Ramen 101.4: Everything Else! Noodles, Oils, and Toppings.

Now we’ve worked our way through arguably the two most important components of ramen, soup and tare. The combination of soup and tare goes a long way toward defining the flavor and quality of a bowl of ramen. But the overall experience of a given bowl can—and will—vary wildly depending on everything else that’s in it. Everything else means noodles, oils, and toppings.  

Noodle Basics

Ramen noodles are alkaline wheat noodles, made from flour, water, salt, and carbonate salts like potassium carbonate (K2CO3). The word “alkaline” refers to the basic pH of added carbonates. As this recent column explains, taking the pH to about 9.0 (remember neutral pH is 7.0), natural yellow pigments are released, “giving the noodles a characteristic golden hue. Alkalinity also encourages greater absorption of water in the flour, more starch degradation, and an increase in strength and extensibility. . . . The starch gel within the protein matrix is also strengthened, resulting in a firm, chewy bite.” In other words, it’s the alkalinity that makes a ramen noodle a ramen noodle.

Good old potassium carbonate.   You and I spent a lot of time together during the last Bush Administration.  

Good old potassium carbonate.  You and I spent a lot of time together during the last Bush Administration.  

The composition of ramen noodles is variable.  Flour can range from 50-70%, water from 25-50%, and carbonates (kansui in Japanese) from 1-3%.  Unsurprisingly, noodles with higher water content are softer.  Noodles with less water are more powdery and have a rougher texture.  They also have a more floury taste.  And they are less springy and absorb water (and become soggy) more readily.  

The type of flour used impacts the properties of the noodle.  This is because different types of flour have different levels of protein content.  The more protein in a flour, the more gluten will be present in the noodle, and the more chewy and elastic the noodle texture will be.  Gluten (in addition to being the leading dietary bogeyman of the past decade) is a composite of two naturally-occurring wheat proteins, gliadin and glutenin, that forms during the kneading process.

Creating Noodle Elasticity.   As the Royal Society of Chemistry explains, "as mechanical work stretches the dough, more hydrogen bonds (black) can form between chains of gluten subunits (orange)."  Great article on the chemistry here:  http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/Issues/2009/October/Ontherise.asp.  

Creating Noodle Elasticity.  As the Royal Society of Chemistry explains, "as mechanical work stretches the dough, more hydrogen bonds (black) can form between chains of gluten subunits (orange)."  Great article on the chemistry here:  http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/Issues/2009/October/Ontherise.asp.  

The shape of the noodle is also important.  The thickness of the noodle influences the sensory experience, the rate of absorption of broth, and the amount of soup that is eaten in a given bite along with the noodles.  Noodles are numbered according to their thicknesses, which are set based on the number and size of the teeth in the noodle machine.

By adjusting these variables--the ratio of water, flour and carbonates, and the thickness and shape of the noodle--you can technically achieve infinite variety in ramen noodles.

Noodle Varieties.   Sun Noodle's product line.  http://sunnoodle.com/our-noodles/

Noodle Varieties.  Sun Noodle's product line.  http://sunnoodle.com/our-noodles/

Noodles in Practice

Shiba Ramen is going to buy its noodles, just like most other ramen shops do.  It's easy to buy a wide range of quality and fresh noodles from various wholesalers.  Doing so makes sense from an operational perspective, because you don't have to allocate scarce resources to the non-trivial and constant demands of making noodles.  This is especially case early in the life of the business.  

Of course, some ramen shops do make their own noodles. They use noodle machines: big pieces of equipment that cost between $10K and $30K in Japan.  These things can make 100-300 servings/hour.

Cooking the noodles the right length of time is critical. Noodles that are overcooked or waterlogged are hard to eat, and can ruin an otherwise good ramen. It’s just as important to serve (and eat) them quickly after cooking them. The longer the noodles sit in the bowl, the more soup they’ll absorb and the soggier they’ll get. Quality control is achieved by using a restaurant-grade noodle or pasta cooking machine with a timer.  And, of course, by paying attention to what you're doing!

Noodle Machine Catalogue .  http://www.yamatomfg.com/item/richmen/

Noodle Machine Catalogue.  http://www.yamatomfg.com/item/richmen/

Oils

Oils are often used to enhance the sensory experience of a bowl of ramen. It makes sense—fats are full of flavor, after all. Because the oil sits on top , it's the first thing to hit your spoon when you scoop up some broth, and the noodles pass through it as you eat them, too, picking up flavor along the way.

You can pretty much make an oil out of any ingredient, so oils are a great way to add some flavor punch to a bowl of ramen. You may have seen blackened garlic oils or spicy chili oils (like la-yu) at ramen restaurants. You can even use the clear, golden chicken oil that rises to the top when making a chintan soup. Pork back fat can also be used. And have you ever had shio butter ramen? It's served with a chunk of butter dropped into the hot soup. Yes, it's good.

Toppings

If you've eaten very much ramen, you already know there are no real rules for topping ramen. Slices of pork chashu, soft-boiled egg, menma, negi (green onion), and nori paper are pretty conventional, and it might be expected that one or more of these ingredients will come with a bowl of ramen. Some of Shiba Ramen's menu items will feature these standards.

There's a ton of flexibility, though, and chefs are hardly limited to this traditional set of toppings. As Ramen Chemistry develops, I'll make sure to show a lot of ramen, both ours and others, so readers can get a sense of the range that's out there.

Chashu.   This  article  has a great recipe and discussion: http://www.seriouseats.com/2012/03/the-food-lab-ramen-edition-how-to-make-chashu-pork-belly.html.

Chashu.  This article has a great recipe and discussion: http://www.seriouseats.com/2012/03/the-food-lab-ramen-edition-how-to-make-chashu-pork-belly.html.

Ramen 101.3 - Tare

Now that we know all about soup, let’s take a quick march through the rest of ramen’s core elements. Today, we’ll talk about tare.  

When you go to a ramen ya (that’s the Japanese term for ramen restaurant), you’ll often see ramen categorized by the type of tare used in a particular bowl. We’ve all seen shio (salt), shoyu (soy), and miso ramens. This is not to say that ramen is always named according to its tare. When you see tonkotsu ramen, for example, the reference is to the soup, not the tare. And when you hear tonkotsu shoyu, the reference is to both.  But the point remains that if you’ve eaten much ramen, you’re already familiar with tare, even if you didn’t appreciate the details until now.

The most basic function of tare is to bring saltiness to the ramen. But tare can do a lot more than just deliver salt.  It can be a vehicle for additional umami, sweetness,  sourness, or spiciness.  For example, shoyu and miso are both salty, but both are also sources of umami, and each brings its own unique flavor profile to the ramen. 

Shoyu  is a fermented soy bean product.  There are tons of different kinds, with different flavor profiles.  Here in the U.S., we can only get a snapshot of the shoyu variation found in Japan.  Photo credit: http://www.seriouseats.com/2011/03/do-you-know-your-soy-sauces-japanese-chinese-indonesian-differences.html.  

Shoyu is a fermented soy bean product.  There are tons of different kinds, with different flavor profiles.  Here in the U.S., we can only get a snapshot of the shoyu variation found in Japan.  Photo credit: http://www.seriouseats.com/2011/03/do-you-know-your-soy-sauces-japanese-chinese-indonesian-differences.html.  

Importantly, just calling a ramen “shoyu” or “miso” doesn’t tell you anything about what else is in its tare. In those examples, soy sauce or miso paste might be the main ingredient, but it’s not at all uncommon to have 5-10 other ingredients, as well. A good ramen shop isn’t just dumping a load of soy sauce or miso into the ramen simply to have done with it. Other common ingredients include mirin (explained below), dashi, vinegar, sake, spices, garlic, ginger and oils.  The reality is that you can add a lot of different things, and everything can be adjusted to taste.  There aren't hard and fast rules here.

Hipsters rejoice!   In Japan, artisinal shoyu-making is a nationwide industry.  Photo credit: http://www.yuasashoyu.com/eshop/item.html

Hipsters rejoice!  In Japan, artisinal shoyu-making is a nationwide industry.  Photo credit: http://www.yuasashoyu.com/eshop/item.html

The key thing with tare is to use the right amount. Typically, tare is combined with soup in an approximate 1:10 ratio. Miso, however, is something of an exception.  It's common to use more than 10% miso, because miso is contains less salt per unit weight than soy sauce.  To achieve the same level of saltiness in a miso ramen, the amount of miso must be relatively larger.  The point is that no number is absolute, and in practice everything is optimized to taste.  

Miso   is yet another fermented soybean product (how about that soybean, eh?).  Like shoyu, there are many kinds of miso, and many distinct flavors.  Photo credit:  http://www.crunchyroll.com/forumtopic-674040/how-to-make-miso-soup.

Miso is yet another fermented soybean product (how about that soybean, eh?).  Like shoyu, there are many kinds of miso, and many distinct flavors.  Photo credit:  http://www.crunchyroll.com/forumtopic-674040/how-to-make-miso-soup.

When it comes to ramen, the soup is the most important and fundamental ingredient.  The tare should be viewed as an additive that is there to support and enhance the soup.  It's not something that should become too overwhelming in its own right.   

Tare book .  In Japan, you can buy whole books on tare. We got this tare textbook in Japan (you can get it on Japanese Amazon  here ). 

Tare book.  In Japan, you can buy whole books on tare. We got this tare textbook in Japan (you can get it on Japanese Amazon here). 

A note about mirin.  According to Wikipedia, mirin is an "essential condiment used in Japanese cuisine."  It is a type of rice wine that is low in alcohol content and high in sugars, and is commonly used to add sweetness to ramen.  After seeing a lot of Japanese foods being cooked at our house, I've come to realize how important mirin is as a basic culinary ingredient.

Ramen 101.2: Soup Basics—Pork and Chicken

Although the most fundamental element of "ramen" is the noodle itself (a special wheat noodle treated with alkaline salts), we tend to think of "ramen" in terms of the soup in which the noodles (usually, but not always) are served. The soup, after all, is the source of so much of the flavor and richness that makes ramen so good. So where does that flavor and richness come from?

Well, it comes from extracting all sorts of compounds like amino acids, polypeptides, and fats from animal bones by boiling them for extended periods. Usually we’re talking about pork and chicken bones. But other flavor sources are also common: dried fish like katsuobushi (bonito flakes) or niboshi (anchovies) are big in Japanese cuisine, as are mushrooms (like shiitake), and kombu (a type of dried seaweed). As you can see in this link and this link (yes, the Umami Information Center does exist), all of these ingredients are big in sources of umami: glutamate and ribonucleotides like guanylate and inosinate. It’s also common to use vegetables like onions, which will endow the soup with added sweetness. In our ramen experiments, we’ve made use of all these things.

The Meats: Pork and Chicken.

Pork is an extremely common ingredient in ramen. In general, we’re talking about pork bones: femur bones, neck bones, back bones. You can make ramen soup with any of these. There doesn't appear to be a strong reason to use one or the other, but some chefs do have a preference. Practically speaking, cost, availability, and process issues are likely to dictate one's choice. For example, femur bones may be more expensive and have a lot of marrow, but you have to break them and cook longer to complete the extraction.

It’s also common to make your chashu topping by boiling pork shoulder (aka pork butt) or pork belly with the bones when making your soup, then removing the meat, marinating it, slicing it, and setting it atop your ramen. And have you ever heard of back fat? This is the layer of fat right under a pig’s back skin. It can be used to add more flavor and thickness to your soup.

Back fat = #6.   http://chestofbooks.com/food/science/Domestic-Science-School/Pork.html#.VLXSUouKfWU

Back fat = #6.  http://chestofbooks.com/food/science/Domestic-Science-School/Pork.html#.VLXSUouKfWU

Chicken is also very common, and is often used in combination with pork. For some applications, chicken parts are used. I’m talking about chicken backs or frames, chicken necks, and chicken feet. In Japan it’s common to use torigara, which is a cut that includes both the back and the neck. In other applications, a whole chicken can be used.

Soup Categories: Paitan and Chintan

A fundamental point about ramen soups is that they can be loosely divided into two main categories. Paitan (白湯) (meaning “white soup”) is a thick, cloudy soup. Chintan (清湯) (meaning “clear soup”) is clear, exactly as the name implies.

As an example, tonkotsu ramens are almost always paitans. These soups are thick and creamy. They're full of fats and collagens extracted from pork bone marrow and cartilage. The fats provide tons of flavor, while both add body to the soup. If you cool a thick tonkotsu broth, it will rapidly solidify. But you can make chicken paitans, too. These toripaitan ramens have been ascendant in popularity in Japan over the past decade. Although the Japanese tonkotsu boom ended around the time the toripaitan boom began, tonkotsu ramen is still hot in the U.S. Using chicken feet is a key aspect of toripaitan: they are a great source of collagen and soup body.

Ramen School:   Hiroko's tonkotsu paitan (left) and a guest chef's chintans (right) 

Ramen School:  Hiroko's tonkotsu paitan (left) and a guest chef's chintans (right) 

The main difference between paitans and chintans lies in their preparation. Higher temperature and more robust boiling will make a paitan, while chintans are produced by heating at sub-boiling temperatures. High temperature produces an emulsion, which is a mixture of normally immiscible liquids (like oil and water). Lower temperature cooking allows the fats to separate cleanly from the aqueous soup; the fat can be removed and even used later as a flavored oil topping.

Emulsion: Molecular Explanation.   Fantastic image from http://blog.ioanacolor.com.  

Emulsion: Molecular Explanation.  Fantastic image from http://blog.ioanacolor.com.  

Roughly speaking, pork with its capacity to impart body and richness, is good for making paitans. Chicken, which contains a lot more glutamate (read: more umami) than pork, is good for making chintans. In practice, it's common to combine pork and chicken. And there's a scientific reason for this relating to umami synergy. Look forward to future posts about this fascinating phenomenon.

Next up:  Where does a guy buy chicken feet, anyway?

Ramen 101.1 – Let's Talk About Ramen!

So, yes, we've eaten our fair share of ramen. But, to restate the obvious, eating it doesn't tell you a whole lot about how to make it. As soon as we decided to make a go of it with Shiba Ramen, we dove right into our ramen education. Now, over six months into the project, we've learned a lot. We're still learning a lot, but we're getting into the territory of fine detail. We've got a good handle on the basics. Hiroko's ability to access Japanese-language materials (not to mention the ten days she spent at ramen school last October) has been predictably invaluable.

This is the first in a series of posts about ramen. I'm going to break down the cuisine into its constituent elements. This process should make it abundantly clear that ramen isn't what I called “ramen” in my room in Bradley Hall at Ohio State University in 1996 (or what you called “ramen” in your own dorm room).  Lest there be any confusion on this point, I defer to Wikipedia:

Today, just a short intro into the elements. I'll detail these in the rest of Ramen Chemistry's Ramen 101 Series.

Soup stock. This is the core of the product. Making it involves boiling pork or chicken bones (often both together) for an extended period. I'll explain later how different parts of these animals contribute different features to the soup. Believe it or not, chicken feet have a very useful function here. Other umami-imparting ingredients—mushrooms, kombu, dried fish like niboshi or katsuobushi—also have important roles to play, especially if you seek the more complex flavors found in Japanese cuisine.

Tare. Tare (pronounced "tar-eh") translates literally as “sauce.” It's—for example—the miso or shoyu (soy) concoction that takes your soup stock and transforms it into miso ramen or shoyu ramen.

Noodles. Alkaline wheat noodles (no, ramen is not gluten-free). You can make them or buy them from Sun Noodle.

Oils. Flavored fats floating on the soup surface. Res ipsa loquitur.

Toppings. Ramen enthusiasts know that chashu (boiled and marinated pork shoulder or belly) and soft-boiled eggs are traditional ramen staples. But there's a lot that can be done here.

As you can see, we have much to discuss. 

It all begins here:  a pot full of chicken and pork backbones.  Ramen school, October 2014.

It all begins here:  a pot full of chicken and pork backbones.  Ramen school, October 2014.