a whole head of garlic, and stick the cookie sheet under your broiler on full blast. Don’t peel any of it, just get it under the heat. Shit’s gonna happen fast in there, so be ready with an oven mitt and a set of tongs, or a spatula, or (God help you) a fireplace poker, or, most likely, you dingus, a fire extinguisher. Keep the aromatics turning until the onions have some char on all sides, the top of the garlic head is good and charred, and the hunk of ginger has browned and shriveled, then get all that stuff out of there. The char will, itself, lend a nice caramelized flavor to your broth, and the heat will have sweetened the onion, toned down and sweetened the garlic, and, uhh, shriveled the ginger. Drop your charred aromatics into the stock pot. Also, rinse a handful of mushrooms, chop off and thoroughly rinse the green parts of a bundle of leeks, and add both to the pot, adding water as necessary to keep everything covered.
Once the water returns to a boil, lower the heat to medium or medium low, and keep an eye on everything for a few minutes. What you’re looking for, eventually, is a steady, rolling-but-not-furious boil. Once that’s been achieved, slap a cover over the pot, set a timer for 12 hours, pat yourself on the back, and go to bed. See you in the morning, ramen broth!
Or, wait, dammit, you can’t quite go to bed. You’ll need to check the broth fairly regularly to make sure the water still covers the solids and that your house hasn’t burned down. It’ll be a night of broken, fitful sleep, I’m afraid. Happily, the broth will constantly reward you for your visits, becoming ever darker and cloudier and more intensely aromatic.
(I’m just going to throw this in here: one of the very best things to eat in the world is pho. One of the characteristic flavors of good pho broth is star anise. You’ve got about an eight-hour crossroads, here—your broth will veer away from brazen balls-out double-meat umami insanity if you should drop a few dried star anise pods into it, but it will be just as incredibly delicious in its new direction—neither pho nor ramen, a crazy, unspeakable hybrid. If you go that way, add a stick of cinnamon and a few cloves, and thank me later.)
Alright. It’s been 12 hours. Turn off the heat. Anything in that pot that’s not straight-up bone is now, at best, grey mush, and so this part of your ramen-making is over. It’s time to get all the solids out of the pot. The simplest way to do this, I have found, is to pour the whole thing through a colander and into another huge pot. If you don’t have another huge pot, your sink will not be a suitable stand-in, you goober. Use tongs or a slotted spoon to pull out the big solids, and dump them in the trash. Don’t worry a whole lot about little stuff right now, just get the big bones and dead veggies out of the liquid.
OK, so, you’ve got a big pot of really richly aromatic broth, but it’s gonna need a final hit of flavor in order to reach full-blown crazy-ass ramen-level richness. You could go a lot of different directions, here: you could straight-up salt your broth (which is fine), or you could go with fish sauce, or even something crazy like gochujang. I happen to think the best flavor, from here, is a combination of good soy sauce and white miso. Working, say, a teaspoon at a time, stir soy sauce and miso (or whatever you’re using) into the broth, tasting as you go. I like my ramen broth to be really shockingly assertive at this stage, so that when I eventually drop in noodles and scallions and soft-boiled eggs and whatever else, the broth is still the star of the show.
Last step: strain your broth through a fine filtering cloth (muslin or a couple layers of cheesecloth or, no shit, a single layer of clean white T-shirt) into your largest Tupperware-type things. There. Done. You have now made ramen broth. And not just any ramen broth. Bangin’ ramen broth. Meaty and aromatic and deep and dark and caramelized, with the sweetness of onion and the spice of ginger and garlic, with that fermented umami-bomb of salty soy sauce and pungent miso. And, oh, God, the richness. So soft and viscous—this broth is genuinely filling! True story: if you sock your broth in the refrigerator for a few hours, it will turn into a firm block of ramen Jell-O, with a clean off-white layer of animal fat sealing it shut like a lid. If you decided to, you could eat refrigerated ramen broth out of the fridge with a fork. It’s better as soup, but who the hell could blame you?
I probably don’t need to tell you how to eat ramen. You were a broke-dick college-aged person once, yeah? Cook some noodles and drop them into a giant bowl of steaming-hot broth. Throw some chopped scallions on there. A crumble of nori. Maybe you want to go fancy? If you’ve got some leftover pork belly in the fridge, add a couple slices. Maybe half a soft-boiled egg. Don’t forget to finish it off with a hearty drizzle of chili sesame oil. Chopsticks, a big spoon, a cold beer. A napkin to wipe away the broth running down your chin and the tears streaming down your cheeks. Let the slurping begin.
Chris Thompson lives in Virginia, hate-loves and writes about the Wizards, and spends too much of his meager income on meals out. He’s also written for Gawker, Vice Sports, and The Classical, and can be found on Twitter @MadBastardsAll. He’ll be doing these every other Saturday; check the Foodspin archive here.
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